April 4, 2005 — -- Pope John Paul II has been laid out on a red, velvet litter in St. Peter's Basilica for public viewing, dressed in white and crimson vestments and a pointed white hat. The procession of cardinals, bishops and clergymen following the litter through St. Peter's Square was a flurry of color, raising the question of what all these shades of red, gold and pink mean.
"It's more of a help for people to recognize them [the clergy] as well as a reflection of the type of celebration during the liturgical year," said Alan Schreck, professor of theology at Franciscan University of Steubenville in Ohio.
Colors serve to identify different levels in the church, and the color schemes also maintain consistency throughout the year for the many congregations from Paris, France, to Paris, Texas (i.e. purple used in Lent and Advent).
Color coding was not always as prevalent.
"Early on, church clothing was not so different from the dress of the people," said Schreck. The monks decided to wear drab brown and gray garments to show that they had chosen a life of devotion to prayer and penance.
"After this, some of the clergy began to see the value of differentiating themselves and adopted special clothing for identification purposes during the fourth century," he said.
So what do the colors mean?
White or Gold: Worn during Christmas and Easter, symbolizing the birth and resurrection of Jesus Christ. These colors are also worn during funerals because they symbolize life rather than mourning. These are the pope's colors since the pope is the closest representative of Christ in his glory.
Red: The color of blood and, therefore, of martyrdom. Worn on the feasts of martyrs as well as Palm Sunday, Pentecost, Good Friday and celebrations of Jesus Christ's passion.
"The pope currently dons a crimson outer-garment because it expresses the church's belief -- like the martyrs -- that he is a witness of the faith," said Stephen Miles, assistant professor of theology at Loyola College in Maryland.
The cardinals wear red because they are considered the closest advisers to the pope and therefore should be ready to shed their blood for the church and Christ.
Purple: Worn during the Advent and Lent seasons, purple reflects sorrow and suffering. Sorrow as the faithful await the arrival of the Savior and suffering to mark Jesus Christ's 40 days in the desert (Lent). The color also came to symbolize wealth, power and royalty because in antiquity purple dye was very expensive.
Pink: A special color worn only twice during the liturgical year. It represents a time of joy amid a period of penance and prayer.
Green: The default color for vestments representing hope of Christ's resurrection.
Blue: Symbol of the Virgin Mary. Usually worn on Mary's Feast day.
Black: Used in Masses for the dead as a sign of mourning. It is the color of clerical garb in everyday life.