QUAERITUR: The colors of altar boy cassocks

From a reader:

Is there any significance between altar boys who wear black cassocks as opposed to those who wear red ones in the TLM?

No, there is no significance.  This is a matter of aesthetics.   Back in the day colored cassocks were tolerated by the Sacred Congregation for Rites.  To my mind it is a thing of fairly small importance.

I prefer to see black cassocks… but… hey!

That said, in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, the servers wear paonazza, the same violet color that monsignors, canons and bishops use.  That is a long established honor.  The boys also attend the Pre-seminario San Pio X.  They are as close to being the chierichetti that chierichetti once were, if that makes any sense.

Also, the MC for a bishop or cardinal often wears paonazza, by custom.  I believe also the guy who carries the end of the prelate’s cappa magna wears paonazza.

The most important thing, however, is that they treat the cassock respectfully.  It is a privilege to serve at the altar, not a right.  The cassock helps establish a good esprit de corps, which is important for boys.  The cassock is an indication that the boy or man is substituting for a cleric. It could help inspire some of the boys and young men to think about priesthood.

UPDATE (brought to you by…..:

A reader asks:

Related to the recent post on the color of cassocks, how do you feel on an alb and cincture being used to replace a cassock and surplus?

Feel?  FEEL?  I feeeeeeeeellllll…..  ill.

(I don’t like it.)

And a surplice is almost never surplus.

On a slightly related note, is there a specific side the cincture hang down on? I believe I heard a seminarian saying that lay people should wear it on one side, and seminarians on the other.

I’ve never heard of such a thing.

This sounds like moving your tassel from one side of your mortar board to the other when you get your diploma.

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  1. Robbie says:

    Thanks for answering, Father Z. I appreciate it.

  2. Devo35 says:

    When I was a young altar boy ( many moons ago) we would normally wear black for most Masses, but use red for feasts or commemorations ( such as Martyrs) were red was the liturgical color.

  3. Imrahil says:

    He who is actually a cleric, should wear a cleric’s black.

    Otherwise, it depends on the liturgical color, and the availability of cassocks.

    Black: for black, violet, green, the latter if there are no cassocks of the color. Some weekday Masses of rather little festivity might also get the black, even if the color is red or white.
    Red: for red and white.
    In Marian surroundings, we might think if blue if there are such cassocks there, even if it is not the liturgical color of the priest.

    And some few solemnities (liturgical color: white) get the German flag: black for the altar boys who came when all red cassocks had been taken, red for the other altar boys, gold for the priest.

  4. Fr AJ says:

    I much prefer black as well over red but either is okay as long as they are being used – when I was young servers wearing street clothes was all the fad and the cassocks and albs were thrown out.

    One thing I don’t like seeing is girl servers wearing cassocks and surplices.

  5. FranzJosf says:

    Once, about 20 years ago, I was serving Mass at the local Carmel. Afterwards, Father showed me the altar boy vestments from the “old days”. The boys would have looked like little cardinals with mozetta and zuchetto. They even had special shoes in a variety of sizes. I thought it was kinda cool.

  6. As nothing is new under the sun, and nothing seems to be new in the Church (except may be the New Order), here is a question someone sent to “The American Ecclesiastical Review” in 1907 about the Cassock for the Altar servers:

    Q. What is the proper color for the cassocks of altar boys? Should these have capes? What about “favors” on great feasts?

    R. The rubrics simply require “ut inserviens talari veste et superpelliceo sit indutus.” Hence a clean, becoming cassock of black, red, violet, or even white material, with a clean white surplice, would be a proper dress for a boy who serves the priest at the altar. As to the cape and other details which may be deemed necessary to make up a becoming outfit for festive occasions, we can only lay down the principle which good taste and sense prescribe, namely, that anything aiming at mere display or savoring of affectation, vanity, or worldliness, must be kept out of the sanctuary. On the other hand, neatness and above all cleanliness should characterize the appearance of those who serve at the altar. The introduction of novelties in millinery effects, decking the boys with bunches of ribbons, flowers, and the like, are foreign to the simplicity of the holy place and service.

    We have heard of places in Germany and NYC where green is used for the Cassock during “ordinary time” and violet for Advent and Lent. I have seen Altar servers wear blue for Marian feasts and months.

