Can a sister
be the sacristan
in a parish church?
Louis J. Tofari
From time to time, misinformed assertions on liturgical matters are bantered about. A recent example [c. 2014] is that a female religious should not be a sacristan in a parish church.
This erroneous assertion is actually not a new one, for a few years ago I had been asked to produce a
St. Therese of Lisieux (far right) performing sacristy duties with her fellow Carmelite Sisters
study to demonstrate the Church's authentic attitude through her history, practice and laws on this matter.
As this topic has arisen again, I believe this study should finally be published in order that Catholics everywhere may better appreciate and properly understand this important issue.
What is sacristan?
The word sacristan comes from the word sacristy itself derived from the Latin word sacer, meaning that which is sacred, or set apart. The sacristy is where the objects reserved for divine worship are generally kept. Thus the sacristan has the duty to maintain the sacred vessels and furnishings used in the liturgy—not just in the sacristy, but also in the sanctuary, and in the church in general.
These tasks can include the preparation of the ceremonial items before a function, as well as their care and maintenance outside divine services, such as keeping the sacred vessels polished, laundering the sacred linens, ensuring the vestments are in good repair, and ordering sanctuary items as required like candles, hosts, and wine.
Who is the sacristan?
Many of the sacristan’s duties were originally fulfilled by clerics, particularly by those ordained as porter (ostiarius), the lowest of the minor holy orders. In fact the Caeremoniale Episcoporum still calls for a priest to be the main sacristan in a cathedral or collegiate church. It is also interesting to note that the head papal sacristan is an archbishop.
While the office of sacristan was originally fulfilled by clerics, as in many other things, the Church eventually relaxed this practice and allowed it to be fulfilled in parish churches, semi-public and private oratories by laypeople, even women. As confirmed by Woywod’s Practical Commentary on the Code of Canon Law:
Are “those who have custody of the sacred furnishings” clerics exclusively, or does the phrase include laymen and religious, Sisters or lay brothers, who have charge of the sacristy? Writing before the promulgation of the Code , Wernz says that in the course of time the ancient rigor in the matter of touching the sacred vessels was relaxed, so that lay brothers and religious, Sisters and laymen acting as sacristans were permitted to touch the sacred vessels.[ff 57—2] Blat [ff 58—3] and Vermeersch-Creusen [ff 59—4] apply the above phrase also to lay sacristans.
Another interesting note on this point is from The Catholic Encyclopedia in its entry for “Sacristan”:
…The Council of Trent desired that, according to the old canons, clerics should hold such offices; but in most churches, on account of the difficulty or impossibility of obtaining clerics, laymen* perform many of the duties of the sacristan and under-sacristan. [*NB: as we shall see attested below, here the term laymen is being used in a gender-neutral manner to include both men and women like the word mankind.]
This relaxation could occur because a sacristan’s duties are not typically of a ceremonial nature, but of a practical one ex actu functionis (i.e., outside a liturgical function). There is also precedence for allowing laymen to fulfill duties that formerly belonged to clerics in minor holy orders, as commonly seen in every parish today:
bell ringers (porter)
cantor (or clerk) during various liturgical services (lector)
altar servers—and by application the liturgical schola (acolyte)
It should be further noted that some duties of the aforementioned minor holy orders, even though performed within the context of the liturgy, may be fulfilled also by women—because not all functions that take place during the ceremonies are liturgical offices per se. Examples include ringing the church bell for the consecration and in the absence of an altar server, making the responses or ringing the bells at Mass from outside the sanctuary’s perimeter. This application also relates to the sacristan’s tasks.
Also, because these duties often require the sacristan to be in the sanctuary, another important distinction must be considered. While women are not allowed in the sanctuary during the action of the Mass they may be within the sacred precincts for a ceremony that pertains to them—at which time the Mass action is temporarily paused. An example of this occurs during the Nuptial Mass for the exchange of the nuptial vows and reception of the two-part blessing, after which the spouses return to their places outside the sanctuary precincts. Another occasion is when a female religious makes her vows, is blessed or consecrated as a virgin which occurs near the altar. Certainly then, women may fulfill various sacristy duties within the sanctuary ex actu functionis (such as setting up the altar), and as we shall see below, no ecclesiastical discipline contradicts this view.
Church law permits
Regarding the legality of having women perform sacristy work, this is confirmed by the 1917 Code of Canon Law (Pars III, De Cultu Divino; Titulus XVIII, De sacra supellectili):
§1 Curandum ne calyx cum patena et ante lotionem purificatoria, pallae et corporalia, quae adhibita fuere in sacrificio Missae, tangantur, nisi a clericis vel ab iis qui eorum custodiam habent.
