ASK FATHER: Color of altar boys’ cassocks

From a reader…

QUAERITUR:

I grew up in the 1950’s. All the illustrated “Children’s Missals” had photos showing altar servers wearing red cassocks and white surplices.

I never saw red cassocks in person, however. Now, they seem to be making a comeback. At our parish, the two altar servers wear black cassocks and white surplices. There is also a “master server” (usually an adult) who wears a red cassock and white surplice.

When there are is a seminarian in the role of master server, he wears a black cassock with collar and a white surplice. I can’t find any instruction on the color of cassocks for mass (other than the obvious distinctions between priest, monsignor, bishop, cardinal, and pope. Do you know of any instructions or official recommendations concerning the color of cassock to be worn by other than the celebrant at mass?

First, let it be said that all service at the altar in our Catholic Churches should exclusively MALE.

There is no specified color of cassocks for servers.  However, let’s not forget that this was originally a clerical service in large degree.  Hence, the use of the black cassock is always a good thing.  That said, it may be of interest that the boys who serve in the Basilica of St. Peter in Roman, from the minor seminary school, wear the same color cassocks as monsignors, paonazza, that violet color.  They do so from a long held privilege.  Also, Masters of Ceremonies for the Masses of bishops and cardinals in the Usus Antiquior customarily wear the paonazza cassock, but without red trim, etc.

Local custom will play a role, as it only fitting.  The Institute of Christ the King has their servers wear a shade of blue.   In some places, red is used.  No problem.  In other places, seniority of service might indicated by different colors.  It’s all for the good.  However, it should be consistent and understood where these things are put into place.

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30 Responses to ASK FATHER: Color of altar boys’ cassocks

  1. Reflector says:

    In the good old days (1974 – +/- 1980), we had altar server skirts with maching collars in the liturgical colours (red when the liturgical colour was white), worn with a white suplice. However in the 1980s this changed to white albs with cinctures in the liturgical colours (red when the colour was white, no black any more).

  2. Sawyer says:

    At my novus ordo parish there are both boy and girl altar servers. All altar servers wear black cassock and white surplice. That has struck me as inappropriate. Is it impermissible or merely inappropriate for girl altar servers to wear cassock and surplice? Or is there no rubric about that? [There’s no “rubric” for that. But, it violates common sense and good taste.]

    A neighboring parish also has boy and girl altar servers, but their attire differs by sex: boys wear black cassock and white surplice whereas girls wear a white alb with a cincture. When I have attended Mass there it has also appeared to me that the boy servers are privileged to get the “more important” serving roles, but I hesitate to generalize about that because of the small sample size of observations my conclusion is based on.

  3. ThePapalCount says:

    We have an older gentleman in the parish next to ours who is a knight of st gregory and when he acts as a master server at mass he wears a black cassock with violet trim and buttons. A member of the papal household as per his papal knighthood it was explained.

  4. Ef-lover says:

    In the parish I grew up in in the early 1960’s the altar boys used red cassocks and white surpluses and the black cassocks were reserved for requiem masses.

  5. JARay says:

    When I was a small boy we all used black cassocks but the older boys all had red cassocks. It was taken a a sign of seniority.

  6. Sportsfan says:

    Our parish altar boys wear red from Christmas to Candlemas and Easter to Ascension, black other times.

  7. Philmont237 says:

    St. Boniface parish in Wiesbaden, Germany has their servers wear cassocks in the liturgical color for the day under a white surplice. It was interesting seeing green cassocks.

    This parish was actually pretty good liturgically for a diocesan parish in Germany. They utilized a communion rail, albeit with EMHCs. I never saw any funny business there.

  8. An interesting local variant at our Holy Rosary Church, Portland OR. There the altar servers wear a version of the old lay brothers postulants’ habit. It was like the old lay brothers’ habit but without the black scapular, just the black shoulder cape. Lay brothers got the black scapular when they formally entered the novitiate. The servers also, of course, wear a surplice, under the shoulder cape as is the Dominican practice for those not ordained. You can see a photo here:

    http://dominican-liturgy.blogspot.com/2010/11/all-souls-dominican-requiem-at-holy.html

    As I am sure I will be asked, the old brothers habit was dropped in 1965. Today brothers wear the same white habit as the clerics. And, as I suspect I will also be asked, this change was made, in part, in response to petitions by the brothers themselves.

