Hey, Father! Why do priests wear black?
As with most things, the clerical garb of priests (sometimes just called “clerics”) has its own history, often complex and only sometimes interesting. Already by the sixth century, though, priests in France were being distinguished by their use of the black “cassock,” or full-length tunic — a trend which eventually spread through Europe and become the normative dress for the Roman Church.
While today the cassock remains a legitimate option for ecclesiastical garb, adaptations to clerical attire have seen the apparel of choice shift to a black suit and Roman collar — with or without the suitcoat, depending on the formality of the situation.
The traditional color for these “clerics” is black. (It is noteworthy, however, that certain conferences of bishops in more tropical climates have allowed for variations to this standard.) Why black? Well, early in the history of the church, it seems that clergy began to avoid bright and ostentatious colors, in part at least to differentiate themselves from the worldliness of other attires. Eventually, the more subdued look came to symbolize the simplicity which members of the Christian clergy were called to adopt. For a priest, then, the clothing he wears is a daily reminder of humility, of the call to live simply and pursue the virtues befitting the clerical office.
Looking at the liturgical colors of the church, we see also that black is the color reserved for funerals. This is because, throughout history, black came to be associated with mourning. The priest, therefore, wears black every day in order to symbolize the death to self which he underwent on the day of his ordination, heeding daily (we hope!) the call of Christ to “take up your cross and follow me” (cf. Mt 16:25). As a symbol of penitence and mourning, the daily attire of a priest is a reminder to him and to all who see him that the priest lives not for himself, but for a greater reality: life with God.
But lest you find the priestly garb morose, take note: The white of the Roman collar is also symbolic. White is the color of obedience; as a band that surrounds the neck, the collar becomes a sort of yoke, reminding the priest that he is yoked to Christ — a slave of the one who never calls us slaves, but friends — obedient to him and to the successors of his Apostles. In addition, if black represents death and mourning, then the color white signifies hope. The small square of white on the priest’s neck thus points us all to life, even in the midst of death — a reminder of the resurrection of Christ and the eternal life we all hope to gain as our heavenly reward.
Father Michael Friedel is parochial vicar at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Springfield, associate director for the Office of Vocations, and chaplain at Sacred Heart-Griffin High School.