    The most logical thing would be to use the black Cassock, as that is the (regular) color for the Cassocks of clerics, which is the role the Altar boys are replacing as servers. Clerics did not (do not, or should not) change the color of their Cassocks according to the liturgical color or season.

  7. JamesM says:

    Would it not be better to refer to them as “altar servers” rather than “altar boys”? [No.]

  8. Matt R says:

    JamesM, altar boys distinguishes them from ‘servers’ as it specifically emphasizes the connection to the male priesthood, which is undermined by female servers.

    I prefer black. Fortescue says that red is a late 19th century innovation, and I tend to agree that late innovations are often held up as being traditional. It may be that it is custom in one particular place, but please don’t hold that up for the whole church.

    Latinmass1983: The most logical thing would be to use the black Cassock, as that is the (regular) color for the Cassocks of clerics, which is the role the Altar boys are replacing as servers. Clerics did not (do not, or should not) change the color of their Cassocks according to the liturgical color or season.
    I agree completely. I also am not in favor of senior servers wearing red; inferior ministers do not need distinctions. If there were any, the Church would require them. Priests wear chasubles, deacons dalmatics, subdeacons tunicles, and the deacon’s stole is across the shoulder. They have a specific role in each Mass. Individual servers, not so much. It can change depending on who is there.

    As to albs-I don’t mind them in the Dominican Rite or Roman Rite locales where it is custom. I just think that hooded albs look silly (they never fit right), but girls shouldn’t wear the priestly alb. Cinctures-no. It represents the promise-or vow- of chastity and continence made by a priest. And isn’t a surplice just a shortened alb anyways?

  9. TheAcolyte says:

    Cf. the “Peregrinus Gasolinus” chapter (PUSCO’s) which addresses many liturgical abuses on the subject of altar servers’ vesture: http://www.romanitaspress.com/peregrinus_gasolinus/peregrinus_gasolinus_chapter_36.htm.

  10. JamesM says:

    I was referring to the use of “altar servers” rather than “altar boys” as all the servers in our parish are adult males.

    Our parish priest has a preference for adult males to serve at Mass precisely because of the link to the male priesthood. We all wear cassocks and cottas. I myself serve at the weekly EF Mass and I am approaching 40 – certainly not a boy any longer.

    Here in the UK, at every EF Mass I have been to, the servers have always been adult males.

  11. wolfeken says:

    It is worth noting, concerning the updated question, that the alb was never designed to be worn over anything but a cassock, as it is closely related to the surplice. The only exception I can think of is a variation of the alb for those being baptized (adults in the early church, babies today, by custom).

    The novus ordo GIRM changed this, but for the traditional Latin Mass there is never a time where an alb over “civvies” are to be worn at Mass. The standard is a surplice over a cassock for choir dress (with biretta and possibly stole), and an alb over the casssock when other vestments will be placed over the alb for Mass.

  12. wolfeken says:

    And, to illustrate, imagine how silly someone would look wearing a surplice (again, directly related to the alb, based on liturgical use) over a golf shirt and khakis without a cassock.

  13. greasemonkey says:

    In the monastic rites albs are used. View some historical photos, including the you tube video of the Carmelite Rite.

  14. Athelstan says:

    Black is customary and desirable for very good reasons. When in doubt: go with black. And a white surplice.

    There are occasional exceptions. There is, for example, the Institute of Christ the King, the traditional priestly Society of Apostolic Life with such a strong presence in the Midwestern cities. The ICK now employs blue for both its priestly choir dress as well as for the cassocks of its altar boys. The attire is now adopted by servers in the Institute’s apostolates around the world: “the blue cassock and shoulder cape, together with the cross bearing the crest of the Institute. The blue color manifests the consecration of the Institute to Mary Immaculate. Such attire, which has been inspired by the choir habit of the members of the Institute, is very similar to the server attire traditionally worn by altar boys in many places, including St. Francis de Sales Oratory (picture at left dates from 1917). The Institute is happy to restore this long-established custom which contributes to its worldwide family spirit.”

  15. Southern Catholic says:

    I’ve seen a an female “alter server” wearing a cassock and surplice, and she was somewhere around 14-16 age range. It didn’t look right at all.

