The Christian Church has developed a colour-code which, whilst not universal, can be used in priestly vestments and other decorations to set the theme of the liturgical season or the Feast being celebrated.
Sean Wright adds:
The original colour of Christian vestments was an ecru (creamy, unbleached linen) or white, unembellished with finery until well after legalization in 318. Before colourful, bejeweled robes the pontiff simply wore a finer, cleaner casula, pluvial or pænula – large cloaks worn as we wear overcoats. Various colours were eventually regulated in the West. Pope Innocent III (d. 1216) wrote of white, red, green and black as proper colours for Mass vestments, with occasional use of purple. After the Council of Trent (1545-63), Pope St Pius V (d. 1572) set the present liturgical colours as white, red, green, purple (or violet), black and occasional use of rose. In the East, liturgical garments are ordinarily gold in colour."
We are grateful to Sean for providing much of the foundation material for this page.
- Purple. in secular society has traditionally been reserved for royalty and majesty (due to the expense of the dye) and as such, is used for Advent and Lent. It is a sign of tribulation, penance and sorrow for sin. In the Sacraments of Reconciliation and Anointing of the Sick. a priest is garbed in a purple stole. During the season of Advent purple is the sign of expectation. It may also be worn for funeral Masses.
- Violet contains more red than purple and therefore more appropriate for Lent. The General Instructions for Mass impose red for the Mass of Passion (Palm) Sunday. More properly a red cope should be worn for the precession of the palms, violet or purple more fitting to be worn for the Mass when the note of joy at the remembrance of Christ's triumphant entry into Jerusalem is tempered by the reading of the Passion.
- Pink or Rose is an alternative (less sombre) colour to purple. Dusty Rose is a colour permitted for vestments worn at Mass twice a year; the 3rd Sunday of Advent (Gaudete Sunday) and the 4th Sunday of Lent (Latare Sunday). The use of rose dates at least to the time of Pope Innocent III (1198-1216) who mentions rose-coloured vestments in an apostolic letter.
- Red is another alternative to purple for the last week of Lent and for Pentecost Sunday. Red is also the colour of martyrdom, blood and fire, devotion and ardour, charity and the Sacred Heart. Red is the colour for the Mass of Passion (Palm) Sunday, Good Friday, all Masses of the Cross, the Mass of Pentecost and votive Masses for the Holy Spirit, perhaps most notably the Red Mass offered by bishops for the wellbeing of attorneys in their dioceses.
- White for Christmastide, Easter, Epiphany, Paschaltide, Trinity Sunday, Corpus Christi, all feasts of Christ outside of Passiontide, feasts of Mary and of all saints who were not martyrs. White is the colour of innocence and worn at baptisms, weddings and Holy Viaticum. White is often worn at funerals, where purple is probably more appropriate.
- Gold is a festive colour symbolizing gladness, faith and the resurrection of the just. In past ages, cloth of gold replaced white at Pontifical or Solemn High Masses of Christmas, Easter and other special occasions, celebration of the Sacraments outside of Lent (except Penance and Anointing). Gold may be substituted for all liturgical colours, except purple (violet) and black.
- Blue implies hope, contemplation and piety. It is almost invariably the colour of clothing worn by images of the Virgin Mary, since the colour of the sky is appropriate for the Queen of Heaven. Dioceses in Spain and some Marian shrines are allowed, by special indult of the Holy See, to use blue for Masses celebrating feasts of the Blessed Virgin. Anglicans wear blue for Advent, but the colour is not approved for general use in the Roman Catholic Church.
- Green is for general occasions and especially at Masses on "Sundays in Ordinary Time". It is the colour of nature and therefore the colour of life – the hope of life eternal.
- Black typifies liturgical mourning at the time of death. Black was formerly worn for the Good Friday liturgy, as well as for All Souls Day and at Requiem Masses. It remains an optional colour – with purple and white – for funeral Masses. The liturgical colour for sorrow would be a corrective especially at funerals at which the priest or deacon automatically canonizes the deceased before Rome gets a chance to make an official decree.
- Silver, symbolizing chastity and purity, is allowed in place of white only for occasions of more solemn liturgies. It is most appropriate for the feast days of the Blessed Virgin Mary as well as patronal feasts for churches and chapels named for saints or Solemn Masses of saints who are not martyrs.
These are Western conventions, used predominantly by Roman Catholic and Anglican churches; Orthodox Churches have a different coding system and many protestant churches have no convention at all
Formerly 'Extreme Unction'
Purple may be worn for funeral Masses of all but very young children under the age of seven, considered the age when children can tell the difference between right and wrong.
Formerly, white was the colour of vestments worn only at funeral Masses for very young children.
Called in the Lectionary 'Sundays of the Year', after Epiphany and Pentecost.