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Religion Library: Roman Catholicism


Written by: Cynthia Stewart

Color plays an important role in the world of Catholic symbolism. The colors of cloths draped on the altar, priests' vestments, and even stained glass windows have symbolic meanings. White and gold symbolize purity and light; black signifies mourning. Green stands for hope, red for the blood of the martyrs and for fire, and purple for penitence. Blue is traditionally associated with the Blessed Virgin Mary, although it is not an official liturgical color. The Church prescribes that vestments of a particular color be worn for each Mass on each day of the year. The prescribed color is determined based on the feast or holy day being celebrated and the liturgical season of the year.

The liturgical seasons are themselves an important display of Catholic symbolism. The Catholic year moves through seasons representing the most significant elements of the life of Jesus: his conception, birth, death, resurrection, and ascension into heaven. Many other moments of the life of Jesus, as well as remembrances of the lives of his mother Mary, the apostles and the saints, mark the Catholic year.

All of these symbolic actions and elements are, Catholics believe, supplemental to the greatest symbolic work of all: nature itself. Catholic theologians from Augustine onward have taught that God wrote the Book of Nature, along with the Book of Scripture, so that everyone would be able to read and learn the truth. Scripture is confined to the literate, but nature is a book that can be read by all, who will see in its round of birth, death, and resurrection the central story of all creation. Whatever symbolism the Church employs is but a tribute and reflection of the deeper symbolism that God has set forth in the world.  

Study Questions:
     1.    How has symbolism become embodied in ritual?
     2.    How is the history of Catholicism contained in Mass?
     3.    Describe a few examples of symbolism within the Catholic Church.
     4.    How did symbolism help parishioners overcome illiteracy?
     5.    Why is the liturgical calendar the most important display of Catholic symbolism?


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