Colors of Cassocks and Altar Cloths

Author: Father Edward McNamara


Colors of Cassocks and Altar Cloths

ROME, 9 FEB. 2010 (ZENIT)

Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.

Q1: Is it now proper for altar servers and adult servers to wear a cassock color-coordinated with the vestments of the priest and deacon? I arrived at a church today to find the adult server/lector attired not in a white alb, but in a green cassock (to match the priest's and deacon's vestments), a white surplice, and a green cape over them. (I shuddered, wondering if the parish had just bought lots of this color-coordinated stuff.) It looked like an Episcopalian church. Is this now the "in" fashion? Where is it authorized for servers to wear anything other than a white alb and cincture? — K.S., Bartlesville, Oklahoma

Q2: The altar cloths are always in white. Are we allowed to use any other colored clothes on the altar for celebrating Mass and other liturgical celebrations? — R.G., Kohima, India

A: As these questions are related to decorative elements, I will respond to both of them together.

No. 119.c and No. 339 of the General Introduction of the Roman Missal (GIRM) succinctly summarizes the current norms. No. 119.c states: "In the sacristy, the sacred vestments (cf. below, nos. 337-341) for the priest, the deacon, and other ministers are to be prepared according to the various forms of celebration: … c. For the other ministers: albs or other lawfully approved attire. All who wear an alb should use a cincture and an amice unless, due to the form of the alb, they are not needed."

Recently, these norms were slightly broadened by an updated version of June 1994 guidelines issued by the U.S. bishops' conference: "The suggested guidelines may be used as a basis for developing diocesan guidelines. Number 6: 'Acolytes, altar servers, readers, and other lay ministers may wear the alb or other suitable vesture or other appropriate or dignified clothing. (General Instruction of the Roman Missal, no. 339) All servers should wear the same liturgical vesture.'"

Although the alb and cincture may be used everywhere, both the universal and national norms intentionally leave the door open for local customs. These vary from place to place, and each bishop may issue norms for his own diocese.

In most places, adult servers use the alb or a similar vestment that is usually white or off-white in color. Some places use a cassock and surplice. There is more variety for younger servers. For example, in Italy most young altar servers use a black or a red cassock with a surplice, although some places also use the "Tarcissian." This is a kind of off-white alb with two red stripes running from the shoulder to the floor, thus evoking the ancient Roman tunic.

In some parts of Poland and the Baltic countries, both adults and children can sometimes be seen serving Mass wearing only a surplice over their ordinary clothes.

I have never seen the green cassock or any effort to coordinate the server's vesture with the liturgical season. Either this is an established custom in the area or some new initiative. I doubt very much it is a new liturgical fashion. It would be necessary to consult with the diocesan liturgy office regarding established norms before broaching the question with the pastor.

Regarding the second question, I would say that the following norm from the American translation of the GIRM No. 304, although specifically geared toward the United States, is equally applicable to many other countries. The use of a colored seasonal antependium, or frontal, is a long-standing custom in the Latin rite and may be used to enhance the awareness of the liturgical season.

"Out of reverence for the celebration of the memorial of the Lord and for the banquet in which the Body and Blood of the Lord are offered on an altar where this memorial is celebrated, there should be at least one white cloth, its shape, size, and decoration in keeping with the altar's design. When, in the dioceses of the United States of America, other cloths are used in addition to the altar cloth, then those cloths may be of other colors possessing Christian honorific or festive significance according to longstanding local usage, provided that the uppermost cloth covering the mensa (i.e., the altar cloth itself) is always white in color."

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Follow-up: Colors of Cassocks and Altar Cloths [2-23-2010]

Related to our Feb. 9 comments on the proper dress for servers, a Virginia reader had asked: "My parish has long placed its altar boys in black cassocks and surplices. Recently, our pastor announced that it was not appropriate for boys to be wearing black cassocks, since these are symbolic of the vow of celibacy, and our altar boys are not necessarily destined for the priesthood. He has begun replacing their dress with red cassocks and surplices. It would seem that a switch from black to red cassocks is certainly well within the authority of the pastor to direct, but I'm just a little surprised at his reasoning. Is there a meaning to the colors for altar boys' cassocks? What are the allowable colors? Is it correct that black is not appropriate for 12- to 18-year-old boys?"

While the pastor may determine this point, I would respectfully disagree with his reasoning. As far as I can ascertain, there is no rule that would exclude black cassocks for altar servers. It is somewhat curious that to avoid them looking like priests we dress them up as cardinals.

The norms for the extraordinary rite already foresaw that the server could wear a cassock even if not a cleric. When the cassock was used, however, a surplice was required. There were no stipulations regarding color, although black was the most common. In some countries, serving in lay dress was also an accepted custom.

Nor is it strictly true that seminarians and priests always wear black cassocks. Although their use is now quite rare, seminarians from various national colleges in Rome could be distinguished by either the color or special cut of their cassocks. Some colleges had blue or red cassocks, while others wore black with red buttons, etc.

In Mexico, seminarians wear either black or white cassocks with a blue sash. In India and many other tropical countries, seminarians and priests wear white cassocks.

Therefore, while the clerical cassock is a sign of a priest's consecration and dedication, its use during the liturgy is not restricted to clerics.

In saying this, I would not wish to exclude the possibility that reserving the black cassock to priests and seminarians may not be a legitimate custom in some areas. It may also constitute an effective pastoral tool, especially in parishes where seminarians are frequently present together with lay altar servers.  

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