Excerpt: Preparing for Prayer

Posted by Jeffrey Pinyan at 1:26 PM

(This is the first in a series of excerpts on the sacred vestments of the priest. These excerpts will appear in the second volume on new translation, Praying the Mass: The Prayers of the Priest.)

 grew up in northern New Jersey, and my family attended Mass at the parish of St. Luke’s in Ho-Ho-Kus.  I was an altar boy there for several years, but it was only recently, while visiting the pastor, that I noticed a bronze plaque on the sacristy wall, above a sink.  The words on this plaque are Latin, but I was able to piece together its meaning based on a few cognates and a smattering of Latin vocabulary:
Da Domine virtutem manibus meis
ad abstergendum omnem maculam
ut sine pollutione mentis et
corporis valeam tibi servire
It means, “Give, O Lord, virtue to my hands, to be cleansed from all stain, that I might serve you without corruption of mind or body.”  These words are above the sacristy sink because they are the words of the traditional prayer spoken by the priest as he prepares to celebrate Mass:  they are the prayer during which he washes his hands.
While certain elements of Catholic worship are reminiscent or evocative of daily life, they are, at the same time, set apart from secular or profane associations:  they are consecrated for divine purposes, often by means of prayers and blessings.  So it is with the seemingly mundane (that is, “worldly”) chore of “getting dressed” for Mass.  The priest does not just wash his hands; he does not just toss on a clean alb and secure it with a rope; he does not just grab whatever stole and chasuble suits his mood.  Instead, the preparatory actions of the priest are accompanied by prayers which speak of a spiritual battle and a heavenly mystery unfolding here on earth in the life of the priest.
Why does the Church “dramatize” such preliminary activities?  The answer can be found on another sign on a sacristy wall in Emmitsburg, Maryland.  There, in the Basilica of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, the priest sees these words:  “Priest of God, celebrate this Mass as if it were your first Mass, your last Mass, your only Mass.”  This is a solemn reminder to the priest to be aware of the sacred mysteries dispensed at his hands and to pay attention.  Mass should not be celebrated casually, but with due reverence and devotion.  The sanctuary is not a stage for the priest, nor is the altar a prop.  The priest is not an entertainer and the Mass is not a show.  He is a minister of Christ, the High Priest, ordained to renew and offer, sacramentally, the once-and-for-all sacrifice of Christ.  The words in the sacristy of the Basilica, like the words in the sacristy in St. Luke’s church, are meant to remind the priest of this profound truth.