Priests Wear Black – What Is the Origin of the Clerical Cassocks?

For millennia, clerics were supposed to wear unique attire to help them recognize as designated clergy. Several national bishops or dioceses’ conferences in various countries have set standards for clerical apparel.

Except for vestments that were occasionally worn outside of sacramental ceremonies, the early Church does not appear to have worn any distinctive clothing. Priests and Bishops, for example, and deacons, who wore the dalmatic, wore the chasuble as everyday clothing.

History of wearing black

Priests and the nobility wore the Roman tunic that was the tradition and cloak throughout the sixth century, while the male congregation began to wear a small tunic, pants, and mantle that had been introduced by barbarian tribes. Now, in the fifth-sixth century, the birth of the cassock took place, Latin title pillicia (AKA pelisse previously), which meant “hide” or “skin”. The title relates to the fact that the large tunic was usually fur-lined to offer warmth, which was especially vital during the entire winter season in the unheated stone cathedrals. Other than priests, anybody might wear this attire.

The large tunic, which covered the entire body from the neck to the feet, was designed with modesty in mind. Beginning in the sixth century, several local synods enacted regulations preventing clergy from wearing elaborately designed clothes, skimpy or tight garments, vibrant colors, and expensive ornaments (embellishments) and jeweler. The Council of Braga, which was in Portugal and also was the first synods to directive clergy to wear a tunic that stretched to their feet (572). In response to concerns in Britain of laxity, Pope John VIII (from; c. 875) admonished the Archbishops of Canterbury and York to ensure that their clergy wore proper attire, particularly long tunics.

In the Middle Ages, canon law began to oversee clerical dress, with individual synods imposing various specific restrictions. The 4th Council of Lateran mandated that clerics wear apparel that was closed in the front and devoid of extravagance in length, that was large flowing capes (1215).

Clerical cassocks as an identity 

The cassock slowly became the clergy’s unique dress about this time. The French word soutane (the word from Early Italian and Medieval Latin “sottana”, meaning “beneath”) was given to the linings of fur. English speakers borrowed the word cassock, which comes from the Ancient French casaque.

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More stringent sanctions were later adopted by the Church. Pope Sixtus V imposed punishments on clerics who refused to put on the cassock in 1589, (officially known as vestis talaris in Latin). Thereafter, Pope Urban VIII decreed in 1624 that the cassock was worn with a cincture and that the cloak to wear over clerical cassock be the same in length. Another decree published under Clement XI’s papacy in 1708 authorized the use of a smaller cassock (officially the coat-like frock, akin to a Nehru jacket) while travelling, particularly while riding over the horses. In 1726, Pope Benedict XIII made it illegal to put on civilian dress for clerics.

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Black Clerical Cassock as a Church Discipline 

In 1884, the 3rd Plenary Council of Baltimore took place, decreed for the United States, “We wish and instruct that everyone keep the church discipline in view, and that either at home and even at the time when busy in the sanctuary, they always must put on the clerical cassock which was suited for clergy.” When these people travel for enjoyment or duty, or when on the journey, they can wear a shorter costume that is black in color and reaches the knees to distinguish themselves from lay clothes. We make it a strict regulation for all of our priests to wear the Roman collar at all times, whether these people are at home or abroad, in their diocese or not.” In recent years, the restrictions have become increasingly lax. While most priests continue to put on traditional cassock, Holy Communion distribution, and other Holy duties of the priest around the parish, regular suits with clerical collars or clerical shirts have become more common, particularly in activities outside the parish’s physical confines or routine duties.

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The common Roman cassock, as well as clerical apparel in general, is black. The cassock of an ordinary parish priest is completely black. Cardinals have crimson scarlet silk buttons, inside hems, and trim; patriarchs, archbishops, bishops, prelates of honor, and proto-notaries apostolic have amaranth red buttons, trim, and inside hems; and Holy Father chaplains have purple buttons, trim, and inner hems. (Cassocks are one color for liturgical and public Church ceremonies: white for the Holy Father, scarlet for Cardinals, purple for archbishops, patriarchs, bishops, and prelates of honor, proto-notaries apostolic, and black for priests.) Some dioceses, particularly those in the tropics, allow cassocks to be only white and trimmed with the color representing the cleric’s dignity.

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The Collar of Roman represents obedience; the cincture or belt around the waist represents virginity; and the black color represents poverty. In addition, black is a color linked with death and mourning; for the priest, its symbolism implies oneself dying in order to serve and raise the Lord, as well as providing witness to the Kingdom that was about to thrive.

Last words

According to the Canon Law Code (#284), “clergy are to put on suitable clerical garb in conformity with the standards promulgated by the bishops’ conference and in accordance with authentic local tradition.” In our pretty secular globe, wearing clerical dress remains a conspicuous show of belief and commitment of one’s life to God’s service and Church.

The Shrine of Our Lady of Czestochowa, which has an icon of the Blessed Mother holding Jesus when he was an infant, had a major influence. The Polish people have loved this image since the 1300s, and have asked for our Blessed Mother’s maternal protection via her prayers, especially during difficult times. St. John Paul II’s devotion to Our Lady of Czestochowa was clear during his pontificate: on his first trip to Poland after being elected Pope in 1979, he visited the shrine of Our Lady of Czestochowa. “A summons to St. Peter’s Cathedral bears a clear and profound tie with this hallowed site, with this Shrine of immense hope: totus tuus (“I am all yours”), I had said so many times in prayer before this Image” (4 June 1979).


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