Do Catholic Priests' Vestments Change at Different Times?

Cardinal Timothy Dolan in purple robe on Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent.
... John Moore/Getty Images News/Getty Images

The Catholic faith relies heavily on symbolism. The mass, or church service, is a veritable feast of the senses. Incense tickles the nose, music fills the ears and wine engages the tongue. Accordingly, priests wear vestments, religious garments, whose colors correspond with religious seasons. Up until the 4th century, white was the sole color of priestly vestments. Pope Innocent III, who led the church from 1198 to 1216, was the first to mention variations in priestly robes . The Second Vatican Council, which reformed the church, announced in 1965 that the Constitution of the Sacred Liturgy would provide the official dictate on what priests can wear. In contemporary Catholicism, white, red, green, purple and rose are the primary colors that priests don to invoke a certain mood in the parishioners.

1 White

The original vestment color was white. White symbolizes the joy and victory that the church embraces through the life and resurrection of Jesus. These robes also represent the purity and virtuousness of those called to the priesthood. Priests wear white robes on Christmas and Easter, as well as the birthday of Mary, the mother of Jesus, whom Catholics revere.

2 Red

Red vestments are symbolic of the blood of Jesus, the Christian savior of the souls of humankind. In Christian theology, Jesus suffered death by crucifixion to atone for all people’s sins, or evil deeds. The chosen days for red robes include those corresponding to the Passion, the period Jesus entered Jerusalem during his final days of life. Because red also symbolizes the sacrifice of martyrs, priests also wear the color on the birth dates of the apostles who walked with Jesus and died for his cause.

3 Green

Green, the color of plants, represents hope. Priests wear green vestments during Ordinary time. Ordinary time refers, generally, to the calendar weeks outside the Easter and Christmas seasons. During this period, Catholics wait in hopeful anticipation for the special holiday seasons.

4 Purple

Since 1988, the U.S. Bishop’s Committee on the Liturgy lists purple, or violet, as the official color worn during Advent. The season of Advent incorporates the weeks prior to Christmas, the birth date of Jesus. Purple represents the anticipation of the birth of the Christian savior. Priests also wear purple during Lent, the season of penance, in which Catholics repent for their sins through good works and abstinence.

5 Rose

Rose is an optional color worn within the Advent and Lent seasons, along with Purple. Priests may wear rose only on the third Sunday of Advent or the fourth Sunday of Lent.

David Kenneth has a Ph.D. in history. His work has been published in "The Journal of Southern History," "The Georgia Historical Quarterly," "The Southern Historian," "The Journal of Mississippi History" and "The Oxford University Companion to American Law." Kenneth has been working as a writer since 1999.