QUAERITUR: priestly handwashing before Mass

This came by e-mail:

Dear Father,
 
As always, thanks for all your work on your blog.
 
I had a question regarding the handwashing of the priest before Mass in the Extraordinary Form (and optionally in the Ordinary Form).
 
Does the priest use soap and water for the hand washing?  And does he do this in the sacrarium?  I have heard several different answers on both parts from different priests.

A good question.

This really should apply to the sacred ministers and even those who serve, I think, even before putting on the surplice, which had its accompanying prayer.

Many people know about the prayers a priest is to pray as he puts on his vestments for Holy Mass.  They are beautiful and highly significant.  Their loss as a regular part of priestly practice was a loss for priestly identity.  I am glad to see they are being recovered by many younger priests.

What many people don’t know, however, is that the priest and sacred ministers were always to wash their hands before vesting, while reciting a prayer, … which we can get to below.

Already in the ancient Church there was a firm understanding that the priest especially had to be properly disposed to celebrate Mass.  He had to have the correct intention, and mental and physical disposition.  The physical disposition included being clean. 

Lay people have to be properly disposed too.  They must be in the state of grace to receive Communion and they must have fasted.  Also, there is still a ritual "washing" with the sign of the Cross with holy water, which harks to the ancient washing of hands and feet at fountains outside the church.  I think we can view the Asperges in this light, as a matter of fact: there is a ritual cleansing of mind and body before Mass begins.  I digress…

The priest for centuries had a long series of prayers to recite even before vesting which he was to recite pro opportunitate.   Since Carolingian times, this usually included washing of hands before vesting.  There was sometimes even a ritual divesting of outer clothing, putting on special shoes, etc.  Also in medieaval times there was even a moment for combing the hair with its own prayer referring to the seven-fold gifts of the Holy Spirit!   When bishops wold comb their hair, a towel would be placed around his neck and the deacon would solemnly hand the comb to him.  Imagine that today….  In some places there was not only a washing of the hands but also the face, etc.
 
As I said, outward preparation was considered important. The hand-washing prayer above, however, seems to be later.  In any event, this practice and prayer made its way into the Roman Rite.

 

Here is the prayer priests of the Roman Rite are to recite when they wash their hands before vesting:

Da, Domine, virtutem manibus meis ad abstergendum omnem maculam ut sine pollutione mentis et corporis valeam tibi servire.

The word virtus can be "virtue", of course, but we can drill at it a bit.  Try this from the Lewis & Short Dictionary:  "manliness, manhood, i. e. the sum of all the corporeal or mental excellences of man, strength, vigor; bravery, courage; aptness, capacity; worth, excellence, virtue, etc."

I find this provocative.  Men should be doers and the work of saying Mass is truly "work" in the deepest sense.  Hands are deeply connected to work as would be, I think, his brow.

Virtus is by extenstion also "virtue" in the moral sense, as well as the skill for military prowess.  The next vesting prayer, for putting on the amice, also has a military overtone, taken from perhaps St. Paul’s imagery of armor.  The priest uses the amice as the "helmet of salvation" to drive sway the attacks of the enemy, the devil.

Going on, abstergeo is "to wipe away (any thing disagreeable, a passion, etc.), i. e. to drive away, expel, remove, banish".  Pollutio is "defilement, contamination, pollution".  It has, of course, not just a meaning of dirt or filth in the physical sense, but also in the moral sense.  Pollutio was the word usually used from the mediveal period onwards for the discharge of semen without sexual intercourse.  This application of pollutio is probably due to the writings of John Cassian (+435), who had some seriously dire things to say about … just about everything.  To make a long story short the prayer may have some overtone against masturbation (from manus and stuprare "to defile; to dishonor by unchastity, to debauch, deflour, ravish, stuprate).  We might want to think about the older version of the quite ancient hymn sung for Compline, Te lucis ante terminum which had this second verse:

Procul recedant somnia
Et noctium phantasmata,
Hostemque nostrum comprime,
Ne polluantur corpora.

I don’t want to push this too far, but I think there may be a layer of meaning of this in the prayer.

So, let’s get at this prayer:

 

OUR VERSION:
Give manly power to my hands, O Lord, in order to cleanse every stain, so that I may be able to serve you without defilement of mind and body.

 

Now to the question.

I don’t think soap would have to be used, but I think it is a good idea.  Why not actually wash your hands?  There is a practical dimension of keeping the vestments clean and the vessels free of oil from the hands. 

I remember many years ago when in Rome I lived with the rector of the Basilica of St. Cecilia and during that summer before seminary began I went every morning to serve Mass within the cloister of the Benedict nuns in the convent of St. Cecilia: yes, the place where the lambswool was worked, etc.  The rector, who was one of the papal masters of ceremony, very pointedly directed me to wash my hands at a marvelous lavabo in the cloister across from the door of the sacristy before entering and putting on my surplice.  There was soap, of course, and always fresh towels.  

Those days loaded me up with some fascinting anecdotes, which would only be digressions here.  So… I think soap is a good idea.  

And no, I don’t think the sacrarium really has anything to do with this washing.  It may be that in older churches the lavabos and sacraria are one and the same, such as perhaps in the sacristies of some old Roman churches, etc., but mostly I think they would not be.  There is no reason why the gray water from washing hands would have to go down the sacrarium.

Short questions.  Long answer.

But it is interesting to get at what the prayer really says.

 

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About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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15 Responses to QUAERITUR: priestly handwashing before Mass

  1. RichR says:

    Beautiful exposition, Fr. Z. Thank you for taking the time for this.