§2 Purificatoria, pallae et corporalia, in Missae sacrifice adhibita, ne tradantur lavanda laicis etiam religiosis, nisi prius abluta fuerint a clerico in maioribus ordinibus constituto; aqua autem primae lotionis mittatur in sacrarium vel, si hoc desit, in ignem.
Various commentators—both of ecclesiastical and liturgical law—further verify and elaborate on this canon dealing with the handling and care of sacred vessels. Here we provide a few pertinent citations to demonstrate that:
No positive law exists against the use of female sacristans—though certain restrictions apply (equally as well to non-clerical male sacristans).
No distinction is made between acting as a sacristan in a convent versus a parish church.
Care must be taken that the chalice and paten are not touched by others than clerics or by those who have their custody; the same rule applies to purificators, palls, and corporals which have been used in Holy Mass and are still to be washed. The purificators, palls, and corporals used in Holy Mass shall not be given to lay persons (even though they are religious) to be washed until they have first been washed by a cleric in major orders. A Practical Commentary on the Code of Canon Law; Woywood—as previously cited in ff 1.
* * * * *
Handling Sacred Vessels; p 286; 1): “...are touched only by clerics or by those who have charge of these things.” A Commentary on the New Code of the Canon Law; Rev. Charles Augustine Bachofen, O.S.B. (Herder, 1920). This is further elucidated on pp 287-288 and confirmed in his other work, Liturgical Law: A Handbook of the Roman Liturgy (Herder, 1921).
* * * * *
Touching a Chalice: “A consecrated chalice shall not be touched except by a cleric or by one placed in charge of it (c. 1306, 1). If the custodian is a lay person, it is at least becoming that, when possible and convenient, a veil should be used in handling it (Eph. Lit.: Liv, p. 148).” Matters Liturgical; Revs. Wuest-Mullaney-Barry (Pustet, 1956), p 152; 96. This repeated on p 157 regarding the paten.
* * * * *
Canon Regulations; Sacred Vessels, Utensils, Vestments; The Handling of Sacred Vessels. Canon 1306. Section 1: “[concerning the chalice, paten and their linens]...are touched only by clerics or by those who have charge of these things.” (...) “The laymen* may touch the ostensorium, ciborium, and custodia.” Church Property and Its Management; Rev. H.A. Frommelt (Bruce, 1936), p 81. [*NB: here again, laymen is being used in a gender-neutral sense.]
Women sacristans in history
Since time immemorial, cloistered women religious have functioned as sacristans in their convents—a recent famous example is Carmelite St. Therese of Lisieux. The position of sacristan was highly-esteemed by nuns for its privileged and intimate contact with the sacred vessels, linens, vestments and other liturgical items, and was spiritually compared to the Blessed Virgin Mary’s assistance to her Divine Son.
This practice naturally continued with the establishment of secular institutions of women religious, that is, sisters who were semi-active and not restricted exclusively to the cloister—such as the Daughters of Charity. Not entirely given to a contemplative life, these secular congregations of sisters were given tasks such as assisting in hospitals, charitable foundations, and schools, as well as various chores in parishes to assist the pastor—one of these of course, was acting as the sacristan.
Who appoints the sacristan?
As denoted by Canon 1302 in the Code of Canon Law, the pastor of a parish church has particular charge of the items used in the sacred liturgy, called the sacra supellex (the sacred materials):
Canon 1302: Custody of the Sacra Supellex; p 279: The pastors are responsible in a particular manner for the condition of the “sacra supellex”, which must not be left exclusively in the hands of laymen or even Sisters. The pastor may, or course, entrust his curate or assistant with this duty.[ff 29] [ff 29: Rit. Rom., I. c., n. 3.]. A Commentary on the New Code of the Canon Law; Rev. Charles Augustine Bachofen, O.S.B. (Herder, 1920).
And, he may delegate this charge to who he sees fit:
Sacred Places, Canon 1185, Personnel, pp 643-644: Appointment of Personnel. The sacristan, singers, organist, altar boys, sexton, grave diggers, and other subordinates, with due regard to lawful customs and agreements and to the authority of the Ordinary, are appointed, controlled, and dismissed exclusively by the rector of the church (c. 1185). Canon Law: A Text and Commentary, Revs. T. Lincoln Bouscaren, S.J. and Adam Ellis, S.J. (Bruce, 1961).
