The maniple is the most distinctively Roman of the liturgical vestments. It has no clear equivalent in the Eastern Churches, Catholic or separated. Alone among the garments of the Roman clergy it was not prefigured in the vestments of Aaron and his sons (Ex. 29:9). Our amice was foreshadowed by their linen cap; the girdle was worn then as now; our alb seems to correspond to their tunic; the stole, worn over both shoulders as a sign of authority was prefigured by the ephod; the breast-piece with the twelve precious stones seems to have foreshadowed the chasuble. Only the maniple lacks its forerunner.
The learned tell us that its origins lie in the practice of Romans of higher rank holding in their left hand or carrying on their left arm an ornamental handkerchief, to wipe their brow or give some signal. With some such precious cloth the consul would ceremoniously initiate the games. We may suppose that it was worn by the bishops, at least, from the earliest times: though extant evidence takes us back only fifteen hundred years.
From its original, practical use flowed naturally its symbolic meaning: the grace of God wiping away the least stains from the soul. All the sons of Adam who toil by the sweat of the brow accrue such stains, nor are the clergy an exception. When it has been duly blessed with the rather solemn blessing that the silken vestments of the Church receive, we may hold that such a grace is indeed given to the one who wears it with faith.
Hanging from the left arm of the priest it takes away the symmetry from his appearance. Does it thereby suggest the imperfection of all earthly liturgies, which considered in their outward, ritual aspect, must fail to attain the perfect harmony of heaven? Whether this be so or not, its weighting of the priest toward the left suggests the predominance in any noble life of labour over rest, endurance over fruition.
The Latin word manipulus is not restricted to this garment. It can denote anything designed to be taken in the hand, such as a bundle of hay or the pieces of metal once used by gymnasts to increase momentum as they leapt. Since the Romans in early days used a pole with a handful of straw tied to it as a military standard, manipulus came to denote the company of soldiers themselves or colloquially, any united band of men. Practitioners of living Latin use the word to refer to a team or squad of sportsmen.
In the 125th psalm of the Vulgate, manipulus means a sheaf gathered at the harvest. This psalm and the original purpose of the garment are fused in the dense and beautiful prayer that the celebrant, or deacon, or sub-deacon quietly recites as he puts it on: ‘May I merit, O Lord, to carry the maniple of weeping and sorrow so that with exultation I may receive the wages of my labour’ (Merear, Domine, portare manipulum fletus et doloris ut cum exsultatione accipiam mercedem laboris.) Here the maniple evokes both toil and harvest; he who prays thus as he vests is reminded of his dual ancestry, heir both of Judah and of Rome.
It is also par excellence the garment of the Sacrifice. All the other vestments may be worn outside Mass; even the chasuble, when Holy Communion is distributed afterwards. But the maniple is worn only for the great Action of the altar. By custom, it is put off when a priest interrupts his service of the altar to preach to his people.
Roman and sacrificial, how could it not become a target? ‘The maniple is no longer required’, said a decree of 1967. No explanation was given. And in the revolutionary fervour of the time, custom by itself was helpless. The new Missal of 1969 passed over it in silence. They were burnt, put into dustbins, pushed to the back of drawers, forgotten. A priest-acquaintance of mine used ironically to muse about proposing to the modernist, happily defunct, National Conference of Priests in England, the motion that ‘This conference believes that the use of the maniple was not forbidden by the Missal of Pope Paul VI, but merely made optional.’ But I think he never did.
Habent sua fata vestimenta. This simple band of cloth, worn almost unremarked in our churches and cathedrals for so long, possesses now as it were a halo of significance. It has become a symbol of those who would continue and edify, not interrupt and dismantle; of an integral Catholic spirit, undiluted and unbowed; of present exile and future restoration. Not without mystery sang the sacred seer, three thousand years ago: euntes ibant et flebant, mittentes semina sua; venientes autem venient cum exsultatione, portantes manipulos suos.