Q: Fr. Bill, you wore black vestments at the All Souls Day Mass. I thought black vestments were pretty much abandoned after Vatican II. What is their status? Do you wear them when you preside at funerals?
A: Good question! The short answer is, no, black was not abandoned. However, the preferred option for funerals is first, white, then purple and black as options. It is true that black has fallen out of popular favor so much so that it may appear that it was forbidden. But, that is just perception.
Before I discuss this further, I must share the meanings by these three liturgical colors: White expresses hope in resurrection, holiness, hope, and baptism. Violet expresses reconciliation, repentance, and mercy. Black signifies mourning, death, sin, and judgement. This latter color may seem to focus on the negative, but, these are realities in our lives which sometimes we need to be reminded about.
The official three color choices for All Souls Day are the same as they are for any funeral. According to the instructions to the Order of Christian Funerals (a.k.a. OCF):
“The liturgical color chosen for funerals should express Christian hope but should not be offensive to human grief and sorrow. In the United States, white, violet, or black vestments may be worn at the funeral rites and at other offices and Masses or the dead” (§39).
I have worn white vestments at funerals in all the parishes where I have been assigned. It has been my pastoral judgement that white has helped the congregation remember that through the waters of baptism, their loved one has died with Christ and that we hold the hope close that their loved one will rise again with him (cf. OCF §160). In the initial rites of the funeral, we place a pall over the casket which I have only seen in white, though violet and black are still options. Therefore, I have made efforts to make sure that the vestments match and carry on a congruent sign conferred by the pall. The white pall symbolizes the white garment placed on a newborn baby who has just been baptized.
That being said, I concelebrated a funeral with Archbishop Sample on the sad occasion of the tragic death of a young adult from the Umpqua Community College shootings back in 2015. There, the priests concelebrants were told to wear violet vestments. In the archbishop’s pastoral judgement, he was giving attention to the guidance by the OCF, where it states:
“The celebration of the Christian funeral brings hope and consolation to the living. While proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ and witnessing to Christian hope in the resurrection, the funeral rites also recall to all who take part in them God’s mercy and judgment and meet the human need to turn always to God in times of crisis” (§7).
So, not only is hope something that is needed at a funeral, but so too is our need to seek out God’s mercy. The tragic nature of some events draw us close to this opportunity of God’s consolation which brings us to repentance and a desire for mercy in our own lives.
Back to All Souls Day. I made a pastoral decision to wear black for many reasons, some theological, some psychological, some liturgical, and some even pragmatic. I wanted us to be mindful of the reality of Purgatory and the journey that many of the deceased whom we are praying for may be very well experiencing it and need our prayers. Additionally, I wanted us to recognize our own emotional sensibilities to the reality of their deaths and the loss their deaths have played in our lives. Mourning, while not something we like to do, is deeply important to our healing. When we don’t mourn our losses, we continually carry them with us, and occasionally they come out in some of the most inappropriate ways and situations. Black emotes these feelings of sadness, recognizing and legitimizing them in our lives. When I bought my black chasuble, I purposely chose one that also had violet in it which, I hope, helped us remember our need to repent of our own sins in view of our own coming death and look to God for our only hope. Liturgically speaking, black carries well all these reasons and we hardly ever, if at all, see this color option used in the Mass. It has occurred to me many times that we should not completely forget or abandon our liturgical heritage, and that finding appropriate places to harken back to our sacred tradition keeps us grounded and mindful of who we are as Catholics. I’ve purposely done this in other areas too. You might have noticed that over all, the priests chant more of the Mass than in decades previous. The new Roman Missal has been the driving force for that change. I’ve heard many times soon after receiving the Missal that we were chanting more. Simply, it is was one of the various things the reform of the missal called for. You might also notice that during Lent, as a community we chant the Mass parts during the Liturgy of the Eucharist, and at some solemnities we use incense and bells. Finally, on the pragmatic side of things, until last year, I have never worn a back vestment. But, after seeing this particular chasuble at a bargain price, I thought I would buy it for the few times I might want to use it, All Souls Day being the case use I had in mind.
Finally, thank you for the question and I hope this helps more of us expand our understanding of the wealth of our Catholic theology and tradition.
Fr. William Holtzinger