Should we hold hands and/or hold our hands up while praying in Mass?

In order to answer this question with clarity, there is much in the way of information about The Mass involving the postures and gestures of the participants that are interesting to review.  Let’s start with the Mass.  THE HOLY SACRIFICE OF THE MASS. It has gone by many names over the centuries: the Breaking of the Bread, the Eucharist, the Divine Liturgy, the Unbloody Sacrifice, the Mystical Supper of the Lamb, and many more. Any title falls short of capturing what is the “source and summit” of Christian faith. And yet, every title contributes to deepening our entry into this greatest Mystery of our faith.

The Mass: this simplest title most likely derives from the sending forth in Latin: Ite MISSA est (“Go forth, the Mass is ended”; or, more literally, “Go, She (the Church) has been sent”). The Mass is our greatest prayer because it is the prayer of Christ in his Paschal Mystery, in his supreme response to the Father, which includes his own “going forth” to the right hand of God. The ritual that clothes the Mass both invites and disposes the baptized to join in Christ’s response of offering, sacrifice, blessing and praise.

In the celebration of Mass we raise our hearts, minds and voices to God, but we are creatures composed of body as well as spirit and so our prayer is not confined to our minds, hearts and voices, but is expressed by our bodies as well. When our bodies participate in our prayer we pray with our whole person, as the embodied spirits God created us to be, and this engagement of our entire being in prayer helps us to pray with greater attention.  The General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM #96) provides the following instruction in its section regarding the Duties of the People of God: Indeed they form one body, whether by hearing the word of God, or by joining in the prayers and singing, or above all by the common offering of the Sacrifice and by a common partaking at the Lord’s table.  This unity is beautifully apparent from the gestures and postures observed in common by the faithful.

During Mass we assume different postures: standing, kneeling, sitting, and we are also invited to make a variety of gestures. These postures and gestures are not merely ceremonial. They have profound meaning and, when done with understanding, can enhance our personal participation in Mass. In fact, these actions are the way in which we engage our bodies in the prayer that is the Mass. Each posture we assume at Mass underlines and reinforces the meaning of the action in which we are taking part at that moment in our worship.

Standing is a sign of respect and honor, so we stand as the celebrant who represents Christ enters and leaves the assembly. This posture, from the earliest days of the Church, has been understood as the stance of those who are risen with Christ and seek the things that are above (cf. Col 3:1). When we stand for prayer we assume our full stature before God, not in pride, but in humble gratitude for the marvelous thing God has done in creating and redeeming each one of us. By Baptism we have been given a share in the life of God, and the posture of standing is an acknowledgment of this wonderful gift. We stand for the Gospel, the pinnacle of revelation, the words and deeds of the Lord, and the bishops of the United States have chosen standing as the posture to be observed in this country for the reception of Communion, the sacrament which unites us in the most profound way possible with Christ who, now gloriously risen from the dead, is the cause of our salvation.

The posture of kneeling signified penance in the early Church: the awareness of sin casts us to the ground! So thoroughly was kneeling identified with penance that the early Christians were forbidden to kneel on Sundays and during Easter Time when the prevailing spirit of the liturgy was that of joy and thanksgiving. In the Middle Ages kneeling came to signify the homage of a vassal to his lord, and more recently this posture has come to signify adoration. It is for this reason that the bishops of this country have chosen the posture of kneeling for the entire Eucharistic Prayer.

Sitting is the posture of listening and meditation, so the congregation sits for the pre-Gospel readings and may also sit for the period of meditation following Communion.

