Liturgical Colors in Holy Week

Date: March 4, 2023
Author: Fr. Edward McNamara, LC

Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and sacramental theology and director of the Sacerdos Institute at the Pontifical Regina Apostolorum university.


Question: I have a query concerning the liturgical colors. The General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM) in No. 346.b says: "As regards the color of sacred vestments, traditional usage should be observed, namely: [...] b) The color red is used on Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion and on Friday of Holy Week (Good Friday), on Pentecost Sunday, on celebrations of the Lord’s Passion, on the ‘birthday’ feast days of Apostles and Evangelists, and on celebrations of Martyr Saints." However, the traditional usage since the time of Innocent III was to use black for Good Friday, as a vestige of the oldest usage where black was used during the entirety of both the penitential seasons (De sacro altaris mysterio I.64). By the time of the Tridentine Missal, violet had replaced black all across Lent and Advent, except on Good Friday, which is apparently why Palm Sunday's liturgical color was also previously violet instead of red. I would like to ask what prompted the change to the use of red for both solemnities? Also, is there a lawful precedent by which the celebrant may vest in black for Good Friday or violet for Palm Sunday, to observe the traditional usage as per GIRM 346? -- A.U., Phoenix, Arizona


Answer: Although our reader is correct about the overall practice of the liturgical colors before the current reforms, the expression “traditional usage” is somewhat elastic in the use of liturgical colors.


Regarding the purpose of liturgical colors, the 2004 instruction Redemptionis Sacramentum states:


“[121.] ‘The purpose of a variety of color of the sacred vestments is to give effective expression even outwardly to the specific character of the mysteries of faith being celebrated and to a sense of Christian life's passage through the course of the liturgical year.’ On the other hand, the variety of offices in the celebration of the Eucharist is shown outwardly by the diversity of sacred vestments. In fact, these ‘sacred vestments should also contribute to the beauty of the sacred action itself.’”


Historically, all sacred vestments appeared white until about the seventh century. As pointed out by our correspondent, in the time of Pope Innocent III (1198-1216), we had four principal colors (red, white, black, and green) and three secondary colors (yellow, rose, and purple).


But a common criterion for the use of the various colors is not found until around 1550, and was not formally defined in rubrics until 1570, in the reformed Missal under Pius V (1566-1572). Indeed, even after this period there were still many variations and particularities, and a complete standardization of colors in the Roman church was not attempted until the 19th century.


After the reforms of the Easter triduum by Pope Pius XII (1939-1958) between 1951-1955, the practice on Palm Sunday was to use red for the procession and change into violet for Mass. On Good Friday, the initial part of the service had black vestments, which were changed into violet for the rite of Holy Communion.


Since one of the criteria for the conciliar reform was that of overall simplification of the rites, using just one liturgical color per celebration was preferred. Likewise, although not formally abrogated, the use of black vestments for funerals was no longer prescribed, and they have mostly fallen out of use in favor of violet or white.


These factors probably led to the choice of red vestments being preferred due to their association with the Passion of the Lord in other liturgical contexts as well asred being also frequently associated with the themes of martyrdom, sacrifice, and fire.


This choice is not without historical precedent. There is ample evidence of the use of red vestments for both Palm Sunday and Good Friday in past times.


For example, a manuscript dated between 1100 and 1187 describing the practice of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem indicates the use of red on Good Friday. The same can be said for both Palm Sunday and Good Friday in 13th-century documents from Salisbury and Litchfield cathedrals in England and Marseilles in France.


The use of red in the context of the Passion is also attested by its being the color of the Mass of the Precious Blood. This feast has now been united to the celebration of Corpus Christi although it remains as a votive Mass in the present Roman Missal with red vestments.


It is logical that red vestments be used since the origin of this feast is more closely tied to Christ's passion. His blood is precious because it is the ransom he paid for the redemption of mankind.


This celebration apparently originated in 16th-century Spain. It was introduced into Rome by St. Gaspar del Bufalo (1786-1837), the founder of the Missionaries of the Precious Blood. It was extended to the entire Church by Pius IX in 1849. It changed date and liturgical ranking several times before being removed from the universal calendar as a separate feast in 1969.


The GIRM does not err, therefore, in attributing red as a “traditional usage” on Good Friday even though it is a novelty with respect to the previous missal, and changes, in part, the practice on Palm Sunday.


Could violet still be used on Palm Sunday and black on Good Friday?


The norms of the GIRM say:


“346. As regards the color of sacred vestments, traditional usage should be observed, namely: […]


“b) The color red is used on Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion and on Friday of Holy Week (Good Friday), on Pentecost Sunday, on celebrations of the Lord’s Passion, on the ‘birthday’ feast days of Apostles and Evangelists, and on celebrations of Martyr Saints …


“d) The color violet or purple is used in Advent and Lent. It may also be worn in Offices and Masses for the Dead.


“e) Besides the color violet, the colors white or black may be used at funeral services and at other Offices and Masses for the Dead in the Dioceses of the United States of America …


“g) On more solemn days, festive, that is, more precious, sacred vestments may be used even if not of the color of the day.


“h) The colors gold or silver may be worn on more solemn occasions in the Dioceses of the United States of America.”


No 346.g was officially interpreted in the instruction Redemptionis Sacramentum:


“[127.] A special faculty is given in the liturgical books for using sacred vestments that are festive or more noble on more solemn occasions, even if they are not of the color of the day. However, this faculty, which is specifically intended in reference to vestments made many years ago, with a view to preserving the Church’s patrimony, is improperly extended to innovations by which forms and colors are adopted according to the inclination of private individuals, with disregard for traditional practice, while the real sense of this norm is lost to the detriment of the tradition. On the occasion of a feastday, sacred vestments of a gold or silver color can be substituted as appropriate for others of various colors, but not for purple or black.”


While a literal interpretation of this norm would not exclude the use of an old and particularly prestigious black or violet vestment on Palm Sunday or Good Friday, it would not seem to be in the spirit of the current rules. Even if used, it would be because of the solemnity of the day and not to observe “traditional usage.”


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