Hand Gestures at Mass?

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The Orans Position and holding hands during the Our Father

Dominican Orans position at the Unde et Memores

Dominican Orans position at the Unde et Memores

Most people who attend a Novus Ordo parish or who simply attend Mass in what is known as the Ordinary Form (which most people attend) encounter two specific types of hand gestures that many of the laity engage in. The first type of hand gesture is that which is known as the “Orans Position” (praying with elevated hands). This type of gesture can be seen in several parts of the Mass such as when one of the laity elevates their hands in response to “The Lord Be With You”. This can also be seen by many during the recitation of the Our Father. The second type of hand gesture that most people encounter is namely the act of holding hands during the Our Father. 

This article will address these two specific types of hand gestures and whether they belong at Mass. It will first help explain some of the history of the Orans position and why only the priest should pray in this position at Mass. The article will later explain why the act of holding hands during the Our Father does not belong at Mass and why it is actually not a Catholic concept.

A short history of the Orans Position

The orans position has been used as a gesture of pleading and supplication since ancient times. This is true in many pagan religions including Greco-Roman paganism. The Orans position was later present in Judaism as well and finally many Early Christians quickly identified the Orans position with the outstretched arms of Christ crucified. This can be seen for example in the Brescia Casket.

Colin B. Donovan helps explain the significance of the Orans position as a means of pleading and supplication. “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 deep within us.”1

With this in mind we can see that the Orans position is not anything new, it is rather a particular prayer position that has existed since the Early Church and even before it. Catholics can thus based on this reality freely pray in this position during private prayer outside of Mass. We will now see why Catholic laity should not however use this position within the celebration of Holy Mass.

A course of disunity within the Mass

Many Catholics might not know that the use of the Orans position at Mass is solely to be used by the priest alone. The main reason is that the use of the Orans position during Mass is exclusively a priestly gesture. The Rubrics for the Mass only give the priest the sole authority of praying with elevated hands (Orans Position). Neither the deacon nor the Catholic laity are given this liturgical role since it is once again a priestly gesture.

The Main symbolism behind the orans position being a priestly gesture is based on the indication that the priest “is praying on behalf of us, acting as alter Christus as pastor of the flock, head of the body”Similarly it symbolizes the fact that the priest is petitioning God in behalf of the people by uplifting our prayers towards God in Heaven.

Because the deacon and laity are not given the liturgical role of praying in the Orans position, and furthermore because it is solely a priestly gesture in the context of the Mass, Colin B. Donovan goes on to write about the liturgical disunity which occurs when the laity engage in the Orans Position:

While lay people are doing this (Orans position) 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.3

Two of the main reasons why many laity might use the Orans position during Mass without knowing they aren’t supposed to is primarily because they see the priest doing it so they assume that they are supposed to do it as well. Thus they don’t know that only the priest is supposed to elevate his hands since it is a priestly gesture. Poorly catechized laity who have never been taught otherwise would obviously not know this

Holding hands during the Our Father

The second type of hand gesture that many laity engage in as was pointed out in the beginning altar_boy_fredof this article is in the act of holding hands during the Our Father. As I pointed out the Orans position certainly has historical use by Catholics in the Early Church and throughout the history of the Church, making it an acceptable form of prayer by the laity outside of Mass (Private Prayer). The same however cannot be said about the act of holding hands for prayer; specifically during the Mass. Hand holding came from both the New Age Movement, and Protestantism (Most specifically Pentecostalism)  where the horizontal dimension of community is emphasized over the sacrificial element of Mass

This is in contrast to the nature of Mass and even Catholicism at its core in which all our prayers are directed towards God. This is most definitely true at Mass in which we unite our prayers with Christ at Calvary.

Further Reading:

The Faithful Are NOT To Use the Orans Posture During the Our Father


1) Orans Posture (EWTN)
2) ibid
3) ibid

Categories: Uncategorized

36 replies »

  1. So… where did this stuff come from? I remember a time in the 80’s when they first started introducing this stuff. As a kid, I thought it was dumb. Now I know its a liturgical novelty.

    Who do we blame for this?

    • As I mentioned in the article I think that hand gestures at Mass came about through some specific Non Catholic elements including the New Age Movement. This is also largely a Protestant concept ( which emphasizes the community and which is largely subjective. I think that Pentecostalism is a very good and example of what I mean. Their happy clappy subjectivism towards their faith.

      Because of this I think that the Charismatic movement quickly picked it up since the movement originally started with Pentecostals.

      I am pretty sure their are other factors

      I hope this helps

      • i totally agree with what is written here, but wonder why the priest uses the Oran’s position during the Our Father when we are all praying together. Why the presidential gesture at that time.