  16. For what it is worth, in the traditional Dominican Rite the proper attire of servers at Solemn Mass is an alb (with amice) and cinture on First and Second Class feasts. The surplice is worn on Third Class feasts and ferials. Also, on third class and ferials the deacon and subdeacon do not wear the dalmatic, but only the maniple and, for the deacon, the stole.

  17. Athelstan says:

    “Related to the recent post on the color of cassocks, how do you feel on an alb and cincture being used to replace a cassock and surplus?”

    There are few things more depressing than seeing a handful of servers (mostly girls) in frumpy white albs, wearing flip flops or tennis shoes, slouching into the sanctuary at the beginning of Mass. Granted, not that they typically do much in the typical N.O. Mass, but…

  18. Catholic Hokie says:

    When I was an altar boy growing up, they had both black and (dark) red cassocks for us (and surplices, of course). The way they distinguished the use was that black cassocks were for the younger boys and red cassocks were for boys who had been confirmed (ninth grade). The older boys often acted like an MC for the Mass, so the younger ones would know who to look up to or ask questions to if something came up in Mass, and if a visiting priest would come to help out, as was often the case because there was just one priest at the parish, he would know who to ask if he had a question.

    While I’m definitely more of a fan of using black cassocks, it is an interesting idea to have the old and more experienced servers stand out and dress differently.

  19. vetusta ecclesia says:

    As an aside in the UK scarlet cassocks are illegal outside of the Chapels Royal whose colour they are. Queen’s chaplains (and there is at lesast one RC one) wear scarlet. One of the recent Popes remarked to one,”Ah. An Anglican cardinal”!

  20. gordon.w.thomson says:

    Any views on Alter Servers or Cantors wearing a black Cassocks and sash as well as Suplus? I am unclear as to whether or not non-clerics should wear a black sash.

  21. Supertradmum says:

    vetusta ecclesia, you are correct and a person at Westminster told me this, who said that the Catholics follow the royal rule as a rule and if there is a red worn, it is a purplish tone and not scarlet.

    from wiki:
    Scarlet cassocks are properly worn only by Chaplains to the Queen and by members of Royal foundations such as Westminster Abbey and some Cambridge college chapels.

  22. tjvigg3 says:

    One practice I have seen is to have the servers (men & boys) wear black cassocks and knee-length surplices. The surplices are unornamented for weekday Masses, but on Sundays and Solemnities, they have banding on them. This banding is typically the color of the day. On those occasions where the clergy wear white vestments, the surplices have a simple lace insert instead of banding. This same parish requires servers to arrive attired in a white dress shirt, black dress pants, black socks and dark dress shoes. The MCs in this parish typically wear either lace surplices or pleated surplices with lace inserts. Overall, this makes for a very dignified appearance and presents a sharp, clean look.

  23. frRobertM says:

    In re the side for the cincture: for those who take religious vows, the cincture (or the cord, in the case of the Franciscans, for example) is on the right hand side (being the “higher calling”), for those who do not have religious vows, the cincture is worn on the left hand side. Therefore, for servers, the norm would that the cincture (or cloth or cord ) would be worn on the left.

  24. disco says:

    In any case, don’t let Obama find out where you keep the surplus berettas…

  25. momoften says:

    We have red for Easter, and for Christmas-and special surplices for those holy days as well.
    Black cassocks and White surplices, and ONLY boys. We have also made a few lace ones out
    of plain organza surplices that were gifted to us that turned out spectacular (the boys loved them!!)
    On a sadder note. I helped a church convert to Black Cassocks and White surplices,but GAAAGGGGG….they continued to allow girls and older women to serve at the altar, -do you know how BAD that looks? I was upset and was sorry I helped.–I told the pastor I hated it. (not my pastor) I wrote him a long letter outlining the detriments of girls/women serving at the altar. SIGH–His response, I would love to switch to all boys, but the girls and parents would be crushed…..again-gag. It reminds me to again to beg him to stop the madness-at least with the old women…

  26. momoften says:

    Also, if you ask any of my 11 sons (all of them are serving or have served)they have rarely if ever served with girls. If they have/had a choice, they wouldn’t. If they had a choice between an alb or cassock and surplice, it would be the cassock and surplice. It is much more dignified I believe.
    We have our own cassocks and surplices at home for the random funeral/special occasion request outside of the parish–where friends/family have requested those over the albs.