  9. billy15 says:

    At the parish I grew up in back in the late 90’s-early 2000’s, we would wear black cassocks and white surplices on weekday Masses and red cassocks on Sunday Masses. The girl altar servers would also wear the cassocks.

    But as a side note, now that I’m reminiscing a bit, what I really liked about my parish was that we were all assigned times a week in advance, and we were responsible for showing up. That meant when our turn came up for 7 AM Mass on Sunday morning, our butts (and our parents) had better be up and in church. We would also get pulled out of class regularly to serve funerals, as well as morning weekday Mass if the person scheduled was absent from school that day.

  10. KateD says:

    Great! Sounds like we need to go with Black/White. Where do I buy one, actually two, without breaking the bank?

    My boys are going to begin altar serving and I have been told to get their stuff.

  11. davidvu999 says:

    Father I’ve been told that females can wear red ones while black is reserved for males. Is this true? [No. That is not accurate.]

  12. davidvu999 says:

    Thank you for your wonderful parish. I attended my first Mass there on a Sunday 20 August this year while waiting for the airport to get my luggage. Currently at Mt Angel Sem!

  13. TonyO says:

    First, let it be said that all service at the altar in our Catholic Churches should exclusively MALE.

    Quite right, of course. In 1994, when the Vatican permitted the change to allow girl-altar-boys [the ‘technical term’ :-) ] in no way did the Vatican urge the change:

    “It will always be very appropriate to follow the noble tradition of having boys serve at the altar. As is well known, this has led to a reassuring development of priestly vocations. Thus the obligation to support such groups of altar boys will always continue.”

    How many pastors and bishops do you know who MEET that OBLIGATION to support such groups of altar boys? I don’t think there are any, except the bishops who have forbidden the use of girl altar boys anyway.

    Here’s my understanding of what the Vatican was really doing: in much of the West, the obligation to reserve serving at the altar to boys had already been broken, in some places for many years. It was even possible that people in the parishes would not even understand why if a new pastor were to “go back to the ‘old’ ways”, as it were, and simply obey the rules. Because the custom had been broken and had been broken for years, and the bishop clearly was not going to do anything about it, the custom was not in force, so relaxing the rule in 1994 IN THOSE PLACES would not cause the damage of breaking a custom. That’s why the permission was granted to bishops who found that the practice was taking place in their diocese. The policy issued was never intended to be used by bishops who didn’t have the problem in their diocese to switch – which is why the Vatican said that retaining all-male servers was “noble”, not just “permissible”, and why they noted an ongoing obligation to keep up cadres of all-male servers.

    Of course, as anybody could have told you, if you give them an inch they take a mile: instead of each bishop making the decision for his own diocese on whether there had been a break-down in the custom already, most of the bishops in the US went with the USCCB vote: everybody else is jumping off the cliff, we should too. Only 2 ordinaries in the US at the time did not: Fabian Bruskewitz of Lincoln, and John Keating of Arlington VA. That’s a dismal record if you want to find bishops with backbone – but at least there were two!

  14. Kathleen10 says:

    Under the FWIW column, can I just plead that altar girl service should end. Please.
    In our Mass the servers wear white. Pet peeve, altar servers wearing sneakers. Looks terrible, almost as bad as altar girls with long, flowing hair flying around.
    It is a pity that the powers that be have pretty much done away with the black vestments. The black cassock is unforgettable, it makes such an impression, as does the full black habit for religious. It is really so mystifying as to why anyone would recommend moving away from hard identity Catholic gear. We recently had a funeral for one of our priests. All the concelebrating priests wore white. It does not have nearly the same impact as the black. Apparently, we must appease those who find the black vestments, depressing? Mourning is out, celebration is in.

  15. Atra Dicenda, Rubra Agenda says:

    Girls in cassocks.