Gestures too involve our bodies in prayer. The most familiar of these is the Sign of the Cross with which we begin Mass and with which, in the form of a blessing, the Mass concludes. Because it was by his death on the cross that Christ redeemed humankind, we trace the sign of the cross on our foreheads, lips and hearts at the beginning of the Gospel. Fr. Romano Guardini, a scholar and professor of liturgy wrote of this gesture:

When we cross ourselves, let it be with a real sign of the cross. Instead of a small, cramped gesture that gives no notion of its meaning, let us make a large, unhurried sign, from forehead to breast, from shoulder to shoulder, consciously feeling how it includes the whole of us, our thoughts, our attitudes, our body and soul, every part of us all at once, how it consecrates and sanctifies us. (Sacred Signs, 1927)

But there are other gestures that intensify our prayer at Mass. During the Confiteor the action of striking our breasts three times while saying “through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault” can strengthen my awareness that my sin is my fault. In the Creed we are invited to bow at the words which commemorate the Incarnation: “and by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary, and became man.” This gesture signifies our profound respect and gratitude to Christ who, though God, did not hesitate to come among us as a human being, sharing our human condition in order to save us from sin and restore us to friendship with God. This gratitude is expressed with even greater solemnity on the feast of the Annunciation of the Lord and on Christmas when we genuflect at these words.

The Lord’s Prayer is followed by the Sign of Peace, the gesture which we express through a prayerful greeting of peace, that we are at peace, not enmity, with others. This exchange is symbolic. The persons near me with whom I share the peace signify for me, as I do for them, the broader community of the Church and all humankind.

Finally, with the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, we are asked to make a sign of reverence before receiving Communion standing. The bishops of this country have determined that the sign which we will give before Communion is to be a bow, a gesture through which we express our reverence and give honor to Christ who comes to us as our spiritual food.

In addition to serving as a vehicle for the prayer of beings composed of body and spirit, the postures and gestures in which we engage at Mass have another very important function. The Church sees in these common postures and gestures both a symbol of the unity of those who have come together to worship and a means of fostering that unity. We are not free to change these postures to suit our own individual piety, for the Church makes it clear that our unity of posture and gesture is an expression of our participation in the one Body formed by the baptized with Christ, our head. When we stand, kneel, sit, bow and sign ourselves in common action, we have given unambiguous witness that we are indeed the Body of Christ, united in heart, mind and spirit.  In the GIRM #42, we are instructed: The gestures and posture of the priest, the deacon, and the ministers, as well as those of the people, ought to contribute to making the entire celebration resplendent with beauty and noble simplicity, so that the true and full meaning of the different parts of the celebration is evident and that participation of all is fostered.  Therefore, attention should be paid to what is determined by this General Instruction and the traditional practice of the Roman Rite and to what serves the common spiritual good of the People of God, rather than private inclination or arbitrary choice. A common posture, to be observed by all participants, is a sign of the unity of the members of the Christian community gathered for the Sacred Liturgy; it both expresses and fosters the intention and spiritual attitude of the participants.

So with all of that by way of background, let’s get to the question about what is the appropriate gesture for participants at The Mass when praying the Our Father.  Praying is a marvelous thing and is what God has called us to do.  It unites us with Him and it is through the development of a personal relationship with Him that we come to know and love Him.  How we pray varies, depending on the time, circumstances, place and state of mind we happen to be in at a certain time.  For instance, prayer privately is different than liturgical prayer, where we are praying with a congregation with a single purpose.  Privately, we can sit, lay down, walk, close our eyes and remove ourselves from the interruptions of our surroundings.  Matthew Kelly suggests going to our “Room of Silence”.  Alternatively at Mass, we unite ourselves with the congregation as individuals, united in worship of our Lord.  The priest in “the acts of persona Christi Capitus” (CCC 875, CCC 1548) is uniting us to heaven.  When one is praying in a liturgical service, such as Mass, there are norms that if followed enhance the beauty of the celebration.

