Ministry of Sacristan

The History of the Ministry

Although the role of the modern sacristan developed from the teaching of the Second Vatican Council, that all members of the Church should: “be led to take that full, conscious, and active part in the liturgical celebrations which is demanded by the very nature of the liturgy … in the restoration and development of the sacred liturgy the full and active participation by all the people is the paramount concern” (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, 14) it can be argued that sacristans have been with us since the beginning. If the role of the sacristan is to prepare what is needed for the celebration of the Mass, and if the Last Supper was the first Mass, then the first sacristan was the person who arranged the cups and dishes on the table before Jesus and the disciples arrived.

Since the Second Vatican Council the role of the contemporary sacristan in the life of the parish has been an active one involving creative skill, liturgical knowledge, organisational abilities and diplomacy. The sacristan emerged from his/her domain, the sacristy – which had been seen as little more than a cross between a store area and a dressing room with the sacristan as its caretaker – to become a minister in his/her own right and a member of the liturgical team.

Now more than a keeper of candle wax, the sacristan became someone who knew the purpose and meaning of the liturgy as well as the needs of the liturgical assembly, giving the members the tools that they needed when they needed them and keeping a watchful eye on the house of God and the liturgical environment.

The Nature of the Ministry

As a sacristan, you will need to have a practical approach to everything that you do – and the duties will indeed be various and varied. The ministry is more about being Martha rather than Mary, a practical, hands-on service that requires organisational skills knowing not only what the Church uses in its various liturgies but also where these items are kept so that these can be organised and used to their fullest potential within the liturgical life of the parish. A sacristan works as a member of a team, not only with his/her fellow sacristans but also with the parish clergy, altar servers, lectors and extraordinary ministers, and through these developing relationships and the preparation for the various liturgies helping yourself and others develop their relationship with God.

I am interested in this ministry – what will it involve me doing?

As a sacristan, you will be asked to arrive at least twenty minutes before the start of Mass or other service and to prepare whatever may be needed for its celebration – a list and guide of what to prepare will be provided. The smooth celebration of any Mass will depend on everything being in place beforehand. As with the carrying out of all ministries, if done well, as the minister decreases, Jesus Christ increases and God is glorified in all that we do in His name. During the celebration of the Mass, if there is no altar server present, you will be asked to ring the bell at the consecration and to remain on hand after Mass to clear everything away.

A Sacristan’s Duties

The sacristan, always under the general direction of the clergy, undertakes the overall preparation of liturgical celebrations, including all that is needed for special days such as Ash Wednesday and Palm Sunday.

The sacristan thus arranges the books needed for the celebration, marking all of the divisions. He or she lays out the vestments and anything else needed for the celebration, such as cruets, chalices, ciboria, linens, oils, processional crosses, candles and torches.

He or she also takes care of the ringing of bells that announce the celebrations. The sacristan should ensure the observance of silence in the sacristy.

The sacristan in harmony with the pastor also makes sure that the vestments, church furnishings, liturgical vessels and decorative objects are kept in good condition and, if necessary, sent for gilding or repair.

Other practical indications apart from these official recommendations are that the sacristan ensures that the things necessary for worship are always available. There should be a ready supply of fresh hosts and of duly authorized wine, sufficient clean purificators, corporals, hand towels, incense and coals.

In this context, the sacristan is responsible for making sure that those who wash the altar linens do so according to the indications of the missal and that the water for the first wash is poured down the sacrarium or to the earth. The sacristan also takes care of burning old linens and other objects that are no longer suitable for liturgical use.

He or she also makes sure that the sanctuary lamp has sufficient oil, that the altar cloths are changed regularly, and that the holy water stoups are clean and replenished frequently.

The priest may also decide to entrust other responsibilities to the sacristan. This might include coordinating others who help with the general decor of the church, such as cleaners and flower arrangers. The sacristan might also maintain the practical dealings with external agents such as funeral directors and photographers so that proper decorum is maintained at all times.

In order to carry out these duties, the sacristan needs to have a fairly good idea of the content and norms of the principal liturgical books and an understanding of the intricacies of the liturgical calendar.

A good sacristan is a boon to any parish and, as the GIRM (General Instruction of the Roman Missal) says, the post fulfils a true liturgical function. As the Ceremonial of Bishops states: “The adornment and decor of a church should be such as to make the church a visible sign of love and reverence toward God” (No. 38).