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Why do priests wear black?

A couple of weeks ago during our RCIA sessions a question came up as to why priests wear the color black.  It’s a seemingly simple question, but one that gets right to the nut of why so many other seemingly simple questions about the Church aren’t clear – they simply have a long and involved pedigree and even then have disparate applications at times.  It’s a sure recipe for confusion.  So … to set it at rights, I’m going to lay out what I’ve been able to dig up so far on this seemingly simple question.

First, let us remember that not all priests wear black.  Priests who are members of religious orders wear, naturally, the habit of their order.  Priests in countries nearer the equator wear lighter gray and sometimes white because it is simply irresponsible to ask them to wear black in such conditions.  So already we run into the realization that wearing black is not a universal norm.  But then, why most priests in the US and Europe wear black?  That’s where it gets more complicated.

In the earliest times of the Church no specifically clerical garb was worn.  I think it’s safe to assume this was at least partly due to the facts that 1) being a Christian was frequently a very dangerous lifestyle and so self-identifying like this would be tantamount to suicide and 2) there was no, at that time, pressing need to alter their standard wear.  It should be recalled that the early priesthood was heavily based on the Levitical priesthood inherited from the Jewish tradition by the early Church, and standard (non-liturgical) wear for them was not, I believe, identifiably different from that of others.  That point I’m quite open to correction on.

As time went on we also see cases where liturgical garb such as the chasuble or dalmatic was worn outside of the liturgy.  The next major development was the Synod of Braga in 572 which required clerics to wear different clothes when they went out.  From this time forward the standard wear of priests worked its way as does any fashion, following somewhat with the times.  The style of the cassock developed over several centuries, remaining similar to but different from that of the gentry classes.

Finally in the 17th and 18th centuries priestly garb was standardized.  The color of the cassock was aligned with the hierarchy of the clergy: cardinals wore scarlet red, bishops amaranth red and priests black.  Until the reign of Pope Pius V the popes wore the same red as the rest of the cardinals; as Pius V was a Dominican Friar prior to becoming Pope he continued to wear his white habit and his successors have each continued that tradition.

So now we know roughly when the colors were set, but the real question was why?  First, priestly garb is intended to be distinctive – to remind both those around the priest and the priest himself that this is a person set aside for the Lord.  Second, the color has a theology behind it.

The color black symbolizes first of all death, a dying to the world, which is part of what a priest takes on himself when he is ordained.  The worries, cares and opportunities of the life of a lay person are set aside and he takes up the worries, cares and opportunities proper only to a priest.  Further, that death is a reminder of the Sacrifice which they re-present each day in Mass, doing so as alter Christus and participating in a special way in that Sacrifice.  It is a reminder to the priest that he dies to the world each day and immerses in eternity.  Second, the color black is a reminder that they are to give up the glamor, honor and entertainment of this world in preference for the life yet to come.  Finally, the color black also is a sign of authority, such as when a judge wears his black robes in court – this black symbolizes the authority a priest has by virtue of his ordination and incardination.

So, which came first, the color or the theology?  My take after digging around in this for a while is that the theology that a priest should be distinct and also display a reminder of his office has been around for a long time, and the tying of that theology to the color black happened only later.  But then, much theology does not come to a full understanding all at once and is worked through only slowly.  Could it change some day?  Certainly.  Do I see where it could go from here?  I can’t say that I do, but the ability to see the future is a gift I have not been given.

Should anyone else have a better explanation of this, or any corrections to be made, please leave me a note.  I’d like to make sure I get this right since it’s getting told to new generations of RCIA participants each year.

{ 8 comments… add one }
  • keith February 23, 2009, 7:22 am

    I always thought it was because black was slimming. 🙂

  • frival February 23, 2009, 7:49 am

    Yes, well, there is that, too. 😉

  • Cal February 23, 2009, 8:49 am

    I think your theology is correct but that the real reason black developed was that, simply, in medieval times this is what was most practical. It is easiest and cheapest to dye it that color: no matter what color the sheep is, or how stained or worn the cloth gets, chunking it into a dye bath designed to make it black and formless is easiest.

    I wish I could give you a reference for this, but I’ve encountered it over and over again in my reading regarding medieval monasticism (overwhelmingly the largest number of clerics for centuries). I suspect that what was easiest, cheapest and practical was also seen as imbued with theological value (humility, etc, and all that). Brighter colors only came along when affordable (which bishops and those with higher-paying benefices generally had).

  • keith February 23, 2009, 9:10 am

    In answer to Cal, while black may be the most utilitarian (and may, to us, seem austere) my understanding was that in 15th and 16th century Europe, black dyes were difficult to obtain and expensive. The Spanish nobility, especially Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castille, who united Spain, held a corner on the market of black dyes from the orient. So, it was quite “fa-fa-fa” as a priest I know would say, to wear black at that time.

    I think grays have always been the most utilitarian dyes because one needn’t use too much to achieve a shade of gray, whereas black would require a lot of dye and white a lot of bleach.

    Just my 3 cents.

  • frival February 23, 2009, 9:12 am

    That’s very interesting, because I’ve also read that black is a very difficult dye to make and only came about relatively recently. Perhaps that is a misunderstanding because today we have more “perfect” black dyes whereas back then they may have been willing to have something that’s not quite as perfectly black. Not being a dye specialist I don’t know one way or the other, but I am glad you brought up that point.

  • mary Jo Hawkins January 26, 2010, 3:06 pm

    Hello I appreciate the article you have posted and here is a little bit I have gleaned from my love of history.

    About the general rule of color(s) in clothing in the years between 700 and 1600 AD… at times there were restirctions on who could wear what colors, by social class. Its a very general reason that monks who leaving the ‘attachements’ of the world took brown or black for their most common color or prehaps the natural color of the fibre… White, red, purple and black were for centuries restricted to the nobles and upper gentry…At a time when ‘favor’ with the Church (or rather the local clergy of liberal and /or morality and greed instinct) could be bought with
    ‘gifts to the church, or at times the designation of a son or daughter, to the dedication of sacred life. So, the clothing rules often followed them into their new and humble life of service( noting that in later years the more vows a person took the more restrictive the attire and dress code)… remember I am condensing over 800 years. In some bastions of the faith it was desiginated by rank in the ecclesiastical format that certain yet still noble colors would/could be assigned and given signifigance. The whims and reasonings of various Papal persona also playing a part. The Pope in order to be identified would commonly wear bleached and pureset whites possible, in the best available textiles. Others would wear red or a purpley aramanth (red family but distict from cardinal or royal red.) the pastors of the congregants who were most in contact with the people would wear black, it was lovely and modest and suitable and identifiable to the task at hand… all this helped the literate and the illiterate immedialty identify various levels of the clergy…and as you stated above it’s not a hard fast rule… but rests more to the particul vows and society of, and geographic location of, the wearer.

  • frival February 4, 2010, 12:05 pm

    Thank you Mary Jo. Indeed, explaining how and why something like this developed over the course of centuries in a single blog post is an exercise in what information you don’t include. 🙂 Somehow I think an entire book could be written on this topic, although I’m not sure how wide a readership it would get…

  • Shell February 24, 2010, 5:10 pm

    I agree with Keith’s first assessment. They wear black because it’s slimming. 🙂

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