  2. Christopher Milton says:

    This is a wonderful prayer! Would I use it as I prepare to be an alter server?

  3. TNCath says:

    This serves as a wonderful reminder of the interior preparation a priest (and layman) should undergo before Mass begins. Unfortunately, many a priest couldn’t pray these prayers before Mass if he wanted to with all the socializing and visiting often going on in the sacristy before Mass, not to mention the constant chattering of people in the vestibule and often in the church itself. What we need is a return to respect for the sacred with silence before Mass where both the priest celebrant and communicants can adequately prepare their hearts and minds for the what is about to take place.

  4. Christopher: Of course… while washing hands before putting on the surplice.

  5. Guy Kogut says:

    It is spiritual depth and instructive material such as this that makes this blog worth visiting! Thank you Father!
    Spiritual manna and hearty instructional meat to fill the soul.

  6. Here’s a nice example at the Metropolitan Museum of an English ivory liturgical comb from around 1200:

    http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/ho/07/euwb/ho_1988.279.htm

  7. Matt Q says:

    TNCath wrote:

    “This serves as a wonderful reminder of the interior preparation a priest (and layman) should undergo before Mass begins. Unfortunately, many a priest couldn’t pray these prayers before Mass if he wanted to with all the socializing and visiting often going on in the sacristy before Mass, not to mention the constant chattering of people in the vestibule and often in the church itself. What we need is a return to respect for the sacred with silence before Mass where both the priest celebrant and communicants can adequately prepare their hearts and minds for the what is about to take place.”

    )(

    I was going to say just about the same thing. It is a form of aesthetical practice which conveys an attitude of heart. I always like reading about these bits of our history. The other side of this is that it was perhaps a socio-cultural practice from the days when people didn’t bathe daily. It was good to approach Mass cleanly physically as well as spiritually.

    My concern about these sorts of things today is that they don’t help those who are already prone to obsessive-compulsive behavior and lend themselves to scrupulosity. This washing ritual can be done properly and thoughtfully if it’s strung together as part of the whole package. A pre-Mass checklist is not helpful though when it’s not inherently part of the Mass itself. My opinion though.

  8. Michael: Cool! Thanks!

  9. This post is clearly worthy of a donation….so here goes!

  10. Flabellum says:

    A priest who is a hospital chaplain washes his hands many times a day when visiting patients. It does not seem too much to ensure that hands that are about to touch the Sacred Body of our Lord should be freshly washed.

  11. seminarian says:

    Dear Father, Or anyone who might know. What is the traditional prayer for vesting in the surplice? Is there any reason why it ought not be used now?
    Thanks

  12. Dear Fr. John,

    Thanks so much. Very well written and well done, excellent catecheses.

    In the Byzantine rite when served by a presbyter and a deacon, they both wash their hands following the vesting which is accompanied by prescribed prayers [not optional] and they recite a part of Psalm 25. When a bishop serves, he likewise washes his hands following the vesting which takes place in the centre of the nave before all the faithful. The protodeacon sings the vesting prayers. The bishop’s hands are washed by subdeacons, one holding the basin, another holding and pouring the water from the ewer, and another with the towel which is about 5-6 feet in length drapped over his shoulders. Once the bishop’s hands are washed, two subdeacons gracefully lift the towel over the shoulders of the third subdeacon and present it to the bishop. Many bishops also have the custom of signing themselves with the blessed water, and also sprinkling the people with it. Then the subdeacons kiss the bishop’s hands.

    This hand washing is repeated just before the Transfer of the Gifts [The Great Entrance] when the bishop stands in the arch of the Holy Doors facing the west.
    In the Ruthenian usage [Ukrainian rite] the first hand washing has no accompanying prayer. In the Vulgate usage the protodeacon recites part of Psalm 25, “I will wash my hands…in the congregations will I bless Thee, O Lord.” [This is the same section of Psalm 25 as when a presbyter serves.] At the Transfer of the Gifts in both the Ruthenian and the Vulgate usages the bishop says “soto voce”: “O Lord our God, who didst sanctify the streams of the Jordan by Thy saving manifestion: Do Thou now, also, send down the grace of Thy Holy Spirit, and bless this water, to the sanctification of all Thy people for blessed art Thou unto ages of ages.”

    Following the divesting, the bishop and also the deacon who made the ablutions of the vessels wash their hands. There are prayers to be said but the prayers are not specific to a handwashing.

  13. Hieromonk Gregory says:

    In the Russian recension, before the Bishop dons the Mitre, he is presented a comb in order to maintain proper episcopal decorum, that is that the hair is neat, since most Bishops have rather long hair.

  14. Caeremoniarius says:

    @seminarian:

    The prayer is “Indue me, Domine, novum hominem, qui secundum Deum creatus est in iustitia et sanctitate veritatis. Amen.” Why not say it?

  15. The washing before the celebrant begins vesting is a ritual cleansing and soap should not be useed any more than it would be at the Lavabo. In fact, in the EF if a bishop vests at the altar he does a Lavabo at teh altar steps or throne before being vested.

    The celebrant’s hands should already be clean in the practical sense before he begins. We mustn’t be afraid for a ritual to simply be a ritual. It’s strength lies in that. Remember in the latter part of the 1960’s when the notion that the vestments should actually look like clothes took hold. OUt went the fiddlebacks and iin came the floppy joes.

    In all of my years of serving Mass(Including for bishops) before VAtican II I never heard th suggestion that soap shouls be used for any of the Lavabos. When and actual cleaning was required the rubrics specified lemon juice or bread crumbs.