In the beginning, before God spoke into the void, there was silence, the type of deeply fundamental silence that didn’t even have a counterpoint. After all, there was nothing yet created, nothing capable of making a noise. The pre-creation silence was sufficient in itself, containing the fullness of all that which was to be created. It was a sacred silence, a profound quiet cradled by the unspeakable presence of the divine. From that silence emerged the first word, and that Word, formed as it was on the very lips of God the Father, was powerful to create.
The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is a continuation of this creative emergence from silence, and it is no accident that there is silence in the heavens at the Crucifixion, the awful moment when new life pours from the wounded side of Christ. In the Mass, which is, of course, a participation in the Sacrifice of Christ, God speaks and the Eucharistic miracle is effected. God speaks and we are reborn.
The context of any spoken prayer, particularly the formal, collective prayer of the Church handed down to us, is the silence of the Cross. The words emerge from the silence and return to the silence. It is a strange and profound reality, this encounter with the Living God. Often, the only appropriate response to his presence is stillness and a holy quiet, as the prophet Zephanaiah says, “Be silent before the Sovereign Lord,” and Habakkuk says, “The Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth be silent before him.”
I am deeply grateful for the quietude of the Mass, for it reveals the meaning and purpose of our existence. At times, though, it weighs upon me in an uncomfortable manner. The silence is thick and awkward. It’s probably natural that this would be so. After all, the Mass is an epiphany that shines with a heavenly light so radiant that it blinds us. As fallible human beings, we are prone to draw back from this mystery. We allow it to drop from our hands because we lack the strength to hold on any longer. One day, on the other side of death, if we persevere, we will lift up our heads to gaze upon the fullness of the Beatific Vision. At that time, I imagine a profound and full silence will envelop us and we will be glad.
Quiet, Please—Grace At Work
In the meantime, this silence haunts us. So we talk. We fill up every waking moment with chatter. We fill every nook and cranny of the Mass with responses and songs and explanations. We try to make it more relevant and comfortable. This temptation to aimlessly speak spills over into a place that, perhaps, we mistakenly think of as a staging room for the Mass, a separate work space with a different character than the sanctuary. This space is the sacristy. Often considered to be backstage to the true action which takes place in the sanctuary, the sacristy is presumed to serve as a chatty set of bookends to our celebration of the Mass.
I’m as guilty of this as anyone. Sometimes, practicality requires that we would talk at least some in the sacristy. We should always keep in mind that parishes rarely run as smoothly as we would hope, so there are times when the organist is asking last-minute questions or the servers receiving last-minute instructions in the sacristy. Sometimes the priest has an important matter to discuss and has the best opportunity to talk to a server or sacristan right after Mass before they leave. There is, it seems to me, a place for some “business” talk in the sacristy. Further, I see no problem at all with greeting the servers and other clergy and in exercising basic politeness.
This practice of good manners is ideally minimized but tolerated to a certain degree; nevertheless, it is important to keep in mind that being in the sacristy is already to be immersed in the Mass. Many venerable old churches actually have altars in the sacristy, showing clearly that these spaces are not divorced from the liturgy but are intimately connected with the altar. If we would maintain a holy reverence in the Mass, it starts in the sacristy.
A Fitting Practice
The idea of keeping silence in the sacristy isn’t to legalistically shun speech, but rather it’s for the positive motivation of making space for prayer. There are specific sacristy prayers both before and after the Mass, which include reverencing the crucifix and a blessing for the servers. Aimless small-talk cannot be allowed to crowd out these devotions.
As a case in point, an important but oft overlooked sacristy-centered devotion is the vesting prayers. The sacred ministers pray these along with each specific vestment as they put it on. These prayers are found in the 1962 Missal, indicating they’re an integral part of the Mass and it is the mind of the Church that the ministers would not omit them. These prayers are not only meant for vesting before an extraordinary form Mass, as is made clear in a document from The Office for the Liturgical Celebrations of the Supreme Pontiff entitled, “Liturgical Vestments and the Vesting Prayers,” which says, “While it is possible to use different prayers, or simply to lift one’s mind up to God, nevertheless the texts of the vesting prayers are brief, precise in their language, inspired by a biblical spirituality and have been prayed for centuries by countless sacred ministers. These prayers thus recommend themselves still today for the preparation for the liturgical celebration, even for the liturgy according to the ordinary form of the Roman Rite.”
This is an important point. The vesting prayers recommended for use in the sacristy are not merely generic centering prayers or prayers of supplication but, while they provide an opportunity for recollection, they are more than that. They allude to the symbolic purpose of each article of clothing as the minister puts it on, and so allude to the sensible nature of the Mass and how each and every detail of how we pray, including what the priest wears, bears a symbolic meaning. Taking a closer look at these prayers reveals that meaning.
Clothing Articles of Faith
When the amice is put on, the minister prays, Impóne, Dómine, cápiti meo gáleam salútis, ad expugnándos diabólicos incúrsus./ “Place upon me, O Lord, the helmet of salvation, that I may overcome the assaults of the devil.” The amice may not look like a helmet, but this prayer alludes to its origin as an attached hood. Many priests, especially when wearing an appareled amice, first place it over their head before pushing it down.