        • First, the Priest is STILL the primary prayer. He still prays for/with all of us. That hasn’t changed with the “Amen” at the end of the Canon. Second, it is his HISTORICAL posture, from the time when the congregation did NOT join with him on the Lord’s Prayer. They (we) only responded with the last line, “…but deliver us from evil.” Then the priest would respond, silently, “Amen”. He did not join with us on the last line because he was (is) in persona Christi, and that would just sound silly! And when he responds “Amen”, it is not just as an affirmation, but as Christ Himself willing it to “be so”. The congregation joining with the priest was something that protestants began centuries ago as they insisted on removing the concept of “in persona Christi” , along with “sacrifice” and the “Real Presence”.

  2. The real question is, how do we get the congregation to stop this? The priest is usually too scared to bring it up because they don’t want to hear people get mad at them. Say we just print these out and leave them in the pews or something, then those people will still go after the priest. I would love for this to end, but I think it comes down to how hardnosed the priest is and if he’s ready for the backlash…

    • Feel free to share this article with as many people as possible, including priests. The reality is that many don’t even know that they are not supposed to pray within these two hand gestures at Mass. They were not catechized properly to know this. This is true of priests, but more so laity.

      I think the idea of living this article in pews is a good idea

  3. I’ll hold my hands up in Orans if I want. Are we not all raising our hands in supplication? The Our Father is all of ours, a prayer of the people. Gestures increase the potency of our prayer to God and this idea of community that you eschew, is a powerful concept. All of the people who are from different places in life and faith, all come together on the prayer, passionately focusing on our daily bread, which is the Eucharist, and then all processing to receive Our Lord.

    • Thanks for the reply

      As I stated in the post the Orans position has historical value and thus it is most definitely an acceptable and worthy prayer position to be used for private prayer. However as also stated, the priest is the only who is given this liturgical role in the context of Mass. By praying in the Orans position during Mass you are allowing a disunity within the celebration of Mass since the people praying in this position during Mass are doing so without having been given this liturgical role.

      Now this idea of community is true only to a certain extent. It is true that as Catholics we do have a sense of community. This sense of community is actually part of our Human nature. The Church teaches that as humans we are social creatures “No man is an Island entire of his own”

      However this is not true in the context of the Mass. This idea of Mass being a mere community gathering is a Novel concept, which comes from Protestantism. The nature of the Mass is above all other things, the Holy Sacrifice. We go to Mass to attend the Eternal Sacrifice of the Mass. If Mass was merely about community then why not simply stay home and invite friends over for prayer? Because Mass is not a mere community gathering but the act of sacrifice, it makes no sense for all to pray in the Orans position. Rather the priest alone suffices to pray in this position, since he is gathering all the prayers of the faithful and uplifting them towards Heaven.

      Not too long ago I wrote an article on the nature of Mass


      • I do think hand holding is a misplaced sing of unity that should be left aside for the sacramental reception. While it is true that the Pater Noster orans may be a holdover from a time when only the priest prayed the Pater (Not fully agreed upon by scholars) I do think with the latest GIRM update that the gesture could have been included. The Italian modifications to the GIRM for the Second Typical Edition, not sure about the Third, specifically allowed the people to use the orans position. It seemed to be very effective in offering the assembly a prayerful gesture that united them to Christ the Head in the person of the priest without the smarmy hand holding. With all due respect to those who want to limit the orans position to the priest celebrant I think that change could have been incorporated without doing violence to the liturgy, unless one wants to say that the LIturgy must be celebrated only in its most primitive form which we have not done for about 1800 years.

        As a priest who seeks to celebrate very reverently the Novus Ordo liturgy I would say that each pastor has many areas in which to renew the Church. When the Third Typical Edition came out I did catechize on these matters. Some still persist in some “extra-liturgical gestures”. I treat it as I treat those who kneel when receiving Communion, also not in accordance with the rubrics: If asked I speak the truth, when I catechize on the liturgy I speak the truth but I don’t go out of my way to eradicate this. I feel it is more important to tackle other liturgical abuses and other potential disrespect for Eucharistic rather than this particular issue.

        I would humbly suggest that people are forever leaving there favorite things in the pews. If you want to get this message out ask to put it in the bulletin or have a bulletin insert or a pamphlet in the pamphlet rack. We really don’t; need more clutter in our churches 😉

    • You start your comment by saying you’ll do as you please and then want to talk about community?

      Of course, the Liturgy of the Church is not a free zone where everything goes. And the Mass is certainly not a meal where you get together with your buddies. And this is not even a community, just because you are all doing these silly gestures.

    • As Yves Congar pointed out, the laity are defined as that section of the Christian community that is neither priestly nor levitical. What defines them as laity is that they don’t have specific functions in the liturgy, but act in accordance with the rest of the congregation. To behave in a matter that is different to the ruberics prescribed for the laity, you set yourself apart. During the course of this action, you are not behaving as lay person, but as cleric.

