washing of hands

Is the priest’s washing of hands before the Eucharistic Prayer merely symbolic?

I am an altar server. I regularly pour the water over the priests hands.

That part of the Mass is called the lavabo and I can assure you that it is symbolic.

The priest says quietly, “Lord, wash me from my iniquity and cleans me from my sins” as the server pours a small amount of water over his fingers. There is no soap. The priest does not scrub his hands. It is not physical washing. It is ordinary tap water in an ordinary pitcher and the priest dries his hands with an ordinary finger towel.

Sometimes a priest will grab the mouth of the pitcher and direct the flow of water himself onto only one hand. I had a priest a few months ago who did this because he had a band-aid on his finger and didn’t want to get it wet.

The lavabo is not intended to cleanse dirt or to kill germs. It is an extension of the Jewish ritual washing, the ritual washings which were adopted by the earliest Christians.


I’m wondering how you meant “symbolic”. It does have a symbolic element to it, but it also does clean the hands of the priest before he is going to be handling the Body and Blood of Christ. Everyone who is going to be handling God’s Body and Blood should wash/cleanse their hands at the bare minimum.

The lavabo is merely symbolic in the sense that is not really a good scrubbing or washing of the hands. The priest prepares himself to consecrate the Eucharist later in the Mass and this washing contributes to the fact that the priest is reminded of exactly Who he is going to handle later on with these very fingers.

Catholic Encyclopedia on Lavabo

This is from the Catholic Encyclopedia: “The principle of washing the hands before celebrating the holy Liturgy — at first an obvious practical precaution of cleanness, then interpreted also symbolically — occurs naturally in all rites.”

So it would seem not to be merely symbolic. And although the CE doesn’t address the “why” behind the practice, I would assume it does have to do with the sanctity of handling the Body of Christ.

So, my next question is, “Why is this required only of the celebrant/priest?”

1 Like

Yes, I agree but also I have seen priests blow their nose before the Lavabo so it incorporates a complete cleansing and respect for the people.

Because in most of the world there is only COTT allowed. The US has been allowed a dispensation for COTH.

I may be wrong, but there I think the symbolic action also has a connection with the Gospels, when Pontius Pilate washes his hands, symbolically saying that Jesus was innocent. As for why this is required only of the celebrant/priest, I believe you answered your own question with the assumption that it has to do with the sanctity of handling the Body and Blood of Christ. When a priest is ordained, his hands are anointed with the Chrism oil. The priest is the only one able to act in the person of Christ (in persona Christi) and offer the bread and wine for the celebration of the Eucharist.

No, this isn’t so. When we last covered this question, it was obvious from the reports of posters either from personal experience or from consulting websites of the various Bishops’ Conferences round the world that ‘only COTT allowed’ was very much the exception.

Pilate wasn’t so much saying Jesus was innocent as saying that he was not accepting any responsibility for what happened to Him. From there came the expression “washing one’s hands” of something. That’s not part of the Lavabo Rite which is a symbolic purification before offering the Sacrifice.

I have been an altar server at hundreds of Masses and have never seen a priest scrub. It is a few ounces of ordinary tap water poured over the priests hands or fingers. I have never seen a priest with visibly dirty hands.

There may have been a time when the lavabo was performed for the purpose of practical cleanliness (in addition to the symbolic meaning) but that was probably due to the lack of interior plumbing. Larger modern churches have bathrooms in the vestry where the priest can wash his hands. The “Obvious” practical precaution is not as obvious as it was when the original Catholic Encyclopedia was published (1907-1914). Hand washing is taught in kindergarden nowadays. There was a time when some people used to bathe only once each year.

It’s like the pall placed over the chalice. Its purpose was to keep the flies out of the Precious Blood. Churches have windows nowadays and flies are not as much of a problem as they were so the practical need for a pall has mostly disappeared.


