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White as a Default Liturgical Color

Date: October 17, 2021
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.

Q: Everybody assumes that the default liturgical color is white. In other words, they say that the white color can be used for every Mass. For example, if you are traveling for a week and you are going to celebrate Mass in a hotel room, you only need to pack in your suitcase white ornaments, instead of packing the various liturgical colors needed for that week. Another example, in Masses with a big number of concelebrants, the majority of them wear white ornaments, regardless of the liturgical color of the day, if there are not enough ornaments of the liturgical color of the day for the concelebrants. I assume this is right, but I cannot find anything in the liturgical norms in this regard. Could you tell me if this assumption is right? If so, is there any liturgical law that approves this practice? -- D.A., Granada, Spain

A: A singular facet of liturgical law are those norms which everybody knows but which in fact do not exist. The rule that white is the default liturgical color is, at least in part, an example of this.

The principal rules regarding liturgical colors are found in the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM):

“346. Traditional usage should be retained for the colors of sacred vestments:

“a. White is used in the Offices and Masses during the Easter and Christmas seasons; also on Trinity Sunday, celebrations of the Lord (other than of his Passion), of the Blessed Virgin Mary, of the Holy Angels, and of Saints who were not Martyrs; on the Solemnities of All Saints (November 1) and of the Nativity of St John the Baptist (June 24); and on the Feasts of St John the Evangelist (December 27), of the Chair of St Peter (February 22), and of the Conversion of St Paul (January 25).

“White may also be worn in Offices and Masses for the dead in the dioceses of England and Wales [and in the USA and some other countries].

“b. Red is used on Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion and on Good Friday, on Pentecost Sunday, on celebrations of the Lord’s Passion, on the ‘birthday’ feasts of the Apostles and Evangelists, and on celebrations of martyred Saints.

“c. Green is used in the Offices and Masses of Ordinary Time.

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

“e. Black may be used, where it is the practice, in Masses for the Dead.

“f. Rose may be used, where it is the practice, on Gaudete Sunday (Third Sunday of Advent) and on Laetare Sunday (Fourth Sunday of Lent).

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

“Regarding liturgical colors, moreover, the Conference of Bishops may determine and propose to the Apostolic See adaptations suited to the needs and culture of peoples.”

Regarding concelebrations, the GIRM says:

“GIRM 209. In the vesting room or other suitable place, the concelebrants put on the sacred vestments they customarily wear when celebrating Mass individually. Should, however, a good reason arise, (e.g., a large number of concelebrants or a lack of vestments), concelebrants other than the principal celebrant may omit the chasuble and simply wear the stole over the alb.”

An official interpretation of these norms is found in the instruction Redemptionis Sacramentum:

“124. A faculty is given in the Roman Missal for the Priest concelebrants at Mass other than the principal concelebrant (who should always put on a chasuble of the prescribed color), for a just reason such as a large number of concelebrants or a lack of vestments, to omit ‘the chasuble, using the stole over the alb.’ Where a need of this kind can be foreseen, however, provision should be made for it insofar as possible. Out of necessity, the concelebrants other than the principal celebrant may even put on white chasubles. For the rest, the norms of the liturgical books are to be observed. …

“126. The abuse is reprobated whereby the sacred ministers celebrate Holy Mass or other rites without sacred vestments or with only a stole over the monastic cowl or the common habit of religious or ordinary clothes, contrary to the prescriptions of the liturgical books, even when there is only one minister participating. In order that such abuses be corrected as quickly as possible, Ordinaries should take care that in all churches and oratories subject to their jurisdiction there is present an adequate supply of liturgical vestments made in accordance with the norms.

“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 feast day, sacred vestments of a gold or silver color can be substituted as appropriate for others of various colors, but not for purple or black.”

Further elucidation of the norm that concelebrants other than the main celebrant may wear white chasubles is expressed in No. 14 of the “Guidelines for Large Concelebrations” issued in 2014 by the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments.

Therefore, with the exception of the specific norms allowing white to substitute other colors at concelebrations, there is nothing in the norms to indicate that white is the default liturgical color or that it may be used on any occasion. Rather the norms clearly mandate the habitual use of the traditional colors.

However, the norms for concelebration have probably contributed to the widely held presumption that this applies to individual priests as well in certain circumstances.

Unlike the practice of celebrating without any chasuble, the usage of substituting white for other colors in cases of objective need has not been officially reprobated. The presumption of its legitimacy has also been common for so many years that it could probably be considered as having acquired the status of a legitimate custom.

It is also very practical for traveling priests who may need to celebrate Mass outside of sacred space and should not be required to pack an extra suitcase just for chasubles.

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Readers may send questions to zenit.liturgy@gmail.com. Please put the word "Liturgy" in the subject field. The text should include your initials, your city, and your state, province, or country. Father McNamara can only answer a small selection of the great number of questions that arrive.

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