It is true that praying with arms outstretched is one of the historic postures of prayer.  However, this fact alone does not mean that it is to be used in any circumstance.  Prostrating oneself on one’s face is also a historic posture of prayer, but neither the priest nor the laity is directed to assume this posture during the regular Mass.  During a Mass where ordinations are taking place, the candidates for ordination are directed to prostrate themselves during the Litany of the Saints.  However, if people are to assume this position willy-nilly in any Mass, the liturgy could be seriously impeded.  No matter how the posture may or may not have been used in antiquity, today the preference is a priestly posture in the liturgy.  This is repeatedly made clear in the Church’s liturgical documents.  For example, the Ceremonial of Bishops notes: “Customarily in the Church a bishop or presbyter addresses prayers to God while standing with hands slightly raised and outstretched” (CB 104).  Similarly, the Book of Blessings, whenever there is a blessing which can be performed either by a member of the clergy or the laity, the rubrics invariably directs that “A minister who is a priest or deacon says the prayers of the blessing with hands outstretched; a lay minister says the prayer with hands joined” (BB1999).  Over and over again, the rubrics (rules) direct clergy to pray with hands outstretched and laity with hands joined.

The following explains the origin of the Orans position, in which the priest intercedes during the liturgy on behalf of all. This once again is referenced in the GIRM #33 which instructs us: the priest, as the one who presides, prays in the name of the Church and of the assembled community.  

The Orans position (Latin for “praying”) or some variation of it, was common to almost all ancient religions as an outward sign of supplicating God (or if a pagan religion, the gods). Consider what we do when we plead with someone. We might put our arms out in front of us as if reaching for the person and say “I beg you, help me.” This seems to be a natural human gesture coming from deep within us – like kneeling to adore or to express sorrow. Now, turn that reach heavenwards and you have the Orans position.

The ancient monuments of Christianity, such as the tombs in the catacombs, often show someone in the Orans position supplicating God, to show that the prayers of the Church accompany the person in death.

The liturgical use of this position by the priest is spelled out in the rubrics (the laws governing how the Mass is said). It indicates his praying on BEHALF of us, acting as alter Christus as pastor of the flock, head of the body. It used to be minutely defined in the rubrics, which now say only, “extends his hands” or “with hands extended.” Priests understand what is meant (from observation and training), and although there is some variability between priests basically the same gesture is obtained from all of them by these words.

In the rubrics the Orans gesture is asked principally of the Main Celebrant, but on those occasions where either a priestly action is done (Eucharistic Prayer) or prayer in common (Our Father) all the concelebrants do it.

It is never done by the Deacon, who does not represent the People before God but assists him who does.

Among the laity this practice began with the charismatic renewal. Used in private prayer it has worked its way into the Liturgy. It is a legitimate gesture to use when praying, as history shows, however, it is a private gesture when used in the Mass and in some cases conflicts with the system of signs which the rubrics are intended to protect. The Mass is not a private or merely human ceremony. The symbology of the actions, including such gestures, is definite and precise, and reflects the sacramental character of the Church’s prayer. As the Holy See has recently pointed out, confusion has entered the Church about the hierarchical nature of her worship, and this gesture certainly contributes to that confusion when it conflicts with the ordered sign language of the Mass.

Let’s take each case.

Our Father. The intention for lay people using the Orans position in the Mass while praying the Our Father appears to be motivated by a desire to somehow unite the priest and people in prayer.   Although this gesture is not called for in the rubrics, it does not on the surface, seem to be in conflict with the norms of the Mass. I say on the surface, however, since while lay people are doing this the deacon, whose postures are governed by the rubrics, may not do it. So, we have the awkward disunity created by the priest making an appropriate liturgical gesture in accordance with the rubrics, the deacon not making the same gesture in accordance with the rubrics, some laity making the same gesture as the priest not in accordance with the rubrics, and other laity not making the gesture (for various reasons, including knowing it is not part of their liturgical role). In the end, the desire of the Church for liturgical unity is defeated.

The GIRM #152 instructs us that after the Eucharistic Prayer is concluded, the priest with hands joined says the introduction to the Lord’s Prayer.  With hands extended he then says this prayer together with the people.

