When guests walk into the home of Herb and Theresa Waltz of Bismarck, North Dakota, immediately to their left is an unusual wall hanging. Two white cloths, one on top of the other, with spots yellowed by oil, are framed under glass. It may seem like an odd piece of décor, but to Theresa, it is a precious reminder that her two sons — her only two children — are Catholic priests.
The cloth, called a manutergium (from the Latin manu and tergium = hand towel), is used to soak up the chrism oil after the bishop anoints a new priest’s hands.
Priestly hands are holy.
The hands of the priest hold up the bread and wine when they are changed to the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ during the consecration of the Mass. Their hands also make the Sign of the Cross while absolving sins, anointing the sick and dying, baptizing, praying and serving their flocks in so many ways.
During the anointing, the bishop prays: “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.”
A Gift to Mothers
There is an old custom of presenting the manutergium to the priest’s mother, who keeps it throughout her lifetime and then is buried holding it in her hands. According to tradition, when she comes before Our Lord, he says to her: “I have given you life. What have you given to me?” She hands him the manutergium and responds, “I have given you my son as a priest.” At this, Jesus grants her entry into paradise.
It is understood, however, that this is a symbolic custom, and there is no free pass into heaven. It was lost for a time, but is making a comeback among young priests.
The Waltz Family
Father Joshua Waltz, the vocation director for the Bismarck Diocese in North Dakota and son to Theresa and Herb, explained in an interview with the Register that when he heard about the custom, he wanted to add even more symbolism for his mother.
Before his ordination in 2007, while on a pilgrimage to Lourdes, France, the site of apparitions to St. Bernadette Soubirous, inspiration struck. “I bought a small corporal [linen cloth that covers the altar] and then I immersed it with me into the baths,” he said. “I was giving it to my mother so I wanted the Mother of All Mothers to be a part of it.”
Father Joshua said that, in prayer, the words Jesus spoke to his mother while hanging on the cross kept coming to him: “Mother, behold your son.”
“When my mother looks at me celebrating Mass, she’s also looking at Christ, which happened at the ordination rite,” he said. “The corporal is where the sacrificial mystery of the re-presentation of the Crucifixion takes place and where Our Lady stood and received those words from Jesus.”
Father Joshua took the cloth with him to the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas and the North American College seminary in Rome. He found a little Italian grandmother to embroider the words: “Woman, behold your son” on it.
Father Justin Waltz, pastor of St. Leo’s Church in Minot, North Dakota, was ordained the following year. He also prayed about how to make his manutergium special for his mother. “I started wondering what it was like when my parents got married,” he said.
When he learned that his mother still had her wedding dress and did not plan to do anything with it, he got his grandmother to give it to him. Father Justin brought the entire dress back with him to seminary in Ohio at the Pontifical College Josephinum and asked sisters at a nearby convent to cut and hem a piece from it.
“It was symbolic of my parents’ marriage, and the fruit of that was two priests,” Father Justin said. “From the time my mother wore the wedding dress until the time she holds the manutergium in her hands and is buried with it, it’s a symbol that the sacrifices she made were of God and pleasing to him, and salvation has come through it.”
Theresa said the framed manutergia represent three generations to her. She and her mother and her grandmother used to pray the Rosary that there would be a priest in the family. Her mother lived to see the ordination of her two grandsons.
“I put a piece from both cloths in my mother’s hands when she died in 2008, so she was buried with them,” Theresa said. “When I look at them on the wall now, it reminds me of the ordinations and how deeply touching they were and that, hopefully, we will all be together in heaven one day.”
Two Other Stories
Msgr. Charles Pope, an author, dean and pastor in the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., as well as Register blogger, has written about this custom and shared his own story of presenting the manutergium to his mother 28 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,” he explained.
When his mother died unexpectedly, Msgr. Pope found the manutergium stored in her dresser. “I sadly but proudly placed it in her hands at the funeral home, and she carried it to her grave,” he said. “I wept as the casket was closed, but the last sight I had was of my mother carrying that manutergium to present to the Lord.”
Father David Simonetti, associate pastor at St. James Catholic Church in Sauk Village, Illinois, and maker of Communio pasta sauces for charitable causes, presented a specially embroidered manutergium to his mother, JoAnn, upon his ordination in 2005.
At his first Mass, Father Simonetti said he felt his three mothers converging for the glory of God: his earthly mother, JoAnn, who gave him life and nurtured him; his mother the Church, who gives him supernatural life through the sacraments; and his heavenly mother, the Blessed Virgin Mary.
“The manutergium is quite sacred and special,” he said. “It is reminiscent of a child being clothed in the white garment of grace at baptism; the woman’s son is now being wrapped once again more deeply into the death of Christ to rise configured to him as a priest.”
Patti Armstrong writes from North Dakota.