All Souls Day presents us once again with an opportunity to consider the use of black vestments within the Mass. While black is the required liturgical color for All Souls Day and all funerals in the Traditional Latin Mass, it has all but disappeared from the Novus Ordo. White, a color historically associated with baptism and other celebrations, has instead replaced black in most parishes these past forty years.
Beginning with the election of Pope Benedict XVI in 2005, and continuing with the resurgence of the Old Rite following the release of Summorum Pontificum in 2007, an entire generation of tradition friendly priests have begun to rediscover the rich meaning behind the use of black vestments. Father Ryan Erlenbush, writing several years back at The New Theological Movement , noted:
Black signifies mourning, but not simply mourning in general. Rather, black directs us in a particular way to mourn and pray for the dead. While white is a color of festivity and rejoicing, violet is the color which signifies penance and sorrow for sin.
However, violet directs us more to mourning for our own sins, and to performing penance for our own wretchedness. Black, on the other hand, helps to direct us to mourn not for ourselves but for the deceased. This is why black is so fitting for the funeral Mass (as well as Requiems and All Souls): The color reminds us to pray for the dead.
Put simply, the use of black vestments is authentically Catholic. The dogmatic truth that we, the Church Militant, must pray for the dead is reaffirmed by the use of black within the Mass. This is yet another example of our liturgy reinforcing our theology: lex orandi, lex credendi. It is also a teaching of the Church not held, or understood, by most Protestants. Father Erlenbush continues:
The funeral Mass is not really about the family – though there are certainly many prayers for the consolation of those who mourn. Rather, the funeral Mass is primarily for him who has died: Nearly every prayer is for the forgiveness of his sin (i.e. of the temporal punishment of sin). Funerals are not primarily for the living, they are for the dead – whatever anyone (even if he be a priest) may tell you! This is why it makes no sense – theologically – to wear either white or even purple for a funeral Mass or Requiem.
The feast of All Souls affords us the opportunity to contemplate our own mortality as we on earth pray for the Church Suffering. Black vestments remind the faithful that we must pray for the deceased. This spiritual work of mercy is not optional. Father Erlenbush addresses the confusion that can result from the use of white vestments for All Souls:
On All Saints’, the priest is directed to wear white vestments because the saints are already in heaven and enjoy the vision of God. They are perfectly happy and have no need of our prayers. All Souls’, however, is the Mass offered for the holy souls in purgatory – it is offered as a prayer in their behalf, for the remission of the temporal punishment they bear for their sins.
Now, if the priest wears white vestments on All Souls’ day, can he be the least bit surprised that his faithful have ceased to believe in the reality of purgatory? If the priest wears the color of festivity, rather than the color of prayerful mourning, who will ever believe that there are any souls who suffer purgation after death?
As the Traditional Latin Mass requires black vestments for All Souls Day, as well as funeral masses and Requiems, the reemergence of this liturgical color should only increase in the coming years. With many younger priests learning both forms of the Roman Rite, we will slowly begin to see white vestments give way to the traditional black in more and more parishes on All Souls. May this liturgical recovery assist in a greater understanding of Purgatory, and of our need to pray for the souls of the faithful departed.