Holding Hands at the Our Father?

Author: ZENIT



ROME, 18 NOV. 2003 (ZENIT).

Answered by Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical Athenaeum.

Q: Many say we should not be holding hands in the congregation while reciting the Lord's Prayer because it is not a community prayer but a prayer to "Our Father." Local priests say that since the Vatican has not specifically addressed it, then we are free to do as we please: either hold hands or not. What is the true Roman Catholic way in which to recite the Lord's Prayer during Mass? — T.P., Milford, Maine

A: It is true that there is no prescribed posture for the hands during the Our Father and that, so far at least, neither the Holy See nor the U.S. bishops' conference has officially addressed it.

The argument from silence is not very strong, however, because while there is no particular difficulty in a couple, family or a small group spontaneously holding hands during the Our Father, a problem arises when the entire assembly is expected or obliged to do so.

The process for introducing any new rite or gesture into the liturgy in a stable or even binding manner is already contemplated in liturgical law. This process entails a two-thirds majority vote in the bishops' conference and the go-ahead from the Holy See before any change may take effect.

Thus, if neither the bishops' conference nor the Holy See has seen fit to prescribe any posture for the recitation of the Our Father, it hardly behooves any lesser authority to impose a novel gesture not required by liturgical law and expect the faithful to follow their decrees.

While there are no directions as to the posture of the faithful, the rubrics clearly direct the priest and any concelebrants to pray the Our Father with hands extended — so they at least should not hold hands.

One could argue that holding hands expresses the family union of the Church. But our singing or reciting the prayer in unison already expresses this element.

The act of holding hands usually emphasizes group or personal unity from the human or physical point of view and is thus more typical of the spontaneity of small groups. Hence it does not always transfer well into the context of larger gatherings where some people feel uncomfortable and a bit imposed upon when doing so.

The use of this practice during the Our Father could detract and distract from the prayer's God-directed sense of adoration and petition, as explained in Nos. 2777-2865 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, in favor of a more horizontal and merely human meaning.

For all of these reasons, no one should have any qualms about not participating in this gesture if disinclined to do so. They will be simply following the universal customs of the Church, and should not be accused of being a cause of disharmony.

A different case is the practice in which some people adopt the "orantes" posture during the Our Father, praying like the priest, with hands extended.

In some countries, Italy, for example, the Holy See has granted the bishops' request to allow anyone who wishes to adopt this posture during the Our Father. Usually about a third to one-half of the assembled faithful choose to do so.

Despite appearances, this gesture is not, strictly speaking, a case of the laity trying to usurp priestly functions.

The Our Father is the prayer of the entire assembly and not a priestly or presidential prayer. In fact, it is perhaps the only case when the rubrics direct the priest to pray with arms extended in a prayer that he does not say alone or only with other priests. Therefore, in the case of the Our Father, the orantes posture expresses the prayer directed to God by his children.

The U.S. bishops' conference debated a proposal by some bishops to allow the use of the orantes posture while discussing the "American Adaptations to the General Instruction to the Roman Missal" last year. 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. ZE03111822

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Follow-up: Hand-Holding at the Our Father [from 12-02-03] Judging from the response to our reply regarding holding hands during the Our Father ..., it would appear that the world is divided into hand-holders and arm-folders with the occasional hand-upholder wedged in the middle.

If anything, the widespread division of opinion seems to show that holding hands does not occur spontaneously, at least not in large groups. Several readers made very interesting comments and I will try to address some of their concerns.

A correspondent from British Columbia suggested that the origin of hand-holding might stem from an interpretation of the liturgical norms themselves, particularly: the Ceremonial of Bishops No. 159: "After the doxology of the Eucharistic prayer, the bishop, with hands joined, introduces the Lord's Prayer, which all then sing or say; the bishop and the concelebrants hold their hands outstretched" and No. 237 of the New General Instruction of the Roman Missal: "(the priest) with hands outstretched and with the congregation ... pray the Lord's Prayer."

First, for the sake of precision, may I point out that our correspondent seems to be quoting from the earlier study translation of the GIRM. The definitive approved text states: "Then the principal celebrant, with hands joined, says the introduction to the Lord's Prayer. Then, with hands extended, he says the prayer itself together with the other concelebrants, who also pray with hands extended and with the people."

Some liturgists might refer to these documents to uphold the hypothesis that the whole congregation or, at least the concelebrants, hold hands during the Our Father. I do not believe, however, that it is a correct interpretation of the text. In English the expression "to hold one's hands" almost always refers to raising one's own hands and not another person's, in which case the gerund "holding" is usually adopted.

Whether one uses the earlier or the definitive translation the same expression "hands extended" (or outstretched) is used in all cases that the priest adopts this posture, for example, during the Eucharistic Prayer. Thus there appears to be no justification for interpreting it as holding hands only during the Our Father.

An Australian subscriber also points out: "The best argument for not holding hands is that the holding of hands anticipates and then negates the sign of peace." I must confess that I had never thought of this argument but it does have a certain internal logic.

Personally I would not go so far as to say that the gesture negates the sign of peace, but it does anticipate and duplicate it from the symbolic point of view and, as a consequence, probably detracts from its sign value.

A California reader observes that I said there is little difficulty with a family holding hands during the Our Father. He asks: Should not hand-holding also be appropriate, then, for a larger group, if we consider the parish as family? He also objects to "the idea it might make some feel uncomfortable. [...] Then let's not have them say the creed either. It might make them feel uncomfortable. Faith is all about being uncomfortable. Growth starts with discomfort."

As is often the case, the analogous value of words can lead to misunderstanding. Yes, the parish is, in a way, a family, but then so is the universal Church, and so is the human race. The point is that holding hands is a normal expression of affection for nuclear families or relatively small groups of people who know each other well.

It is not a usual expression for larger groups of people even though they may be united by spiritual bonds, such as membership in Christ's Mystical Body. I do not deny that it may happen but it is rarely spontaneous and is usually provoked by an organizing agent.

Our reader's second point expresses a great verity but I fear also misses the mark. It is very true that growth starts with discomfort and certain liturgical elements, such as the "Thy will be done" of the Our Father, should leave most of us decidedly discomfited. But one thing is the internal and spiritually nourishing discomfort caused by confronting our daily reality with God's Word or the truths of our faith, quite another the discomfort brought about by some avoidable human initiative.

Some readers asked if the U.S. bishops' vote against allowing the "orantes" posture meant that this gesture was forbidden in the United States. The bishops, in deciding not to prescribe or suggest any particular gesture during the Our Father, did not therefore proscribe any particular gesture either.

The bishops' conference decision does limit the possibility of another authority such as a pastor or even a diocesan bishop from prescribing this gesture as obligatory. But it need not constrain an individual from adopting the "orantes" posture nor, in principle, stop a couple or small group from spontaneously holding hands.

While holding hands during the Our Father is very much a novelty in the millenarian history of Catholic liturgy, the "orantes" posture, as one reader from Virginia reminds us, is as old as Christianity, is depicted in the catacombs, has always been preserved in the Eastern rites and was not reserved to the priest until after several centuries in the Latin rite — and even then not everywhere.

The controversy regarding the use of the "orantes" posture for the Our Father appears to be confined to the English-speaking world. In many other places, it is pacifically accepted as an optional gesture which any member of the community is free to perform if so inclined ....  ZE03120221

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