Sometimes the good guys also dress in black
Priests' clothes and knighthood have some things in common
By Patricia Kasten
Compass Associate Editor
"Why do priests wear black?" a reader asked.
In pop culture, the color black can indicate heroes (unlike the
age of the Westerns, where good guys wore white hats). Action
movies like Men in Black, The Matrix and
Batman have heroes dressed in black. Even Harry Potter
wears black robes.
Priests' attire in black derives from heroes of the 12th
century: the knights of the heraldic age. Heraldry began in the
12th century, when full body armor came into use and it became
necessary to have some way to identify warriors on the battlefield.
Specific colors and emblems were designated for this and knights
chose colors signifying those characteristics they wished to
identify with themselves. Therefore, a man who wanted to announce
his bravery in battle emblazoned his shield with red; another, who
valued loyalty, chose blue.
Green for bishops
The Church adopted these colors of heraldry. According to
James-Charles Noonan Jr., an expert on church protocol, the 13th
century saw certain colors assigned to those in church hierarchy:
green for bishops in 1215 and red for cardinals in 1274. Even
though bishops now wear purple, the official color of a bishop's
coat of arms remains green - the heraldic color symbolizing the
theological virtues of faith, hope and charity.
In heraldry, black signifies prudence, one of the four cardinal
virtues. A prudent person demonstrates what we call common sense.
Thomas Aquinas called it "right reason applied to action." A
prudent person possesses the skill to look at all the facts in a
situation, sift through them to make the proper judgment and decide
what needs to be done.
"Prudence," says Fr. Richard McBrien, "is essentially the
capacity for discernment. It is not to be equated with an
attitude of caution, restraint, timidity or conservatism. Rather,
the prudent person is one who can make decision."
Prudence in making decisions - good, practical, moral decisions
- is a skill we have long valued for those in ministry.
Since our Latin Church developed in a Western European society,
it was influenced by traditions that associated the color black
with mourning and denial. In science, what we call "the color
black" is really the absence of any color, a fact that can
help us understand why it is a color long associated with
Fr. William Saunders, dean of Notre Dame Graduate School of
Christendom in Alexandria, Va., and a columnist in the Catholic
press explains black as a sign of service to Christ: "Moreover,
black is a color of mourning and death for the priest, the
symbolism is (of) dying to oneself (in order) to rise and serve the
Lord, as well as giving witness of the Kingdom yet to come."
Priestly clothing in the early years of Christianity did not
differ from anyone else's everyday clothing, and this continued in
the first centuries after Christianity was officially sanctioned in
the Roman world. However, clothing styles began to change in the
sixth century, when Germanic tribes invaded what was once the
Western Roman Empire. Christian clergy retained the long tunic
styles of (then Christian) Rome, while most people adopted the
shorter tunics and leggings of Northern (not coincidently pagan)
That Roman tunic eventually developed into the familiar cassock
- what most of the world knows by its French name soutane,
referring to the fur or wool that lined priestly tunics against the
cold of Northern climates.
Wearing black became a rule gradually. As The Catholic
Encyclopedia notes, from about the eighth century, various
church authorities ordered clergy to avoid wearing bright colors
and rich apparel. (Vestments, however, which were viewed as
vehicles to honor God and not the person who wore them, became
increasingly ornate during the same period.)
Suit or cassock?
Today, canon law says "clerics are to wear suitable
ecclesiastical dress, in accordance with the norms established by
the Episcopal Conference and legitimate local custom" (n. 284). In
the United States, local custom, started by European missionaries,
was formalized by the Council of Baltimore in 1884 when it said
clergy were to wear black, preferably cassocks. (Habits, worn by
religious order priests, differ from clerical attire and can be
made in various colors.)
A black suit is now more common for clergy than a cassock. The
United States Catholic Conference of Bishops last cited the use of
a black suit and Roman collar "as the usual attire for priests" at
their annual meeting in November of 1998. (Wearing a cassock was
left to "the discretion of the cleric.")
(Sources: USCCB secretariat for priestly life and ministry; "Straight Answers" in The Arlington Catholic Herald; The Church Visible, The Ceremonial Life and Protocol of the Roman Catholic Church, The Catholic Encyclopedia and the 1983 Code of Canon Law.)