After The Our Father. This liturgical disunity continues after the Our Father when some, though not all, who assumed the Orans position during the Our Father continue it through the balance of the prayers, until after “For the kingdom, the power, and the glory are yours, now and forever.” The rubrics provide that priest-concelebrants lower their extended hands, so that the main celebrant alone continues praying with hands extended, since he represents all, including his brother priests. So, we have the very anomalous situation that no matter how many clergy are present only one of them is praying with hands extended, accompanied by numbers of the laity.

Once again, the GIRM #81 instructs us to the following: In the Lord’s Prayer, a petition is made for daily food, which for Christians means preeminently the Eucharistic bread, and also for purification from sin, so that what is holy may, in fact, be given to those who are holy.  The priest says the invitation to the prayer, and all the faithful say it with him; the priest alone adds the embolism, which the people conclude with the doxology.  The embolism, enlarging upon the last petition of the Lord’s Prayer itself, begs deliverance from the power of evil for the entire community of the faithful.

So, while we shouldn’t attribute bad will to those who honestly have felt that there was some virtue in extending or holding hands during the Mass, it is yet another case where good will can achieve the opposite of what it intends when not imbued with the truth, in this case the truth about the sacramental nature of the postures at Mass and their meaning.

Because of the special association praying with hands outstretched has with the priestly office, the laity taking this posture diminishes the role of the priest.  Although it is uncertain, it is not unreasonable to surmise that initially some dissident elements in the Church have desired to get the laity into the habit of praying in this posture during Mass, as a subtle attack on the hierarchy.  Still others may have adopted the position because they wanted to outwardly express their love for God. This in some ways creates a type of “holier than thou” competition and confuses the role of the laity and the clergy,  furthers the dissident agenda of blurring the line between the laity and the clergy and reduces the universality which the Catholic Church enjoys in the celebration of the Mass.  Fortunately, the Instruction on Collaboration (Nov. 13, 1997) drew the line on this issue and specifically mandated that “Neither may … non-ordained members of the laity use gestures or actions which are proper to the … priest celebrant” (ICP, Practical Provisions 6.2).  The reference to gestures that are appropriate to the priest celebrating the Mass certainly includes praying with arms outstretched, which is probably the single most frequent gesture the rubrics direct him to make during Mass and which is clearly tied to the office of priest in the Church’s liturgical documents.

This is why people are supposed to adopt those postures the rubrics direct them to adopt and not other ones.  While the rubrics do not state that the hands cannot be held in this position, it also does not state that one should hold their hands in this position.  A document such as the rubrics is not going to list all the things that should NOT be done.  There are times when it tells us positions to assume or actions to take such as kneeling during the consecration, the striking of our breast three times during the Penitential Act, initiating a profound bow at the words “and by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary and became man” or “who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary” during the two options for the Creed, and making the sign of the cross over our forehead, lips, and heart before the reading of the Gospel, just to name a few.  A quick observation of the laity in Mass shows us that many choose not to partake in these gestures, though at the Our Father extend and/or hold hands. Why do people want to create their own practice for part of the Mass and yet ignore other practices that the Church has given as appropriate to the worship?  Prayers are said at many times throughout the Mass.  So, why is there a desire to hold and/or raise hands only during the praying of the Our Father?

The GIRM #95 instructs us this way: In the celebration of the Mass, the faithful form a holy people, a people whom God has made his own, a royal priesthood, so that they may give thanks to God and offer the spotless Victim not only through the hands of the priest but also together with him, and so that they may learn to offer themselves.  They should, moreover, endeavor to make this clear by their deep religious sense and their charity toward brothers and sisters who participate with them in the same celebration.  Thus, they are to shun any appearance of individualism or division, keeping before their eyes that they have only one Father in heaven and accordingly ar all brothers and sisters to each other.