    • I’m very sorry to tell you this, but the Mass is NOT about you (or all of us). It is about God and our appropriate worship which should be within the rubrics of the Missal as given all of us by Rome. IOW, if you are truly Roman Catholic, you have the guidelines of what to do and not do, and that’s then end of it.

    • And what other prayers do you pray with this posture Susan? Why is it only the Our Father and then only when at Mass. Are you sure you are not choosing this posture out of ego. Saying look at me?

  4. Great article! My catechist was amazing and as thorough as he could possibly be given the time frame, yet the part where we have been lifting our hands towards the priest when saying, “and with your spirit”, was not something I questioned. Everyone else was doing it so I thought it was the proper thing to do. Two things we can do as laity to stop this is to share with others, and lead by example.

    My catechist did tell us it was not right to hold hands during the Our Father, one thing he mentioned about it was that it is distracting, so rather than focusing on our beloved Lord, we might be thinking of the person who’s hand we are holding. Maybe their hand is sweaty or cold, or very soft or rough, it is automatic to notice these things through our sense of touch. But we say we are to avoid the near occasion of sin, and while it is not a sin to get distracted, it is not good to do things at mass that will add to the many challenges we all face already with staying focused. So let’s all avoid the near occasion of distraction at mass and keep our hands clasped in front of our chest as we pray.

    After all, the Lord has provided His only begotten son so that we could partake in the feast of his sacrifice for eternity, the mass deserves all the respect we can offer every single time, and in every single moment of the celebration.

    • I agree. I once felt guilty of thought when I was holding a mans hand in church. This person kept smiling It was very distracting and uncomfortable. When I learned that we didn’t have to do this I was happy.
      This article is intense. I don’t get where people think its ok , to do whatever they want in church. Its a Catholic church. Most are there to follow Catholic church teaching.
      I have been to lot of church of other denominations for weddings funerals and such. I respect their church. I would Never do what we do in my church. Because I am a guest.I wouldn’t presume to tell them I will do what I want.
      Thank you.

  5. 1) The Charismatic movement started in 1901 when Pope St. Leo XIII prayed for the HolySpirit to come into the Church. It spread initially in Topeka Kansas when a group of Protestants prayed for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit also that same day in 1901. The path of this renewal movenment wound its way into many churches and finally came to the Catholic Church in 1967. There are now 1.2 billion Catholics of which over 10% are Charismatic.
    2)The idea of individual salvation is only in the context of the group salvation of the Church which is the idea taught by the Church. To me holding hands during the Our Father is a sign of Church unity. As I lift myself up to the Lord in prayer I think it is a sign of unity of the congregation and the overall Church. Since the priests is extending his hands at the same time I think he is presenting all of our prayers/love and unity to the Lord.
    3)”The Rubrics for the Mass only give the priest the sole authority of praying with elevated hands (Orans Position).” Where is this and is the layity specifically prohibited?
    4) Who says “This idea of Mass being a mere community gathering..” I have never heard anyone else say that Mass is a mere community gathering.

    • 1. The term “charismatic” simply means “moved by the spirit”. That a small group that grew larger took the term as a formal name for their movement – “Charismatic” – does not decrease the Spirit’s movement throughout the rest of the Church.
      2. While holding hands during the Lord’s Prayer is a sign of church unity to you, it has NOT been universally adopted, much less instructed to the whole of the church as appropriate. Maybe it should be noted that those performing these non rubrical gestures are the persons who are distracting during the Mass, not those who ARE following the norms.
      3. As mentioned elsewhere in comments, the GIRM of the Roman Missal gives instructions for the ministers in the sanctuary, not the rest of the laity present in the congregation. While it may not be prohibited, neither is it instructed – anywhere. Whether your parish uses cheap, throw-away missalettes or a hard cover pew missal, NONE of them, in any way, shape, or form, instruct the laity to raise their hands in the orans position or to hold hands. (It doesn’t even specify that the exchange of Peace should be with a secular hand-shake.)
      4. As also stated elsewhere, it is not a question of either/or, but both/and. That should imply some sort of balance between the two, not an emphasis on one over the other, but that is, indeed, what we have been given by “liturgists” trained in nominally Catholic liberal arts colleges since Vatican II.

  6. Ned, are you saying that the charismatic movement involves holding hands during the Our Father? Also imitating the priest by using the Oran’s position during mass?

    I am thinking that if the rubrics of the mass say ONLY the priest is given sole authority to pray in the Oran’s position, then by inverting the rule we would get, no one else has authority to pray in the Oran’s position.