The alb is accompanied by the words, Deálba me, Dómine, et munda cor meum; ut, in sánguine Agni dealbátus, gáudiis pérfruar sempitérnis./ “Purify me, O Lord, and cleanse my heart, so that, washed in the Blood of the Lamb, I may enjoy eternal bliss.” This is a direct reference to the vision of St. John’s Apocalypse in which he describes the saints in heaven wearing white robes that have been made “white in the blood of the Lamb.” It is, essentially, a plea on the part of the priest that his exterior would match his interior, that the man who would dress as a saint would be as pure as a saint.
Even the cincture has a prayer as it is tied around the waist: Præcínge me, Dómine, cíngulo puritátis, et exstíngue in lumbis meis humórem libídinis; ut maneat in me virtus continéntiæ et castitátis./ “Gird me, O Lord, with the cincture of purity, and quench in my heart the fire of concupiscence, that the virtue of continence and chastity may abide in me.” A priest is a mere man like other men, his heart a mixture of piety and sin. The cincture binds up the sinful desires and symbolically places the heart of the priest in a posture of purity before he ascends to the altar.
The maniple is perhaps the most mysterious of vestments—at least, it’s the one I field the most questions about from the laity. It goes on the left forearm along with the prayer, Mérear, Dómine, portáre manípulum fletus et dolóris; ut cum exsultatióne recípiam mercédem labóris./ “May I deserve, O Lord, to bear the maniple of weeping and sorrow, that I may receive the reward for my labors with rejoicing.” The prayer makes clear the connection between the maniple and a shackle. It is a sign of servitude and labor. This sign of “sorrow” becomes for the priest a sacred joy because his service is to Christ and his Church. The maniple is a required vestment in the Extraordinary Form. (Some argue that it has been suppressed in the Ordinary Form; The Office for the Liturgical Celebrations of the Supreme Pontiff says, “It fell into disuse in the years of the post-conciliar reform, even though it was never abrogated.”)
The next vestment is the stole, placed over the neck with these words: Redde mihi, Dómine, stolam immortalitátis, quam pérdidi in prævaricatióne primi paréntis: et, quamvis indígnus accédo ad tuum sacrum mystérium, mérear tamen gáudium sempitérnum./ “Restore unto me, O Lord, the stole of immortality, which was lost through the guilt of our first parents: and, although I am unworthy to approach Thy sacred Mysteries, nevertheless grant unto me eternal joy.” The stole is a symbol of the yoke of Christ and thus represents the weight of glory. It seems to me that crossing the stole is a good practice, as the cross makes clear that the path to immortality goes through the Cross alone.
Finally, the chasuble makes the concept of the yoke even more explicit: Dómine, qui dixísti: Jugum meam suáve est et onus meum leve: fac, ut istud portáre sic váleam, quod cónsequar tuam grátiam. Amen./ “O Lord, Who said, ‘My yoke is easy and My burden light’: grant that I may bear it well and follow after Thee with thanksgiving. Amen.” The chasuble evokes the joy and gratitude of the Mass, and the connection to the concept of thanksgiving shows its status as a Eucharistic garment.
Wear Christ Well
Parishioners often approach me and remark how edifying it is to see the care with which I follow the rubrics of the Mass. It’s a simple thing, really. I’m no hero for having the capacity to read the instructions and obey, and I’m sure any number of priests are doing the same. But these simple actions done with quiet dignity reveal the heart of the Mass. Throughout the Mass, the priest disciplines himself in subservience to those rubrics. He puts on the identity of Christ and serves as his icon. This discipline begins in the sacristy, where it is needed every bit as much as in the sanctuary. I must confess that the days in which I rush about in the sacristy before Mass are days in which I feel less attentive to the Mass than I ought to be.
The quietude of the sacristy is vital for priestly recollection during the Mass. It seems to me that making room for the vesting prayers in this way is essential to a vital connection being made between the prayerful disposition of the sacred ministers and the symbolic meaning of the vestments. This point we ought not overlook. A priest does not simply dress in an old-fashioned manner particular to the customs of the Church because it seems like the thing to do. It isn’t a game of old-fashioned make-believe. The priest dresses in the manner specified by the Church in order to clothe himself in Christ, to become a living image of our great High Priest. As in all Christian theology, the actions of the exterior are matched to the disposition of the heart. When I put on my vestments, I am preparing my heart for priestly duty. It’s only fitting that prayers would be uttered as this preparation takes place.
Out of the silence of the sacristy springs the vesting prayers, the specific words that the Church has given us to remind the sacred ministers that they are about to participate in the greatest mystery of our faith, that they are about to approach the altar of God and, faithfully reciting his very words from the first Mass, hold God in their hands.
Adoremus Bulletin for May 2021: Vol. XXVI, no. 6
Father Michael Rennier lives in St. Louis with his wife and children. A convert from Anglicanism with his family, he has an MDiv from Yale Divinity School and is a Catholic priest in the Archdiocese of St. Louis. He is associate editor at Dappled Things: A Quarterly of Ideas, Art & Faith, and a regular contributor at Aleteia.