In the Roman Catholic Church, the colour a priest wears when celebrating Mass coincides with the liturgical colour of the season, the colours that the Church has specified for a particular period or day within the Church's calendar. The priest's outer robe -- the chasuble -- and supplemental vestments, such as the stole, mirror the colours that adorn the church. Currently, the Church designates black, green, red, purple and white for its liturgical calendar, with rose as an optional sixth colour. Each colour has retained some sort of symbolic meaning to the Church.
Black has long been the symbol of death. Within the Roman Catholic Church, black adorns church altars and priestly vestments during Masses offered for the dead. Some priests may elect to wear their black chasubles and matching supplemental garments during Good Friday in remembrance of Christ's suffering and death to atone for the sins of humankind. You will also see black chasubles on the Feast of All Souls honouring all the dead.
Red is the vestment and linen colour during Pentecost when Catholics believe the Holy Spirit descended upon the Apostles to nurture and aid them in their mission to spread God's Word to the world. Priests also don red vestments during Masses that honour the feasts of the Apostles and martyrs of the faith. To help Catholics recall the pain of Christ's suffering, Catholic churches exhibit red drapery while priests put on their red robes on Good Friday. Appropriately, red vestments accompany the Feast of the Holy Innocents, which commemorates the blameless deaths of the children King Herod killed during his search to eradicate the infant Jesus. The colour red identifies with blood and fire.
Purple represents a period of waiting or preparation in Church history. Priests wear violet chasubles during Advent, a period of between 21 and 28 days before Christmas when Catholics worldwide await the birth of Jesus. Another time of waiting in the Catholic Church occurs during the season of Lent where Roman Catholics prepare and make themselves worthy for the sacrifice of Jesus Christ's death on the cross as the ultimate penance for the sins of humanity. During Lent, Catholics all over the world fast, sacrifice and pray. Priests put on stoles -- not chasubles -- of violet when administering the Sacrament of Penance when a person receives forgiveness from his or her sins after confessing them privately to a priest. During the Sacrament of Extreme Unction -- also called Last Rites -- the priest again dons his violet stole while he spiritually prepares a dying person for the afterlife.
White hues symbolise a time of celebration and joy for the Church. Priests don chasubles of white to match church draperies and the white Easter lilies that line the altar during the Easter season. Priests don their white chasubles -- also a symbol of purity -- when celebrating feasts of the Virgin Mary such as the Assumption, when the faithful believe God conveys Christ's mother, body and soul to heaven. In addition, the Church honours feasts of the angels and non-martyred saints with white. Priests wear white vestments when presiding over funeral masses.
During Sundays and weekdays in which the Church acknowledges no feasts, priests wear their green chasubles. Historically, green represents a time of hope, as represented by healthy, growing plants and trees. Green vestments signify a time between liturgical seasons, called Ordinary Time on the Church calendar. The Church designates Ordinary Time as the period between the celebration of Christmas and the observance of Lent. You will see priests wearing green again from Easter until the start of Advent.
You see rose-coloured chasubles only two times during the liturgical year: on Gaudete Sunday and Laetare Sunday. Gaudete Sunday occurs on the third Sunday before Christmas during Advent. Laetare Sunday is the fourth Sunday before Easter. Rose, according to Church tradition, symbolises an anticipatory feeling toward significant events on the Church calendar; rose vestments and decorations are outward displays of the Church's anticipation of Christ's birth and His resurrection.