Thus it is within the pastor’s prerogative to appoint a female religious to serve as the parish church’s sacristan, particularly when this is already a well-establish practice—as is the case here in the United States.
It should be further noted that women—either individually or as part of an established parish altar sodality—are frequently engaged to assist with various duties that are actually integral to the sacristan’s, such as: laundering the various linens (including the purified corporals, palls and purificators), mending vestments, arranging flowers, as well as cleaning and decorating the church. So if one opposes religious sisters acting as sacristans, it must necessarily follow that the aforementioned practices must also be criticized, for they too are part and parcel to the sacristan’s office.
The Church’s ideal and actual implementation
There can be no dispute that the Church’s ideal is that the office of sacristan should be fulfilled by a cleric. Where this is not possible—as is typical in a parish situation—it is becoming that a layman (or resident male religious) fulfills this position. However, this may not always be possible or practical, thus the Church makes the further concession of allowing this role even to a woman.
This of course is most appropriate for female religious, who are the Spouses of Christ, and thus have an intimate relationship with those things pertaining to Him. There is also the pragmatic aspect of availability and consistency, both intrinsic characteristics of the religious life. Thus while perhaps a suitable layman may be available to act as a parish sacristan, the pastor may for various reasons decide to appoint a resident female religious instead—and as we have seen above, this is solely his prerogative.
Hence, with this array of evidence before us, there should be no opposition to a pastor appointing a female religious as the parish sacristan, for such a scenario has been sanctioned by the Church herself, not only in law, but also by immemorial practice.
1. A Practical Commentary on the Code of Canon Law, Rev. Stanislaus Woywood, O.F.M. (Herder, 1946); Volume II, Part III (Of Divine Worship), XVIII (Of Sacred Furnishings); The Handling of Sacred Furnishings, pp 82-83.
2. Jus Decretalium (ad usum praelectionium in scholis textus canonici sive juris decretalium), Rev. Franz X. Wernz, S.J., III (Rome—ex Typographia polyglotta S. C. de propaganda fide, 1907), n. 503, note 7.
3. Commentarium, III, n. 177.
4. Epitome, II, n. 635.
5. Robert Appleton Company (1913) and available online at NewAdvent.org.
6. A difference would be the sacristan—presumably a priest, but also possibly a minor cleric, religious brother, or even layman—during a Pontifical or Papal Mass who actually exercises a liturgical function (in actu functionis); for example, the praegustatio rite.
7. For example, during the Divine Office or the lessons on Good Friday and Easter Vigil, however, not during Mass.
8. E.g., the laity singing in the pews, or the songs rendered by a mixed choir.
9. Per the 1917 Code of Canon Law, canon 813, §2, the Sacred Congregation of Rites’ rescripts 2745-8 and 4015-6, and all rubricians that deal with this point.
10. The practice of situating the spouses (and their bridal party) in the sanctuary during the entire Mass is actually prohibited and thus an abuse; cf. The Ceremonies of the Roman Rite Described, Dr. Adrian Fortescue (St. Austin Press, 1996), p 377, ff 4 and 373, ff 5, and The Celebration of Mass: A Study of the Rubrics of the Roman Missal, Canon J.B. O’Connell (Bruce, 1964), p 73, ff 126.
11. Which is actually a subset of canon law; cf. The Celebration of Mass (ibid) concerning liturgical law, rubrics and rubricians, pp 19-32.
12. Another was St. Margaret Mary Alacoque, who for a time was not only an assistant sacristan, but wrote to her brother in June 1689 (letter #102) encouraging her sister and nieces in their role as sacristans:
The desire the Sacred Heart gives her of taking care of His chapel fills me great joy. I urge her not to spare herself. She, herself, and my dear nieces should always be sacristans there. She should consider herself very fortunate in this burden because she will be rewarded a hundredfold. The Letters of St. Margaret Mary Alacoque, Rev. Clarence Herbst, S.J. (reprinted by TAN Books, 2009).
There are altar societies in connection with most parish churches. The duties of members vary according to circumstances, in some instances including those which ordinarily fall within the sacristan's province, such as the vestments and altar vessels, making ready for the priest's Mass, and so on... Entry for "Sacristan" in The Catholic Encyclopedia (Robert Appleton Company, 1913).
14. Even in the Eastern Rites, which are usually stricter in regards to women’s roles in the Church, widows (showing the ancient Church’s predilection for this important rank) are engaged to make the hosts and after having received a special blessing from a bishop, to enter and clean the sanctuary.