Liturgical colors hold special meanings for Lent, rest of year - Catholic Courier
A priest wearing purple liturgical vestments imposes ashes on a person’s forehead.

Father Sylvester Bioh distributes ashes at St. Lucy Church in Retsof Feb. 14. (Courier photo by Jeff Witherow)

Liturgical colors hold special meanings for Lent, rest of year

This Lent, you might notice a purple wave around your church — on the vestments of priests and deacons, areas of the altar, banners and even the clothing of fellow parishioners.

And if you attend a special liturgical event during the season, you might also notice a different principal color.

Liturgical colors are not selected arbitrarily, but instead signal specific meanings for certain seasons and occasions, according to Father Michael Witczak, associate professor of liturgical studies at Catholic University of America. He noted that the designation of liturgical colors goes back many centuries in Catholic Church history.

“The colors seemed to emerge out of people’s reflection on the meaning of the season,” said Father Witczak, who also is past president of the North American Academy of Liturgy.

It was during the papacy of Pope Innocent III — from 1198 to 1216 — that a pattern was first formed for the use of liturgical colors, he said, and that pattern was codified in the Roman Missal in 1570, following the Council of Trent.

Several colors are used for various church occasions

Father Witczak said purple or violet is appropriate during the season of Lent because it is associated with royalty — a nod to our Lenten focus on Christ the King. Yet echoing the purple robe Christ received from Pontius Pilate during his passion, the color also can signal Lenten repentance and penance for Jesus’ suffering.

Purple also is used during Advent and certain funeral Masses. “It’s a regal color, but also a somber color,” Father Witczak said.

According to the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, No. 346, these additional colors are designated for sacred vestments as indicated:

  • White — Used during the Christmas and Easter seasons; and for celebrations of the Lord (not including his passion), Mary, angels and saints who were not martyrs. White also can be used for funerals, baptisms, weddings and other festive occasions.
  • Red — Representing blood and fire, red is used on Palm Sunday; Good Friday; Pentecost Sunday: feasts and memorials of the apostles and evangelists; celebration of martyrs; and special celebrations of the Holy Spirit.
  • Green — Symbolizing life and hope, the color is used throughout ordinary time.
  • Rose — Used on the fourth Sunday of Lent (Laetare Sunday) and the third Sunday of Advent (Gaudete Sunday).
  • Black — Used for funeral services and at other offices and Masses for the dead.
  • Gold or silver — Permitted in the United States for more solemn occasions.

Culture and occasion may affect choice of liturgical colors

Father Witzcak noted that it’s possible to have multiple color options for liturgies on a given day. For example, he said that white, black or purple might be used for funerals.

He added the church also allows for color variations depending on culture and tradition. He pointed out that blue is a prevalent color in the Eastern Church and that Spanish-speaking cultures also favor blue because of their strong devotion to Mary.

The website of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops lists the appropriate colors for all 366 days of the 2024 Liturgical Calendar, which began Dec. 3, 2023, the first Sunday of Advent. The listing also notes the names and titles of the various liturgical days and the readings for each.

Father Witczak added that parishes often provide upcoming Mass schedules that indicate the associated liturgical colors. Armed with such knowledge, he said, parishioners may opt to represent the color for a season or occasion in their clothing at Mass, such as wearing purple during Lent or red on Pentecost Sunday.

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