    Last thing, if you read through Arturo’s full response to Susan I think you will see that he is not saying that mass is a mere community gathering or that anyone else said that exactly, but rather that many seem to treat it as such.

  7. St. Elizabeth Anne Seaton talks about laying prostrate on the floor during Mass. Graham Green’s Power and the Glory speaks of laity kneeling the entire Mass with hands outstretched in the posture of the cross. Although I think the conversation of unity of posture is good, we have to be very careful to imagine there has been a unity of posture for the history of the Church. Unity of Eastern Liturgy is very different than Western Liturgy.

    The dialogue on posture, be it the 80s or now, is more about the theology behind the argument than the position itself. This article is really about the sacrificial nature of Mass directed to God the Father and the ministerial priesthood. The posture of the laity is very secondary to the theology–although a whole other article could be written on the interplay between postures and theology.

    Catholic theology often is both/and not either/or. As the pendulum swings in theological focus let us not abandon the theology of before but rather incorporate it so that we don’t have to swing back again to recover what was lost. Mass is both a sacrifice directed to God and a gathering (that’s what the word “church” literally means!) of the kingdom of God, the Body of Christ.

    • As the great Cardinal Congar said:
      “… ‘layman’ is a Christian term … [that] designates the simple, not specially qualified, members among God’s people, the whole of whom are consecrated … Furthermore, in the New Testament, particularly in St Peter’s first epistle …, the priestly themes and all the levitical ethic of the Old Testament are carried over to the People of God as a whole and as such. When we reach the Christian use of the word by Clement of Rome, λαικός clearly refers to ‘that part of the people which is neither priestly nor levitical, it is a matter of the non-priestly, non-levitical element among the holy people.’” (Congar, Lay People in the Church)

      In other words, the laity are defined as those without specific roles or gestures in the liturgy i.e. those who do the same as everyone else.

  8. Fr. Jaspers,

    I don’t really see sacrifice vs. gathering as necessarily opposites that need to interact only through a dialectical struggle, so to speak. Indeed, every community proper is ordered and directed by some good, they are not just the casual association of individuals, a conglomerate of perhaps (but, really, not really in today’s Church) like minded individuals or even friends. This is yet not a community because its just a collection of individuals. But the Church is founded on Christ: He is the end, the common good that defines the community, and so the post-VII ecclesiology of the Church as Communion is quite right. And so precisely in the Eucharistic sacrifice the community is formed and do what they are supposed to do (each having its proper part): the community lives to the Eucharist and flows from the Eucharist, and its not something separate from it.

    So you see, the fundamental error of modernist priests is trying to concoct community apart from what makes people one—one through the One who unifies every unity. Or inverting the proper order of things: putting the highest good that creates and directs the community as something inferior or apart.
    And this is why there is this separation between community and sacrifice that we witness today. This would never happen in the Middle Ages. To quote Pickstock,

    “We have seen in the previous chapter, for example, that the liturgy of the Middle Ages was embedded in a culture which was ritual in character. This was a time when the Offertory gifts were not disconnected from the produce of everyday life; indeed, the category itself of “everyday life” was perforce a thoroughly *liturgical* category. For the community was not something which existed prior to, or in separation from, the Eucharist as a *given* which simply met at regular intervals to receive the Sacrament. Rather, the community as such was seen as flowing from eternity through the sacrament”

    Clearly this also applies to any endeavour outside of the Church: if we are to evangelize properly and even to civilize the population again (yes, *again*, because we live in barbaric times) what we need is not something *apart* the Liturgy but rather to let the Liturgy into the whole of our lives.

  9. I find myself so very distracted during mass as I’m being looked at in a sideways manner, when I don’t hold hands with pew mates during the Our Father. Also, why o why do our faithful priests say nothing on this matter?

  10. It always saddens me when I read through comments of good Catholics who are trying to live the life God intended for us and how passionate people become about some of the strangest things – and defend them even when they are told that it is against the teaching of the church and some of the theology behind it. God’s ways are not our ways, He asks us for true obedience, He taught us how to pray (Mt. 6:9-13), etc. but yet we still want to do things our way because it feels right to us – isn’t that true of any sin?

    It seems that this is a simple matter of obedience and sacrifice – obedience to the church and sacrificing our wants and what we think in order to obey.

  11. Interesting, indeed. As children, we could not whisper, turn our heads, cough during mass. Holding hands, smiling, and oh, yes, kiss my husband and some of my brothers n sisters is something I cannot imagine as displeasing to God.

  12. I really don’t think God it’s going to get upset if we lift our hands or hold them during the Lord’s Prayer and if we’re doing it for the right reason we are giving high praise to the Lord by fully participating. such pettiness! would it be better to sit around like bumps on a log and uninterested and uninvolved in what is going on. Sounds like a power thing to me!

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