Hey Father! Explain all these vestment colors?

“Hey Father!” Explain all these vestment colors?

– Vincent in Springfield

The use of color in the Sacred Liturgy is as old as Catholic worship itself. The Church’s choice of colors is not random, though. Moving through the mysteries in our liturgical year allows these colors to help us focus our prayer and worship. Until the time of Pope Innocent III (1198 – 1216), there was no standardized scheme or “codification” for the use of liturgical colors. Pope Innocent III promulgated the use of four colors: white, red, black and green. The exact shades of these colors depended on the dyes that were available in particular places and times.

Our current use of liturgical colors was promulgated in 1570 during the pontificate of Pope St. Pius V (1566-1572). His main objective was the continuation of the massive program of reform for the Church, in particular the full implementation of the decrees of the Council of Trent. And so, the liturgical colors we use today were born out of this part of the Church’s history.

So, what is the significance and particular use of specific colors during the liturgical year?

White is the color of the Easter season, Christmas season, feasts of our Lord, and Blessed Mother, non-martyred saints, and other special feasts outside these times. White is also used for weddings, baptisms, and may be used for the Mass of Christian Burial. White signifies joy, glory, light, and purity. Gold vestments may also be worn whenever white is permitted. 

Violet/purple is the color of the Advent and Lenten seasons. It may be used for special penitential celebrations and the Mass of Christian Burial. Violet/purple signifies penance, contrition, and humility. 

Red is used for Pentecost, Good Friday, the feasts of martyrs, and the Sacrament of Confirmation. Red signifies the “fire” of the Holy Spirit, Jesus’ obedience to death on the Cross, and the blood shed by martyrs. 

Green is the color of Ordinary Time. Green signifies hope, life, and anticipation. It is a reminder that the mission of the church is to share the hope and life of Christ with the world. If one pays close attention, there seems to be an endless variety of shades of green! 

Rose, yes rose and not “pink,” may be used twice during the liturgical year on Gaudete Sunday during Advent and Laetare Sunday during Lent. Rose signifies subdued rejoicing and anticipation. 

Black may be used for the Mass of Christian Burial and on All Souls Day (and was formerly used on Good Friday). Black is a symbol of death and mourning.

What about blue? The privilege of using blue vestments in the Latin rite is of two kinds. One kind is granted to some Marian shrines. This was the case of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s Mass in 2007 which was held at Austria’s foremost center of devotion to Mary. The other privilege is granted to whole countries. For example, all Spanish churches may adopt blue vestments on the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, and this favor is sometimes also extended to countries once ruled by the Spanish crown. White vestments with blue trimming or motifs are permitted at any time/place it is appropriate.

Just as we decorate our homes for the seasons and holidays of the year, so too, does the Church use color to emphasize the timelessness of our liturgical worship. It is a potent reminder that all of the symbols and traditions of our faith are, as St. Augustine says, “Beauty ever ancient, ever new!”

Father Joseph Havrilka is pastor of St. Clare in Altamont, St. Anne in Edgewood, and St. Mary in St. Elmo