Dr. Edward Peters , JD, JCD, Ref. Sig. Ap. shares the following on this matter from a Canon Law perspective:While the orans position as such has a rich tradition in Jewish and even ancient Christian prayer life, there is no precedent for Catholic laity assuming the orans position in Western liturgy for at least a millennium and a half; that point alone cautions against its introduction without careful thought. Moreover — and notwithstanding the fact that few liturgical gestures are univocal per se — lay use of the orans gesture in Mass today, besides injecting gestural disunity in liturgy, could further blur the differences between lay liturgical roles and those of priests just at a time when distinctions between the baptismal priesthood and the ordained priesthood are struggling for a healthy articulation.

 Since at least the mid-1990s, bishops, liturgists, and other observers have discussed the orans issue and possible ways to resolve it, including expressly ratifying the gesture for lay use.

These discussions (summarized in Adoremus Bulletin, November 2003) are interesting as far as they go, but they seem not to ask the fundamental question: Namely, in liturgy today, what is the orans position for? From insight into its contemporary liturgical purpose, presumably, one could formulate rubrics for its best use. I want to consider specifically the possibility that the current rubric calling for the priest to assume the orans posture during the Our Father might itself be misplaced and causing confusion in the congregation.

The first thing to notice here is that, with the problematic exception of the Our Father, the orans position is prescribed for the priest only when he is praying aloud and alone as, for example, during the Opening Prayer, the Prayer over the Gifts, and the Post-Communion Prayer. When, however, the priest is praying aloud and with the people, for example, during the Gloria or the Creed, his hands are joined. In other words, a priest praying aloud and on behalf of a then-silent congregation is clearly exercising a leadership role. The orans posture being used then cannot occasion congregational gestural imitation because the people are silent at that point in the Mass.On the other hand, when prayers are being said aloud by the priest and people, the fact that the priest’s hands are joined during such prayers occasions — if anything by way of congregational imitation — the traditional gesture of joined or folded hands that is common among the laity at Mass in the West.

 From all of this, it seems that the rubric is calling for the priest to assume the orans position during the Our Father, in which prayer he joins the people instead of offering it on their behalf, is at least anomalous, and possibly inconsistent with the presidential symbolism suggested today by the orans position elsewhere in the Mass.
 
There remains to consider, though, how this apparent miscue appeared in the liturgy. I suggest that originally, the orans rubric for the priest during the Lord’s Prayer was not a mistake, but that it became one in the course of liturgical reforms undertaken by Pope Pius XII just prior to Vatican II. Let’s back up a bit.
 
The Our Father (Pater) has been a part of the Mass for many centuries. Over that time, of course, language barriers occasioned and rubric evolution reinforced the assignment of various prayers to the priest. Eventually, the Pater became a prayer that was offered by the priest on behalf of the people, whose exterior participation in that prayer was, by the early 20th century, limited to a vicarious one via the server’s recitation of the closing line, Sed libera nos a malo (But deliver us from evil). A look at the pre-Conciliar rubrics in any Sacramentary regarding the Pater is consistent in showing that the priest’s hands are extended, that is, in an orans position, as one would expect for prayers the priest offers on behalf of the congregation.
 
But in 1958, as part of Pope Pius XII’s liturgical reforms, permission was granted for, among other things, the congregation to join the priest in praying the Pater, provided that they could pray it in Latin (See AAS 50: 643; Eng. trans., Canon Law Digest V: 587). Thus, for the first time in many centuries, a congregational recitation of the Lord’s Prayer was possible. Lay recitation of the Pater was not mandated, and there is no evidence that this very limited permission for congregational recitation of the Pater occasioned awareness that such permission, if it were ever widely acted upon, might necessitate a change in the rubrics. By the time such changes did come about, it seems, the orans posture and the Lord’s Prayer were associated, not with the manner in which the prayer was being offered, but with the prayer itself. From there, it seems, the rubric calling for or the priest to continue using the orans position during the Our Father simply passed unnoticed into the new rite of Mass.
 
Today, of course, the priest is not praying the Our Father for the people the way he does during several others prayers in Mass, and in which prayers the people participate by silent interiorization concluded by a vocal “Amen”; rather, today the priest and people pray the Our Father together in Mass.

