Orans Posture ("Praying" Hands Extended)


The following explains the origin of the Orans position, in which the priest intercedes during the liturgy on behalf of all. In the last couple decades this posture of praying with hands extended and lifted upwards has become a popular prayer posture for many laity, especially in the Charismatic Renewal.

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 catecombs, 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.

Lets take each case.

Our Father. The intention for lay people using the Orans position at this time is, I suppose, that we pray Our Father, and the unity of people and priest together is expressed by this common gesture of prayer. Although this gesture is not called for in the rubrics, it does at least seem, on the surface, to not be in conflict with the sacramental sign system at the point when we pray Our Father. 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.

After 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 thine is the kingdom etc." 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.

So, while we shouldn't attribute bad will to those who honestly have felt that there was some virtue in doing this 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.


Answered by Colin B. Donovan, STL

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