Monica, Mothers, and the Maniturgium

The Church today celebrates the feast of St. Monica – mother of the great Saint Augustine.  Many of us know the story of Monica – a devout woman who desired nothing more than to see her son converted to Catholic-Christianity.  Through her prayers, tears, and example Augustine as we all know eventually converted and is today one of the great saints of our Church.

I couldn’t help but think of Monica’s motherhood and her role in the life of her son.  Her story brought me to think of my own mother and by extension the mothers of priests everywhere.  The mother of a priest is a special person – she nurtures a vocation from the very beginning.  Just as our Lady nurtured our lord from the beginning so too does the mother of a priest nurture the vocation of her son.

Because of the role of the mother of a priest in her son’s vocation and formation the tradition of honoring her at the first mass of her son arose.  The newly ordained presents to his mother the maniturgium.  Msgr. Charles Pope Blogged on this topic a while back – he said the following:

 “What,” you may ask, “Is the maniturgium?” 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 maniturgium 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).

maniturgium 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 maniturgium is placed around the hands of the mother of a priest as she lies in the coffin.  When she arrives to the gates of heaven she is escorted directly to our Lord.  Our Lord says to the woman – “I have given you life, what have you given to me?”  She hands him the maniturgium and responds, “I have given you my son as a priest.”  At this Jesus grants her entry into paradise.

Photo thanks to Ed Casey – Presenting the manutergium to my mother during my first Mass

I presented to my own mother the maniturgium with which I wiped the Sacred Chrism from my hands during my ordination.  Before that I grasped a pair of wooden rosary beads so that the oil would soak in.  At my first Mass I presented those rosary beads to my only sister.  To my father I presented the stole with which I heard my first confession.

I write all this to simply say that a man does not become a priest on his own. His family accompanies him on the journey to the altar.  Monica accompanied Augustine to conversion and ultimately to sainthood by her prayers and tears and example.

It is often said that vocations don’t come from the clouds – they come from families.

It was that way for Augustine.  It was that way for this priest.

  • Maggie Goff

    Father, I am typing through tears. This was so moving. Thank you for sharing it with us. I also learned something new for which I thank you. I don’t know how I missed Monsignor Pope’s post back in June. I try to read everything he writes, as I do with you. Thank you again.

  • Christina

    This was really beautiful. :)

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  • Stefanie

    A loving post, Father — what a grateful son/brother you are to your family!
    I had hoped that my only son would one day be called to the priesthood. Perhaps if I had returned earlier to the Church, more fertile ground would have been in place for him. While I was busily rejecting the Church, my dad became my son’s first teacher about the Catholic faith and the Mass. My dad, however, has a jaundiced view of priests (although he does respect their office) — and that also influenced my son. When I finally returned to the Church (and later my husband was baptized), my son was nine. From that point forward, I really prayed for him to fall in love with God and to serve God as I was learning to do. God answered those prayers. Differently than I had ‘planned’, but still in a fruitful way.
    Using the good and faithful heart of my son, He gently introduced to my son a young serious girl who had a troubled family past. This girl was just beginning to explore the Bible and to embrace Christianity. Together, they shared their faith in Jesus. Together, they prayed the Our Father every night as their last words to each other. Together, they had nightly bible study. Slowly, this young girl started to realize that God was protecting her and loved her and wanted her to serve Him. The girl has a brilliant mind and thought perhaps God wanted her to be a medical researcher — perhaps she would be able to develop cures to diseases. Then, during college, as she began to volunteer at the local veteran’s hospital, she began to wonder if God was calling her to be a doctor for the poor…in particular, for poor children. This is the path she is pursuing.
    As for my son, he chose a different vocation than the priesthood — the vocation of Marriage — with this lovely young girl. Even though I did not ‘get’ the priest I had offered to God, I am blessed to know that my son is such a loving and devoted husband to his wife. After seven years of preparing, their Catholic wedding was last month, so they are new to their vocation, just as you are, Father!
    Now I pray for a grandson priest :)

  • Deacon Greg Kandra

    Recently, the mother of a priest in my parish died, and he mentioned that this custom had been discontinued by the time he was ordained (over 30 years ago). By coincidence, a lady in our parish had just donated a set of brand new purificators, with hand-sewn stitching. My pastor handed one to the priest and said, “Here. Use this.” He gratefully accepted and she was buried with that.

    Dcn. G.

  • Fr. Christopher M. Zelonis

    Fellow Father, a parishioner sent me this story via New Advent. I was ordained in 2003, when the manutergium thankfully seemed to be coming back into vogue. Maybe it had been for some time, but I wasn’t aware of it until around ’03. I gladly second the connection between priests and their families of origin. St. Monica’s feast was an opportunity to renew our gratitude for our mothers’ care. My mom attended “my” 12:10pm Mass, and I enjoy it when she meets the parishioners. Such encounters put flesh on their priests–that they don’t fall from the clouds, as you say. Ad multos annos!

  • mary

    That was really beautiful……

  • maureen

    Beautiful.. it brought tears to my eyes.