ASHING one’s hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds has been a constant encouragement in recent weeks. This guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has also been incorporated into many diocesan guidelines outlining the precautions ministers are to take before the celebration of the sacred liturgy.
This is, in a certain sense, a case of old things becoming new again, since the Church has a long history of requiring sacred ministers to wash their hands before entering into the liturgy.
To be clear, the priest and other ministers are not required to wash their hands before Mass by the present General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM). The GIRM does speak in a few places about the Lavabo handwashing that takes place during the offertory (see GIRM, nos. 76, 118, and 145). Nowhere, however, does it stipulate that there must be a handwashing before Mass begins.
The Ritus Servandus printed in the introductory pages of missals published before the Second Vatican Council, however, does require the priest to wash his hands prior to Mass (Ritus Servandus, I.1). This provision is thus still in force for the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite.
There is even a prayer to be said accompanying this ritual action. The text is this:
Da, Domine, virtutem manibus meis ad abstergendam omnem maculam: ut sine pollutione mentis et corporis valeam tibi servire.
Give strength to my hands, O Lord, unto the blotting out of all stain, that I might serve Thee without defilement of mind or body.
The reason for the guidance from the CDC is, of course, practical. But, as is so often the case, the Church’s reasons for encouraging a preparatory handwashing before Mass are both practical and more than practical.
Surely, it is fitting that the hands of priests, deacons, acolytes, etc. should be physically clean. Simple reverence demands that the hands that will touch the altar, the sacred vessels, even the Most Blessed Sacrament should be spotless.
Washing one’s hands to prepare for Mass, however, has more than practicality in its favor. It is, in fact, a ritual action. The GIRM beautifully describes the Lavabo during the offertory as “a rite in which the desire for interior purification finds expression” (GIRM, no. 76). Just as that handwashing within the Mass has both hygienic and ritual inspirations, so too the habit of washing one’s hands before serving the liturgy responds to both the physical and the metaphysical need for purification.
It was once common for sacristies to have the Da, Domine, virtutem prayer posted in the sacristy above the sink, as in this photograph.
Like silence in the sacristy—which the GIRM calls “a praiseworthy practice” (GIRM, no. 45)—offering this prayer while washing one’s hands helps to promote a devout and fervent disposition. There is nothing to stop priests and other ministers from reviving this practice of pre-Mass handwashing. This would be a perfectly legitimate and quite unobtrusive possibility for “mutual enrichment.”
IVE YEARS ago, I ran a series of blog posts on the vesting prayers to be said by priests preparing for Mass. Links to those articles are provided below, in case any of our readers may be inspired to learn more about them or to put them into private practice.
Vesting Prayers, Part 1 • Introduction
Vesting Prayers, Part 2 • The Hand Washing
Vesting Prayers, Part 3 • The Amice
Vesting Prayers, Part 4 • The Alb
Vesting Prayers, Part 5 • The Cincture
Vesting Prayers, Part 6 • The Maniple
Vesting Prayers, Part 7 • The Stole
Vesting Prayers, Part 8 • The Chasuble
Opinions by blog authors do not necessarily represent the views of Corpus Christi Watershed.