Reclaiming the Cloistral Hush of the Sacristy and Sacristy Ceremonial

Those seeking to create a more reverent and prayerful approach to the sacred liturgy often give great focus to the liturgy itself but a reverent and prayerful liturgy doesn't begin with the ringing of the bell at the beginning of Mass; it begins in the pews and in the sacristy before Mass even begins.
Wander in to many a sacristy today and you could be forgiven for thinking it is little more than the ecclesiastical equivalent of a locker room. It is not uncommon for the servers to be visiting or joking around, for laity to be coming in and out to catch up with the priest, for priests to be visiting with one another and so forth. Discussions surrounding sporting events, work, upcoming dinner engagements, the weather, or practical parish discussion abound. No doubt most of us have participated in this to one degree or another -- myself included -- and in a culture that is often devoid of silence this is hardly a surprise, it is rather a symptom.

Human nature being what it is, we cannot simply turn off one disposition and turn on another like a light switch and if the climate in the sacristy is one of socializing and camaraderie (good things within the right context) rather than mindfulness and prayer, this will hardly be conducive to proper preparation for either the priest or the servers -- and it is liable to seep into the liturgy itself.

By contrast, if you enter a traditional Roman sacristy you will find the following command and reminder prominently hung from the sacristy's walls:

S I L E N T I V M 

This single word is a powerful reminder that the sacristy is not a social place; rather, the sacristy is a place of prayerful preparation; it is an echo and extension of the liturgy itself. This 'echo' is something that we must regain, and it is not solely through this practice of silence that it will be regained, but also through associated ceremonial actions that traditionally take place there.

With that in mind, let's take a quick look at some things that could be done to reclaim our sacristies.

1. Post a 'Silentium' sign in the sacristy, catechize around it and begin to practice it

It all begins with silence so in the first instance I would recommend posting the aforementioned sign in your sacristy and -- importantly -- provide some catechesis around it. Set clear expectations and give the underlying reasons for this custom.

The sacristy of St. Peter's Basilica, Rome. (Source)


This sign should be placed inside the main part of the sacristy (though one could also be posted without of course). If you wish this to be taken seriously, the amount of effort you do or don't put into this signage will speak volumes about how important it really is or isn't. (i.e. Using your home or office printer and tacking your print-off onto the wall will have less effect than a sign proper.) My own recommendation then would be to get a sign properly made up that has some permanence to it. This should really be fairly simple and inexpensive to accomplish and examples abound on the internet if you want to look for some ideas.

Then, of course, you must actually pursue the practice. There is typically a reasonable progression in these things. In the sacristy outside of the Mass times, this matter of silence is obviously less strict. As the hour of Mass approaches however, the cloistral hush should begin to take a firmer hold, beginning at first with hushed tones and moving into near total silence and whispers once the clerics begin to vest. At this point as well, the servers should be at full attention; their serving role has now already begun by this point, even though the first bell of the Mass has yet to be rung.

Speaking of which, I would note also that the vesting prayers should be mounted in the sacristy in the place where the priest vests as well. Typically these are printed and framed.  Not only is this beneficial to the priest, but here again, all of these elements combine to set the tone of the sacristy. Prayers for altar servers have also been created by organizations like the Guild of St. Stephen and these could likewise be posted and that practice promoted amongst the servers by the priest or M.C..

2. Laying out the Vestments and Assisting in the Vesting

Another one of the rich traditions of the sacristy that not only constitutes an art in its own right, but which is also ceremonial in nature, is that of the laying out of the vestments in a particular order. This method has both a symbolic connotation (for example, forming an "IHS") and also a practical benefit: namely of assisting the priest in his act of vesting.

This is typically done by the servers (or sacristan) and in my experience the servers quite enjoy learning and participating in these ceremonial aspects. They become part of the art and knowledge of serving at the altar. What's more, these sorts of activities help to give them focus and maintain the appropriate disposition in the sacristy in preparation for Mass.

FSSP Lyon (Source)
Closely related to this, servers will also often assist the priest as he vests and prays the vesting prayers, helping him to get his alb on properly, ensuring that the vestments are on straight and the like.  In this regard there are similarities to be found here, loosely speaking, between this and the vesting of the bishop in the solemn pontifical Mass.  If you don't think all of this sets a particular tone in the sacristy, you would be mistaken.

3. The Sacristy Crucifix

One final piece I would mention is that of the cross of the final blessing. The crucifix is an important feature of any traditional sacristy and it should be prominent. Traditionally the priest and servers will bow to the cross as they prepare to leave the sacristy at the beginning of Mass, and they will also do so at the end of the Mass before they 'divest.' If your sacristy does not have a cross in it, make sure to add one, and also begin these customs of acknowledging the cross before and after Mass with the servers.  Something as simply as this helps to facilitate a more prayerful environment that flows to and from the sacred liturgy.

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The reality is that a great deal more could be said on this subject, but I hope that these three very simple suggestions might serve as a starting point for the process of re-shaping and re-claiming our sacristies.

Sacristy of Ss. Trinita Rome (Source)

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