    Blech.

    Reminds me of that recent blogpost picture of the she-bishop in Sweden overseeing the diminution of Jesus Christ to the minor prophet status. I just can’t seem to view girls in cassocks as anything other than the cross-dressing of a girl in “clerics.”

    I guess at 31 I’m officially a grumpy old man on this stylistic point.

  16. youngcatholicgirl says:

    As Father mentioned, the Institute of Christ the King has blue cassocks for their altar boys (though not cassocks as we generally think of them). The blue is the Institute’s own color, matching the priests’ choir habit and the pom on the biretta. I’m still waiting for Crayola to start making “Institute Blue” products.

  17. Father Bartoloma says:

    The Tait!

  18. thomistking says:

    Sawyer: “A neighboring parish also has boy and girl altar servers, but their attire differs by sex: boys wear black cassock and white surplice whereas girls wear a white alb with a cincture.”

    Our new pastor (who is fantastic) is doing this as part of a process to ease out female servers. I would bet this is what is going on.

  19. vetusta ecclesia says:

    In the United Kingdom scarlet should not be used. It is the right and privilege of the Chapels Royal. The boy choristers of the Chapels Royal wear Stuart dress, the Gentlemen choristers and Queen’s Chaplains scarlet cassocks.

  20. hilltop says:

    I am a long-ago altar BOY from Arlington. My brother and I served the Good Bishop Keating for years. It will come as no surprise to learn that there were two great priestly vocation powerhouse dioceses in those days: Lincoln and Arlington.

    I know of a priest pastor in a different diocese which diocese admits girls as altar servers. This priest does a few very thoughtful things that silently and effectively discourages altar girls:

    1) he celebrates some masses in the extraordinary form. This limits the masses girls can serve and this limitation is also a silent indication of the inappropriateness of girls serving ANY mass;
    2) he inculcates a culture of the altar servers as a male ministry of boys (that also permits girls)
    3) he personally, directly recruits boys to serve rather than relying on broadcast announcements in the parish bulletin. He does not recruit girls.
    4) he places a very senior, long experienced high school junior or senior altar BOY in charge of all of the altar servers.
    5) the few girls that do join (almost always made to do so by their open-minded, liberated mother) wear white albs, hair up, no ribbons, no makeup, no jewelry, no heels. Boys wear cassocks and surpluses.
    The girls and the Parish get these silent messages, plus the girls don’t much like numbers 2,3,4 and especially 5, above.
    There do remain one or two holdout girl altar servers in his very large parish. But that’s it year in and year out. The altar boy cadre is huge.

  21. OCDFriar says:

    At our shrine basilica, we have an all-male server cadre, with black cassocks and surplices worn as the norm, and red cassocks employed on occasions of greater solemnity.

    I do remember that some older authorities, such as Dom Matthew Britt, disapproved of colored cassocks, but 1) there are far bigger fish to fry and 2) as Father notes, this is largely a matter of local custom.

  22. Ttony says:

    When I was an altar boy, we wore red cassocks on Sundays and Holy Days, and black cassocks on weekdays. Forty-odd years on, my current parish is red cassock only but when I serve, due to all the red cassocks seemingly having being designed for the ungenerously girthed, I have to borrow Father’s black cassock and surplice, leaving the parish thinking that this is a practice of seniority (though whether of age or service is left unsaid).

  23. JKnott says:

    The new pastor at our local parish returned the tabernacle to the center behind the altar – great, however he (or someone) then introduced having the all the altar servers wear red cassocks including the girl-altar-boys. I agree with Father about it being a lack of common sense and in poor taste however I wish it were canonically illicit. Some of the girls wear big bows placed high on their swinging pony tails. I sometimes can’t help thinking the little cherubs in the sanctuary are up there rehearsing for the Miss Universe pageant someday.

  24. Lisieux says:

    In our parish, it’s red cassocks most of the year, but violet in Advent and Lent.

    Vetusta Ecclesia: why should we worry about what a heretic ecclesial community does?

    [Because in these matters, which are fairly unimportant, we can afford to be gracious.]

