While it is no longer the practice for all priests to offer prayers while vesting for Mass, many do offer these "vesting prayers." The prayers are a good occasion for them to be enriched with a profound humility and willing availability to act in the very Person of Christ at the Holy Sacrifice. In this series over the coming weeks, we look at each vesting prayer and its corresponding vestment, as an intimate insight into the spiritual lives of priests at their most vulnerable moment every day, helping all the rest of us also to understand just who we are before God and neighbor.
PRAYER 1 – "Cum lavat manus" (Washing of hands)
"Da, Domine, virtutem manibus meis ad abstergendam omnem maculam ut sine pollutione mentis et corporis valeam tibi servire." ("Give strength to my hands, Lord, unto the wiping away of all stain, so that without filthiness of mind and body I may be able to serve Thee.")
There are many sacristies in the older churches of the Diocese of Charlotte and right around the world in which you will be able to see a sign hanging over the sink with the words of the prayer above. There is, in fact, a prayer for the washing of hands just before the priest begins to put on his vestments for Mass. The bluntness of the prayer is most appropriate.
This prayer is not asking the Lord for strength that we priests might wipe away any stain. The intent of the syntax here is that it is the Lord, in providing His own strength, who will Himself wipe away all stain. It is our Lord's action which enables the priest to serve Him without filthiness of mind and body.
The inescapable implication is that, for all priests without exception, there will indeed be plenty of filthiness of mind and body if we are without the grace of the Lord. This is, of course, true for all of us. It is refreshing to see an openness to growing in this humility in the priest who will be acting in the very Person of Christ during the consecrations at Mass. Instead of making the priest non-credible, we are happy to see him receiving the instruction inherent in this prayer.
Hands are mentioned in particular since hands are what we use to do something. We've all crucified the Son of the living God with our sins. That affects our minds and rots our bodies to death. We priests, in all our sin and impurity of intention or any other kind of stain of sin, are utterly unworthy to offer the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass in the Person of Christ, for He is all holy, all good.
This prayer is a confession of sin, offered with running water. This brings to mind what our baptism (cleansing) is all about, what our Lord's baptism is all about. Our baptism is much like that offered by St. John the Baptist, which was unto the remission of sin. People went down under the waters confessing their sins, telling God that they deserved death for having enslaved each other in sin, and deserved death by drowning more than the horsemen and charioteers of Pharaoh deserved death in the Red Sea at the Exodus for having enslaved the children of Abraham. Humble repentance at this baptism of John would be met with the grace of the Lord, who called them to repentance. Our own baptisms were a step beyond John's baptism, being also a sacrament, calling on the grace of the Lord Jesus of the Most Holy Trinity directly.
When Jesus submitted to the baptism of John, He wasn't saying that He was a sinner, that He perceived Himself as a sinner, that He wanted to be perceived as a sinner, or that He just did this because everyone else was doing it. Rather, Jesus went down into the waters to say to His heavenly Father that He wanted to be treated as if He were the worst sinner ever, the one who enslaved all of us in sin, from Adam until the end of time, though in all actuality He remained entirely innocent. Jesus was begging His Father that He might take on the death we deserve because of sin, thus having the vicarious right in all justice to have mercy on us from the cross: Father, forgive them!
All of this is what the priest calls to mind as he washes his hands and says this prayer. What a great way to prepare for the offering of the Sacred Mysteries. The Lord's grace makes us, who are otherwise lost to filthiness, worthy to act in His Person, saying: This is my body, given for you in sacrifice, my blood poured out for you in sacrifice...
Padre Pio's vision comes to mind. As he was exiting the sacristy and entering the sanctuary to offer Holy Mass, the Lord showed him all the priests who at that moment were offering Holy Mass and were unworthy to do so, filthy in every way. He was terribly frightened, stopping dead in his tracks. Would that we would have the purity of mind and the agility of soul to see what our Lord Himself saw from the cross in drawing us to Himself. Would that we priests and bishops would help each other and pray for each other, in all our fragility, so that we might know the majestic gift that we've been given with our ordination. Pray for priests!
Father George David Byers is the administrator of Holy Redeemer Parish in Andrews.