FWIW, here is the full prayer (Psalm 25) with an interlinear translation

Lavabo inter innocentes manus meas:
I will wash among innocents hands my:

et circumdabo altare tuum, Domine:
and I will go around altar Your, Lord:

ut audiam vocem laudis,
that I may hear voice praising,

et enarrem universa mirabilia tua.
and I may tell all wonders Your.

Domine, dilexi decorem domus tuæ,
Lord, I have loved beauty of house Your,

et locum habitationis gloriæ tuæ.
and place of habitation of glory Your.

Ne perdas cum impiis, Deus, animam meam,
Do not take away with wicked, God, soul my,

et cum viris sanguinum vitam meam:
and with men of blood life my:

In quorum manibus iniquitates sunt:
In whose hands wicked things are:

dextera eorum repleta est muneribus.
right hand their is filled with gifts.

Ego autem in innocentia mea ingressus sum:
I however in innocence my I have walked:

redime me, et miserere mei.
redeem me, and have mercy on me.

Pes meus stetit in directo:
Foot my stood in direct way:

in ecclesiis benedicam te, Domine.
in churches I will bless You, Lord.

Gloria Patri, et Filio, et Spiritui Sancto.
Glory to Father, and to Son, and to Spirit Holy.

Sicut erat in principio, et nunc, et semper,
Just as it was in beginning, and now, and always,

et in sæcula sæculorum. Amen.
and in ages of ages. Amen.

Forgive my ignorance, what do these acronyms stand for?

Communion On The Tongue and Communion On/in The Hands, but I don’t see how it’s relevant here.

Does the lavabo ritual have a purpose, a function? Is it a mere precautionary measure toward cleanliness, like we might perform before any meal–or does it signify something deeper? If it signifies that the consecrated Host is, through transubstantiation, the Real Presence of the Body and Blood of Christ, then why would just anyone be allowed to handle it?

And if just anyone is allowed to handle it (as seems to be the case since Vatican II), how does this not throw doubt on the Church’s own belief in the Real Presence?

:thumbsup: I, too, have heard this.

Okay but the Lavabo would be in the Mass whether the congregation were able to receive or not.

There are actually two different hand-washings done by the priest. These two are being confused in this thread.

The first one is optional. It’s actually part of the (no longer required) vesting ritual done in the sacristy before the Mass begins. This one is a true hand-washing. If necessary, the priest should use soap, or scrub his hands. Some churches still have the prayer that accompanies this washing posted near the sink in the sacristy (not the sacrarium, the plain sink). Of course, if the priests hands are dirty, he should always wash them before Mass, ritual or not.

The second (if indeed there has been a first) is at the offertory. This one is mandatory. It’s a purely symbolic washing HOWEVER it can be a real washing if necessary. If the offerings are incensed, the washing occurs after the incensing, and that might be cause for a true hand-washing (or it might not).

Here’s a good (if brief) explanation that the lavabo at the offertory is indeed symbolic:

  1. Whether in the celebration of Mass the « Lavabo » rite can be omitted?

Resp.: In no way. For:

  1. Both the Institutio generalis (nn. 52; 106; 222) and the Ordo Missae (cum populo, n. 24; sine populo, n. 18) show the « Lavabo » to be one of the normative rites for the preparation of the gifts. It is a question, evidently, of one of the less important rites, but, nevertheless, one which should not be omitted on account of its significance, which is indicated as « a rite in which the internal desire for purification is expressed » (I. G., n. 52). In the course of their work, the « Consilium » had not a few discussions about the value and place of the « Lavabo », on keeping silence or on the text that should accompany it: but as regard to keeping it, they were all unanimous. Even if the action itself of washing the hands no longer has its practical scope since the middle ages, the symbolism of the same is clear and easily understood by all (cf. Const. on the Liturgy, n. 34). In all western liturgies, this rite is in use.

Note the date of 1970

There is no connection between the lavabo washing at the offertory and the hand-washing done by Pilate.

DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in these forums do not necessarily reflect those of Catholic Answers. For official apologetics resources please visit www.catholic.com.