  25. Fr_Andrew says:

    Britt, Fortescue and O’Connell are pretty harsh against anything except the use of black cassocks. Britt says “while the is no rubric forbidding the use of red cassocks, their use violates the spirit of the liturgy… The sanctuary is not a stage.”

    I would tend to agree. The sobriety of the Roman liturgy gets really lost when it becomes a pagent.

    Ever since I was a cleric in major orders who was serving MC at a solemn Mass on a big feast and was handed a red cassock by the lay head if the servers and told to change out of my clerical cassock to serve, thus has been my position, too. I said plainly, “No. I’m a cleric and I will wear my proper garb in the liturgy.”

    I think we can use an old SRC adage here. The use if non clerical cassocks in the liturgy may be tolerated where it has been introduced, eliminated where this is possible and not if immemorial custom, and not to be introduced where it does not already exist.

    But that’s just this priest’s opinion.

  26. 2H84 says:

    We used to wear black, with purple for when the Bishop was there (more of a violet hue, as it goes, well made in their day but in poor condition by the 1980s), but had a phase of having zip-up hooded albs (meh…).

    When we managed to get rid of those we ended up with red cassocks (ex-choir) which enabled us to burst into any room doing a more than passable impression of The Spanish Inquisition from Monty Python. They were in the same condition as the black ones, but there were arguments from “not looking like (12 year old) priests to “we don’t *do* black these days”, but it was an improvement, so we stuck with it. Tosh!

    When I moved to my current parish, they too were zip-up albs, but being more mature in years I was allowed a cassock and cotta from my arrival. Once it was established that I looked rather better that the other severs, a full set of black cassocks followed.

  27. Joseph Mendes says:

    At my home parish, the servers are mostly boys, with a handful of girls, mostly the sisters of some of the boys. They wear albs with a cord of the liturgical color. For Christmastide, Palm Sunday, and Good Friday, surplice and red cassock are worn, even by the girls.

  28. vetusta ecclesia says:

    Lisieux: I do not condemn my Queen as a heretic and I respect her as my monarch.

    [Which, as a final comment on that point, closes the rabbit hole.]

  29. Imrahil says:

    In my home parish, though it is a Novus Ordo parish, the use of cassock* and surplice has never fallen into disuse. That also is the case for most German parishes, it seems, except some rather “progressive”-styled ones that use albs.

    [* The cassocks aren’t cassocks but are called “altar server dress”, sonsisting of a “skirt” and a “collar” (not the Roman collar) which, under a surplice, looks exactly like a cassock, apart from the Roman collar.]

    The colors are by general tradition:

    – red, when the priests wears red or white,
    – black otherwise.

    Exceptions:

    – If the parish has green or violet altar-server dresses, they are used when the priest uses the respective color. (There are not any rose-colored altar-server dresses, though.)

    – On green Sundays where there are no green altar-server dresses available, choosing red over black seems a theoretical possibility and is sometimes preferred to black by priests. (Guest priest: “What are you wearing the red for?” “Well, we put it on by mistake; normally we wear black for green Sundays, do you want us to change?” “Don’t you have green ones?” “No.” “Then do keep the red, it’s still much better than black would be.”)

    – Officials who wear something else over their cassock (priests, if they wear a cassock underneath their other vestments, etc.) always wear black, as does the sacristan and, I guess, actual clerics where the thing is actually clerical dress and not altar-server dress.

    – In some traditions (and recommended in an official FSSP manual), the master-of-ceremonies always wears black.

    – In Masses with a lot of servers, those were black who did not get a red vestment, or more rarely vice versa. It should be avoided to have a black thurifer serve alongside a red navicular and vice-versa, and the like, of course.

    My own FSSP vicariate however uses always black, except for sometimes a very young altar boy (serving as navicular) who then would wear red, for a reason I do not know.

  30. Imrahil says:

    Oh, one other exception:

    – black, instead of red, is sometimes used for a white or red low-ranked feast (what the new Calendar calls a “memorial”) outside Christmastide and Eastertide.