Shades of Violet in Advent

And More on Orthodox Holy Oils

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ROME, DEC. 4, 2012 ( Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.

Q: The 2011 Paulist Press Ordo states: «The official color for the season of Advent is violet. In order to distinguish between this season and the specifically penitential season of Lent, the bluer hues of violet may be used during Advent. Light blue vestments, however, are not authorized for us in the United States.» The 2012 Paulist Press Ordo it states: «The official color for the season of Advent is violet or Roman purple. In order to distinguish between this season and the specifically penitential season of Lent, the brighter and redder hues of violet, not indigo hues, may be used during Advent. Blue vestments are not authorized for use in the United States.» Are these color suggestions (‘may be used’) the opinion of the editor (different from one year to the next) or is there some official documentation as to which is preferred? At our parish, we have always used the bluer hues of violet (royal purple) for Advent (darker days of expectation, Midnight Mass) and the redder hues of violet (Roman purple) for Lent (sacrificial aspect, Palm Sunday, Good Friday). — F.L., Rochester, New York

A: The different recommendations might be a cut-and-paste error from the previous year, a change in editorial opinion, or a subliminal advert to increase the sale of liturgical vestments.

With respect to the purpose of using different liturgical colors, the instruction Redemptionis Sacramentum, No. 121, says: «The purpose of using different colors is to express the specific character of the various mysteries. The use of the diverse colors is both pedagogical and symbolic of the various liturgical feasts and seasons.»

With respect to the above-mentioned color, the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, No. 346.d, says the following:

«d. Violet or purple is used in Advent and of Lent. It may also be worn in Offices and Masses for the Dead (cf. below).»

To this may be added the later clarifications from Redemptionis Sacramentum:

«[127.] A special faculty is given in the liturgical books for using sacred vestments that are festive or more noble on more solemn occasions, even if they are not of the color of the day. However, this faculty, which is specifically intended in reference to vestments made many years ago, with a view to preserving the Church’s patrimony, is improperly extended to innovations by which forms and colors are adopted according to the inclination of private individuals, with disregard for traditional practice, while the real sense of this norm is lost to the detriment of the tradition. On the occasion of a feast day, sacred vestments of a gold or silver color can be substituted as appropriate for others of various colors, but not for purple or black.»

The norms indicate the use of either violet or purple. Violet (violaceus) is a hue similar to that of the synonymous flower and is defined by the Collins dictionary as «any of a group of colors that vary in saturation but have the same purplish-blue hue. They lie at one end of the visible spectrum, next to blue» — actually, next to indigo — «approximate wavelength range 445-390 nanometers.»

Purple is a similar color and comprises «any of various colors with a hue lying between red and blue and often highly saturated; a non-spectral color.»

The liturgical norms make no preference for any particular shade of either color, and any and all of them may be used for liturgical vestments.

There is nothing in official norms requiring a distinction between the shades used in Advent and Lent — nor for funerals.

At the same time, there is nothing which would forbid or oppose such a distinction except perhaps asking why a parish should needlessly acquire two sets of purple vestments.

Likewise, one could legitimately ask whether there is any cultural basis to determine why one shade of purple or violet is somehow more penitential than another. It is probably possible to find good arguments both in pro and in contra of deep purple for Advent and lighter shades for Lent, or vice versa. In the end it probably boils down to personal taste.

The discussion could be prolonged: Should we use one tone of red vestments for the Holy Spirit and another for martyrs?

In conclusion, if a parish wishes to use different tones of violet for Advent and Lent, it is free to do so. However, there is nothing in liturgical law or custom to make this choice obligatory, nor even to suggest it as a recommendable practice.

If, over time, this practice spreads and becomes common, then it might acquire the force of custom and be enshrined in law. For the moment, freedom reigns.

Finally, perhaps our reader made a slight slip when he said: «At our parish, we have always used the bluer hues of violet (royal purple) for Advent (darker days of expectation, Midnight Mass) and the redder hues of violet (Roman purple) for Lent (sacrificial aspect, Palm Sunday, Good Friday).»

The proper color of Midnight Mass is white; that of Palm Sunday and Good Friday is red.

* * *

Follow-up: Use of Orthodox Holy Oils

Our Nov. 20 affirmation regarding the sacrament of the sick for prisoners mentioned that the Ecumenical Directory «allows Catholics in an emergency to validly and licitly receive the sacraments of penance, anointing of the sick, and Communion from an Orthodox priest. Thus if a Catholic prisoner needed these sacraments in an emergency, and the Catholic chaplain were not available, the Orthodox chaplain could attend him. In principle the reverse would also be true for an Orthodox prisoner and the Catholic chaplain. However, in this case the Catholic chaplain should verify the practice ahead of time with the Orthodox chaplain, since the laws regarding the sharing of sacraments may vary among different Churches.»

In response to that article, an Orthodox priest made the following reply: «The canonical Orthodox Churches are not in communion with the Church of Rome. So, though Rome may permit her members to receive communion, etc., from the Orthodox, we Orthodox clergy are not permitted to give communion to anyone but Orthodox Christians who have prepared themselves by prayer, fasting and confession. To suggest otherwise is misleading and disingenuous and may stir up the old criticisms that we have against Rome of trying to lure our people away.»

I am not sure if this is the policy of all Orthodox Churches. I do not believe that a Catholic priest’s spiritually assisting a gravely ill Orthodox person when his own minister is unavailable could be honestly construed as luring the faithful away.

Nor am I so sure that the Orthodox Churches have no equivalent to the last canon in the Code of Canon Law which reminds us that the salvation of souls is the Church’s supreme law.

Meanwhile, a Latin-rite military chaplain asked about the following situation: «My concern is the propensity of one of our Anglican ministers to use the blessed oils as he anoints the non-Catholic patients he sees. Although this minister considers himself Anglo-Catholic, he has not gone through the process of becoming a Roman Catholic priest. He respects the blessed species reserved in the tabernacle (in a separate Blessed Sacrament room). Don’t the blessed oils deserve the same respect?»

There is a great difference between the Blessed Sacrament and the holy oils. But the oils should also command respect because they are the proper matter for a sacrament.

The Church would not recognize the sacramental nature of the anointing performed by the Anglican minister as it does not officially recognize the validity of Anglican orders. Although the Anglican minister probably has the best of intentions, it would be best to suggest that he obtain oil elsewhere so as to avoid even the appearance of simulatio
n of a Catholic sacrament.

* * *

Readers may send questions to Please put the word «Liturgy» in the subject field. The text should include your initials, your city and your state, province or country. Father McNamara can only answer a small selection of the great number of questions that arrive.

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