Why Do Priests
By Fr. William P. Saunders
(From the issue of 11/6/03)
I have always
wondered, why do priests wear black? Also, the priests
in my parish wear cassocks quite often. Where does
the cassock come from?
— A reader in Alexandria
Over the centuries of the Church, clerics
have been required to wear a distinctive garb to identify
them as ordained clergy. Particular dioceses or national
bishops’ conferences in various countries have
established the norms for such clerical attire.
In the early Church, no distinctive
garb seems to have been worn, except of course liturgical
vestments, which in some cases were also worn outside
the celebration of sacraments. For instance, sometimes
bishops and priests wore the chasuble like regular clothing,
as did the deacons, the dalmatic.
By the sixth century, the clerics and
nobility retained the traditional Roman style of clothing
of a long tunic and cloak, whereas the male laity began
wearing a short tunic, breeches, and mantle — clothing
introduced by the barbarian tribes. Also at this time
(fifth-sixth century), the cassock as we know it originated
in France and was given the Latin name pillicia (or pelisse
in early French), meaning "skin" or "hide." The
name signifies that the long tunic was lined with fur
to provide the person with warmth, sorely needed in the
unheated stone churches, especially during the winter
season. However, others besides clerics wore these garments.
The use of the long tunic from neck
to feet also reflected a stress on modesty. From the
sixth century onward, many local synods passed regulations
forbidding clerics from wearing richly styled clothing,
tight or skimpy clothing, bright colors, and extravagant
ornaments and jewelry. The Council of Braga in Portugal
(572) was one of the first such synods to mandate that
clergy wear a tunic reaching to the feet. Responding
to reports of laxity in Britain, Pope John VIII (c. 875)
admonished the Archbishops of Canterbury and York to
insure their clergy wore proper attire, particularly
In the Middles Ages, the dress of clergy
began to be regulated by canon law with other specific
regulations passed by local synods. The Fourth Lateran
Council (1215) decreed that clerics must wear garments
closed in front and free from extravagance as to length,
such long flowing capes.
At about this time, the cassock became
the distinct garb of the clergy alone. The French name
soutane (derived from Medieval Latin/Early Italian sottana,
which means "beneath," referring to the fur
linings) was given. The English speaking people adopted
the word cassock, derived from the Early French casaque.
Eventually, the Church passed more stringent
regulations. Pope Sixtus V in 1589 proscribed penalties
for those clerics who did not wear the cassock (officially
called in Latin vestis talaris). Pope Urban VIII in 1624
mandated that a cincture should be worn with the cassock
and the cloak worn over the cassock be of the same length.
During the Pontificate of Clement XI, another decree
in 1708 allowed the wearing of a shorter cassock (technically
the frock coat, sort of like a Nehru jacket) for travel
purposes, especially riding horses. In 1725, Pope Benedict
XIII forbade clerics to wear civilian attire.
For the United States, the Third Plenary
Council of Baltimore (1884) promulgated regulations for
clerical attire as follows:
"We wish therefore and
enjoin that all keep the law of the Church, and that
when at home or when engaged in the sanctuary they
should always wear the cassock which is proper to the
clergy. When they go abroad for duty or relaxation,
or when upon a journey, they may use a shorter dress,
but still one that is black in color, and which reaches
to the knees, so as to distinguish it from lay costume.
We enjoin upon our priests as a matter of strict precept,
that both at home and abroad, and whether they are
residing in their own diocese or outside of it, they
should wear the roman collar."
In recent times, the regulations
have become more relaxed. While many priests wear the
traditional cassock for Mass, the distribution of Holy
Communion, or in performing other priestly duties around
the parish, a regular suit with clerical collar or a
clerical shirt have become common place, especially in
activities beyond the physical confines of the parish
or in daily duties.
The color of the ordinary Roman cassock
and clerical attire in general is black. For the regular
parish priest, the cassock is totally black. For cardinals,
the buttons, trim, and inside hem are scarlet silk; for
patriarchs, archbishops, bishops, protonotaries apostolic,
and prelates of honor, the buttons, trim and inside hem
are amaranth red; and for chaplains to the Holy Father,
purple. (For liturgical and public ceremonies of the
Church, cassocks are of one color: white for the Holy
Father; scarlet for Cardinals; purple for patriarchs,
archbishops, bishops, protonotaries apostolic, and prelates
of honor; and black for priests. In some dioceses, especially
in the tropics, permission is granted for cassocks to
be white, and then trimmed in the color designating the
status of the cleric.
The symbolism of the cassock is as follows:
The Roman collar symbolizes obedience; the sash or cincture
around the waist, chastity; and the color black, poverty.
Moreover, black is a color of mourning and death; for
the priest, the symbolism is dying to oneself to rise
and to serve the Lord as well as giving witness of the
Kingdom yet to come.
The Code of Canon Law still requires
"clerics are to wear suitable ecclesiastical
garb in accord with the norms issued by the conference
of bishops and in accord with legitimate local custom" (no.
In our very secular world, the wearing
of clerical garb continues to be a visible sign of belief
and of the consecration of one’s life to the service of
the Lord and His Church.
Fr. Saunders is pastor of Our Lady of
Hope Parish in Potomac Falls.