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Foundations
of Faith


 Official Newspaper of the Catholic Diocese of Green Bay, WisconsinAugust 22, 2003 Issue 

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.

Mourning black

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 poverty.

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) tribes.

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.)

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