  27. eiggam says:

    While we were going over arrangements for my dad’s funeral, my mother said “No Star Wars,” referring to the white alb and cincture. My nephew told his grandma not to worry as they knew where the black cassocks were kept. The funeral was lovely.

    Pray for the faithful departed.

  28. Here is a true modern-day cassock story, as related by my son, a 13 year old altar boy:
    “I had a dream that my Godfather gave me a cassock and I took it to Church. When I was putting on my new cassock in the sacristy before Mass, an old lady came in and started chewing me out because it was ‘too traditional.'”

    When I told my parish priest about this dream, he interrupted me at the part where I was vesting in the new cassock and half-jokingly said, “And then some old lady came and chewed you out, right?”
    “Yes!” I answered.

  29. Hank Igitur says:

    Prior to 1969 we had reversible cassocks: red side out for most Masses but black side out for requiems.

  30. frjim4321 says:

    The younger and very inexperienced associate that I was with once had charge of the servers. Many questions were asked about his practice of dressing the male servers in red cassocks and surplices, then his older favorite servers would move into black cassocks. There were also female servers at the church, but this priest did not permit them to wear cassocks, they were only permitted to wear albs. It was quite bizarre. It left the girls feeling cheated because they were not “allowed” to wear the red and black cassocks, and their training was so poor they did not even know that albs were more appropriate than cassocks in the first place. But this junior priest was using the cassocks to show his favoritism, and this truly miffed the girl servers and their parents.

  31. discipulus says:

    When I used to be an altar server in our TLM parish, red cassocks were worn by the Master of Ceremonies (MC) and the Thurifer. All the others wore black. Nowadays, all the servers wear black most of the time.

  32. James Joseph says:

    When I was maybe 11-years old we were told we no longer going to cassocks and surplus.

    I never liked the white alb thing with the rope. It made me feel silly; less like a young man. A shortwhile later we had girls with us. I held out longer than the rest of the boys.

    I haven’t served Mass since.

  33. Lepidus says:

    When I was an altar boy in the early ’80’s, our conservative (read: obedient) NO parish used black cassocks. We were even vested with the surplices when we became altar boys using words similar to “Receive this surplice. May its whiteness show the purity of your life”. (or something like that…it’s been a while.)

    I recently started attending a noon Mass once a week at a EF parish run by the Institute of Christ the King. Most the time they have an adult male (who might be a priest – he’s in the bulletin as Abbe X). The couple times I’ve seen an altar boy, he is wearing a blue cassock, white surplice and cape. This was all during the Easter season, so I’m not sure yet if it was tied to that.

  34. moosix1974 says:

    If there are girl servers, then the alb is the only choice for a “vestment” as a cassock and surplice represent clergy and only males can be clergy. Simple. We changed parishes recently. At our old parish the older “senior” altar servers got to wear the C&S. They had to earn it. Unfortunately, there were a few older girl servers who also wore it. The lower, younger servers could only wear the alb. My two older sons had earned that privilege at our old parish. They wore those vestments with great pride. At our new parish, Father rightly has all of the altar servers wear the alb, as there are boys and girls serving. Unfortunately, that means my boys also have to wear them. They don’t like it, but they do it. It’s the only right way to handle the situation. The good news is that we also have a TLM at our parish and the boys all wear the C&S.

  35. Elizabeth M says:

    I remember years ago attending a TLM at a SSXP chapel. They explained the altar boys would now be wearing red instead of black because they were being enrolled in the Guild of St. Stephen (or something like it).

  36. chriskelly says:

    At our parish, unfortunately, we must include any girls who wish to serve at the altar. In order to discourage girls from serving and help the boys retain at least some sense of the link between the altar server and the priesthood, we were considering purchasing cassocks/surplices for the boys and have the girls wear the alb/cincture. So is this not a good idea? If not, are there any other suggestions on how to preserve the way in which boys serving at the altar can promote vocations to the priesthood (short of our priest changing his mind and instituting boys only)? [If there must be girls, and I don’t accept the premise that there must be, then do not have them use the cassock.]