 

Dr. Peters concludes his comments with the following:If the above analysis is correct and the orans position in Mass has come to symbolize priestly prayer on behalf of the congregation instead of prayer with it, then the rubrics should no longer call for the priest to extend his hands during the Our Father as if he is praying on behalf of the congregation. He should instead be directed to join his hands as he does for all other prayers said with the congregation. And if priests do not assume the orans position during the Our Father, laity will not imitate it. If the rubrics for Mass are changed to direct the priest to join his hands during the Our Father, priestly gestural symbolism will once again be consistent through the entire Mass, and the orans issue will probably resolve itself rather quickly.

Once again the GIRM #390 instructs us that it is up to the Conference f Bishops to decide on the adaptations indicated in the General Instruction and the Order of the Mass and once their decisions have been accorded the recognition of the Apostolic See, to introduce them into the Missal itself.  These adaptations include the gesture and postures of the faithful. The U.S. bishops’ conference debated a proposal by some bishops to allow the use of the orans posture while discussing the “American Adaptations to the General Instruction to the Roman Missal” in 2002. Some bishops even argued that it was the best way of ridding the country of holding hands. The proposal failed to garner the required two-thirds majority of votes, however, and was dropped from the agenda. As a result, in looking to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops website (www.usccb.org) for an answer to this question, the website has the following posted as its answer “No position is prescribed in the Roman Missal for an assembly gesture during the Lord’s Prayer.” When looking to the Liturgical Norms of the Diocese of Charlotte, one finds the following stated as norm #53: Holding hands during the Our Father is not found in the Order of the Mass.

So, in summary, the priest in the new Mass is no longer praying on behalf of the people, who are silent. He prays the Our Father with the congregation, who all pray it aloud. Thus, the traditional reason for adopting the orans posture is no longer present. If we want liturgical consistency, there are really only two options within the context of the Novus Ordo: (1) return to the practice of the priest saying the Our Father alone with the congregation praying silently or intoning only the “sed libera nos a malo” (deliver us from evil) line, or (2) change the rubrics so that the priest prays the Our Father with his hands folded, as he does at the Gloria and the Creed, since these are all prayers prayed aloud with the congregation.

Is this “orans problem” is a huge issue? No. If the only thing we focus on during the Our Father is how the priest or people shouldn’t be in the orans posture, then our liturgical experience is a little disordered. There are clearly more important things, and we don’t want to be legalists to such a degree that minor inconsistencies detract from our ability to worship God. But it is true that what we have with the orans question is a real discrepancy in liturgical norms, one that should probably be rectified. Is it technically “wrong” or against a certain rule for the faithful to adopt the orans posture? No. There is no “rule” they are breaking, and this can’t be termed an abuse in the strict sense. Does it contradict traditional liturgical norms? Yes, it is contrary to very well established liturgical principles, but the fault cannot really be laid at the door of the congregation (who merely imitate the priest), but with the rubrics themselves that in 1958 allowed the congregation to pray aloud with the priest while retaining the orans posture for the celebrant. 

Consider this.  We are in Mass to worship.  Yes, we are “in the Mass” and have a role to play in it.  With this role there are norms for us to follow.  Some of these norms are based upon rich traditions and long established practices within the Church.  Many of us have not been taught these norms.  At the time of this writing (March 2014), there is no clearly established norm as the answer to this question.  However, having now read this answer, perhaps rather than creating disunity and disruption seeking to hold hands, you will consider the alternative and unifying option which would have us all fold our hands and while reciting the Our Father, focus our prayer requests that we brought with us to the Mass, through Father, to God as he stands with outstretched hands at the altar as the pastor of his flock of which you are a member. 

In addition to Dr. Peters comments, other sources in this answer came from resources at Catholic Answers, the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB)website

For further information on rubrics see the following web page. http://www.catholic.org/encyclopedia/view.php?id=10212