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, 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 6 – "Ad stolam" (Prayer used for the stole)
"Redde mihi, Domine, stolam immortalitatis, quam perdidi in prævaricatione primi parentis: et, quamvis indignus accedo ad tuum sacrum mysterium, merear tamen gaudium sempiternum." ("Restore to me, O Lord, the robe of immortality, which was lost in the transgression of our first parents, and, inasmuch as I approach your Sacred Mysteries in an unworthy manner, nevertheless, may I be made deserving of eternal blessedness.")
The word "stole" is taken from Latin, which in turn is transliterated from the Greek. It means "robe." Today, for liturgical functions, it is a slender length of material which hangs around the neck and down the front, possibly overlaid left to right and right to left so as to signify a cross, and is used at Mass and in the administration of all the sacraments, not to mention at burials, during processions, at Benediction, and for the blessing of sacramentals. It's the priestly vestment par excellence. It is understood as a sign of holy orders, but for the ironic reason that the priest is seen to be first in line to be like everyone else, the first to say that he is the worst of all sinners, the first to rejoice in being humbly thankful to the Lord for being numbered – unworthy as he is – among the children of God.
Let's all just admit something: none of us is better than anyone else, not better than anyone who lived in the "dark ages" of the past, not better than anyone living in "less privileged" conditions than ourselves today, not better than the very "worst sinner" we can imagine, the rapist, the arsonist, the genocidal terrorist, the wife-beater, the one shoving drugs down the throats of children, the cop-killer, the road-rager, the extortionist, the liar, the parasite, the bully. We, of ourselves, are not better. We've all crucified the Son of the Living God with our sin. If the priest is special, conspicuous, it is only because he must, in donning the stole, be the example for us of the one who best confesses that, given the circumstances in life, he would be able to commit any and all sins. Anyone who thinks that he would be a saint without the grace of God no matter what his personal life-story might have been growing up is an arrogant fool, a cynic, a hypocrite – all sins which the priest must admit that he would also be ready to commit given the circumstances. As we will see below, the stole proclaims the priest to be, personally, the prodigal son in all his sin and starvation for fellowship with the pigs, but also in all his repentance and humble thanksgiving.
The father in the parable (Lk 15:11-32) had his prodigal son clothed in the first stole, the first robe, but not the first robe in the closet, nor the best robe simply due to textiles, color spectrum or lack of production imperfections. Just as we have set phrases in our culture that last through the centuries, such as "star-spangled banner," just so was the phrase "first robe" already cemented into the culture for many centuries when Jesus spoke this parable. "First" really was first – being worn as it was by Adam before original sin, a spiritual robe of light and immortality, of grace and friendship with God. In clothing his prodigal son in the "first robe," the father of the parable was forgiving him, making him again his son, again an integral part of the family.
When the priest wears this stole, he is not congratulating himself for being ordained, or flaunting some sort of power over others. Instead, he is shouting out that if he were to be without God's grace, he would be dissolute, living a life without salvation just like the prodigal son, out with the pigs, an outcast of society, despised and hated, and himself hating God and neighbor. He is saying that he would come up with a calculated plan to merely exist in the world on a scrap of bread from someone he once called his father even though he no longer had any hope of being his son. He is saying that he is overwhelmed at the goodness and kindness of Jesus, and so rejoices to be forgiven, to once again be a true son, that he abandons his conceited plans so as now to stand, unworthy as he has been, in the gleaming robe of immortality. He wants everyone to see Jesus' goodness and kindness provided to us in all the sacraments through the Sacrifice of the Mass.
One might think it is a bit of stretch to connect "the robe of immortality" of this prayer with the "first robe" in the parable of the prodigal son, however nice that would be. However, a glance at the commentary of the early Fathers of the Church on this parable reveals many references to the robe of immortality that was lost in the transgression of our first parents. Appropriately, this robe of newly received sanctifying grace mentioned in the parable is the origin of the baptismal robe. Yet, in preparing himself to offer the Sacred Mysteries, the priest still feels himself to be utterly unworthy, and rightly so. He is to act in the Person of Christ at the consecrations. In his anguish, he begs that he nevertheless "be made deserving of eternal blessedness." It's was God's choice, after all, that he was called to stand before everyone in this stole as the example of forgiven sin.
Wearing this stole at the Sacrifice of the Mass, the priest will rejoice to wear it while absolving sins, and will rejoice even more in taking the physical stole off so as to be the prodigal on his knees, receiving absolution of his own sins, gaining the spiritual robe of immortality. This prayer brings it all home to the banquet of the Last Supper put on by the prodigal's father, a great way to prepare for Holy Mass.
Father George David Byers is administrator of Holy Redeemer Parish in Andrews.