It has been a very exhausting but fulfilling weekend here in Washington. Yesterday saw the ordination of eight men to the priesthood for the Archdiocese. This took place at the Basilica. Then receptions, and today the first Masses and more receptions.
I was privileged to preach the First Mass of Fr. John Reutemann. It was a beautiful Mass. I was also pleased to see that he has kept a custom that had recently been lost in the western Church. He presented the manutergium to his mother.
“What,” you may ask, “Is the manutergium?” The manutergium (from the Latin manu+tergium = hand towel) was a long cloth that was wrapped around the hands of the newly ordained priest after the Bishop anointed his hands with the sacred Chrism (oil). The purpose was to prevent excess oil from dripping onto vestments or the floor during the remainder of the ordination rites. (In the picture to the right, the newly ordained priest has his hands wrapped with the manutergium).
The use of the manutergium was discontinued in the current Rite of Ordination. Currently, the newly ordained steps aside to a table after his hands are anointed and uses a purificator to wipe away any excess oil. While it is not technically called the manutergium nor is it exactly the same in design or usage, (for the hands are not wrapped by it), nevertheless this is still a cloth used to wipe away the excess Chrism (oil).
Manutergium redivivus! In recent years many newly ordained have carefully set aside these purificators in a bag with their name on it so that they may retain this purificator and present it to their mother. The same word has been retained for the cloth (manutergium).
According to tradition, the mother of a priest is to keep this precious cloth in a safe place. Upon her death this cloth is placed in her hand as her body lies in the casket. It serves as a reminder that one of her sons is a priest. She, according to tradition has this as a special glory, and is to present this manutergium to the Lord at her judgement. Although there is no free ticket to heaven, it is a special honor to have borne a son who became a priest. As I said, Fr. Reutemann presented his manutergium to his mother.
My own story – I also presented the manutergium to my mother 21 years ago. It was very rare in those days for a priest to do so, but I had read of this tradition and was taken by it. I carefully set aside the cloth I had used to wipe my hands in a bag with my name and asked a seminarian friend of mine who was serving the mass to “guard it with his life!” He did so and proudly handed it to me after the mass having acquitted well his sacred duty. At my first Mass I presented it to my mother.
Five years ago my mother died very suddenly. I wondered if we could find the manutergium in her effects. Sure enough there it was carefully stored in her dresser. I sadly but proudly placed it in her hands at the funeral home and she carried it to her grave. I wept as the casket was closed, but the last sight I had was of my mother carrying that maniturgia to present to the Lord. I pray the Lord well considered it as my mother appeared before him for the great judgment we must all face.
A beautiful tradition from the Lost Liturgies file. Magnificently, this tradition is reviving as many younger priests practice it in a new but similar way.
This video shows the anointing of the priest’s hands in the Current Rite of Ordination. As the Bishop anoints the hands of the priest he says: The Lord Jesus Christ, whom the Father anointed with the Holy Spirit, empower, guard and preserve you, that you may sanctify the Christian people and offer sacrifice to God.