Catholic clergy members, such as priests, wear vestments when celebrating Mass or performing other ceremonies within the Church. The term “vestments” encompasses all aspects of the clothing and ornamentation worn, such as stoles and footwear, but refers primarily to robes. The colors of the vestments worn vary depending on the ceremony taking place, the priest’s or parish’s preferences, and sometimes the family’s wishes, particularly in the case of a funeral mass. Catholic funeral vestments are typically black, violet or white.
Traditional Black Vestments
Black vestments are historically reserved only for funeral and other masses of the dead, and are not worn for other celebrations such as Easter or Sunday Mass. Black vestments are worn to reflect the somber character of a funeral Mass, as well as to keep with the Roman Missal that guided the Roman Catholic Church through 1970. Although violet and white vestments are permitted in the post-1970 Roman Missal, black remains the traditional choice.
Reverential Violet Vestments
Unlike black vestments, officiants wear violet vestments for masses other than funerals, particularly during the seasons of Advent and Lent. Violet, or purple, vestments represent special reverence and penitence. Parishes and parishioners often prefer violet vestments to eschew the darkness of black yet maintain a solemnity and sorrow appropriate to the deceased.
Celebratory White Vestments
In 1970, white vestments became an option in the Catholic Church for funeral vestments, specifically allowed by the Roman Missal for funeral masses in England and Wales. This color signifies the celebration of Christ, Mary and the saints in the Church, and is worn on Christmas, Easter and other prominent days of celebration. Many American dioceses also allow white for funerals as a representation of hope and a celebration of Christ. However, the introduction of white funeral vestments is somewhat controversial, with some being uncomfortable with the festive nature of the color used in a solemn event. Father Anthony Ruff, a liturgy teacher at St. John's University School of Theology-Seminary, for example, finds white to be "too happy."
Family Choice in Vestment Selection
In some parishes, the deceased’s family members can work with the priest to choose the appropriate vestments for the funeral mass, with the character of the deceased and the tone of the mass influencing the decision. In general, a very traditionally minded family may find black vestments to be a fitting and solemn choice; violet may be ideal for a family wishing to focus the mass on atonement and sorrow; while white vestments may be appropriate when the celebration is to be hopeful of the deceased’s place in heaven, such as for young children. The presiding priest can provide guidance in this decision to ensure the passing is marked with fitting reverence and reflection.
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