Why do priests wear black?

Fr Andrzej Przybylski

I have read in some biblical dictionary that black is the colour of sorrow and mourning whereas white symbolizes joy and purity. Now I am wondering where the custom of wearing black cassocks comes from? Why do priests wear cassocks and why are they black, which is not the colour of joy and hope?

The day when I received a priestly dress was a unique event for me. Although I did not become a priest then (actually we received cassocks at our III year of studies in the seminary), we belonged to clergy in the eyes of the world and people. It was a marvellous day! Some people began greeting Christ when they saw me, and they began sharing their problems. Thanks to the cassock I became a visible sign of a special belonging to God. Therefore, I support the defenders of clerical clothing and although I know that it is not true that 'clothes make the man' I miss the times when wearing a cassock was a normal and daily habit. I like wearing my cassock very much.
Naturally, in the first centuries of Christianity (for over four centuries) priests wore the same clothes as ordinary people. The tunics were normal clothes. When it was fashionable to wear shorter robes some priests kept tunics, and thus they stood out from other people. The Synod of Braga, AD 572, ordered priests to wear different clothes when they went out. The tradition of wearing cassocks was established over a very long period. At the turn of the 15th and the 16th centuries there was a custom of wearing robes called 'rvrend' (the word derives from Romance languages). In those times men used to wear robes, especially the gentry liked wearing long dresses: the zupan (a long coat lined with cloth of gold) and the kontusz (an overcoat with split sleeves) and belts. The clerical clothing was established in the 17th and the 18th centuries. The colour of the cassock was connected with the hierarchy of clergy, which has remained up till now: the pope wears a white cassock, cardinals wear red (scarlet) ones, bishops wear amaranth red ones and priests wear black ones. You are right that black is associated with sorrow but in the case of priestly robe this colour has another symbolic meaning. A black cassock is to remind a priest that he 'dies to the world' every day and immerses in eternity. Blackness also symbolizes giving up bright colours and thus giving up what the world brings, its glittering, honours and entertainment.
The clerical collar is an important item of clerical clothing. Our students used to ask me: why is this white belt on you neck called a clerical collar although it is not colourful (in Polish 'koloratka' means colourful)? The word derives from Latin collare meaning a collar (also called a dog collar). A white collar on a priest's neck should remind him of a ring and collar - his marriage to Christ and to the Church and giving his freedom to Christ, thus letting him control his life. We, priests, wear a collar because we want to be directed by Christ in all things. Please notice that our collars are white as opposed to our cassocks. In the background of a black robe it is a symbol of the light of resurrection. We go through the world giving up baubles and colours, living the hope of participation in the brightness of resurrection. This white collar in the background of our black dress is actually a sign of our desires and aspirations.
See how meaningful our robes are and therefore I am sad to see that priests wear cassocks less and less frequently since a cassock itself has proclaimed the most important truths of our faith. And by the way, we, priests, wear trousers under the cassock and it is not a rule that every cassock has 33 buttons.

"Niedziela" 39/2006

Editor: Tygodnik Katolicki "Niedziela", ul. 3 Maja 12, 42-200 Czestochowa, Polska
Editor-in-chief: Fr Jaroslaw Grabowski • E-mail: redakcja@niedziela.pl