  37. vetusta ecclesia says:

    I have observed that it is common practice in Poland for servers to wear a surplice but no cassock. I find it bizarre.

  38. Neil Addison says:

    Here in England the tradition seems to be Red Cassocks in Arch Dioceses and Black in “Ordinary” Dioceses. Many years ago this led to some liturgical confusion for my son who was an Altar Server when when we moved from Liverpool Archdiocese to Newcastle Diocese.

    My son remarked that he hadn’t realised that Altar boys were supposed to wear the colour of the local Football (Soccer for you Yanks) team. His confusion was understandable. The colour of Liverpool Football Team is Red and white, and that of Newcastle United is Black and White and the Altar Boys in the two Diocese were wearing Cassocks of the same colour. I wonder how the idea would work out in America, would you wear Cassocks in the colour of the local Baseball Team or the local “Football” team ?

    Nowadays in England most churches seem to wearing unisex white Albs in all Diocese though it is noticeable that once Female Altar Servers are allowed the number of Boy Altar Servers drops dramatically and that is far more significant issue than what colour they use

  39. jesusthroughmary says:

    I remember a few years ago, when a friend of mine was still in formation for the permanent diaconate (he has since been ordained), there was a ceremony to institute the men in his class as acolytes. They processed in with their albs over their arms, since the investiture with the alb (as a symbol of their new rank) was part of the ceremony. In front of them in the procession were a handful of little girls and a couple middle-aged women already wearing their albs.

  40. Long-Skirts says:


    Red cassocks
    For the Altar boys
    At Mass on
    Christmas Eve.

    Red cassocks
    For the Altar boys
    For those who
    Don’t believe

    Yet creep into
    The church’s womb
    At Midnight Mass
    Each year,

    They crave the sight
    A drop of bright
    Bold red
    To stop their fear.

    And down the nave
    The torches click
    And clack the
    Opaque glass

    And that is so
    Their senses know
    To hear, smell, see
    The Mass

    And then the

    Scabbed souls with hurts
    Bleed white
    By Crimson’s red.

  41. FXR2 says:

    Father z,
    When I was an altar boy in the early 70’s to early 80’s we wore scarlet cassocks which we had to purchase ourselves, despite a full closet of child sized black cassocks in the sacristy. I remember cutting grass and shoveling snow so that I could purchase new cassock when I out grew one. Our pastor was quite traditional, and I distinctly remember him saying what I now know to be the Lavabo in latin under his breath while pouring the water on his fingertips. I now know that he said much of the old mass under his breath during the NO Mass. I guess he maintained a high mass layered mode. My sons now wear black cassocks at our TLM parish. There were no female altar boys.
    I do not have a problem with treating the boys as Monsignori, provided they are earn the respect.


  42. Catholic Hokie:

    The practice you describe–using the red cassocks for older servers–is a practice I’ve seen at several parishes in the Arlington Diocese.

  43. chriskelly says:

    Father, referring to my previous post – do you mean we shouldn’t have the girls wear the cassock (boys wear the cassock – and girls wear the alb) or don’t have any of the servers wear the cassock?

  44. jaykay says:

    Interesting about the black -v- red for senior/junior. In my 60s and 70s youth, when we had batteries of altar boys in the main town church, it was red for the juniors and black for the seniors, some of whom could be very imperious towards the less experienced boys, all of which could be clearly seen by the congregation of course. Probably showing off. It made me determined never to become an altar boy in that church. In any event our school had its own chapel – but all altar boys of whatever age wore black and white. Street shoes on the altar were totally forbidden – one had to wear the white canvas runners which were still common at the time and wow, but did they have to be absolutely spotless!!

    Some time ago I came across an old photo from the late 30s of the Altar Boys’ Guild in our local Dominican church and they were all wearing the alb with cincture, which is exactly in line with what Fr. Thompson O.P. has remarked above. Must check to see what side it’s knotted on. Since that church was known for the precision and decorum of its liturgy it was undoubtedly the “right” side.

    Neil Addison: “The colour of Liverpool Football Team is Red and white,” Oh tut, tut, tut!!! Liverpool is all red. Man U are red/white.

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