When you recite the Our Father at Mass, what do you do with your hands?
If you’re a priest, you say the Lord’s Prayer with your hands extended, as the Church prescribes.
But what if you’re a lay person? Do your hands remain at your sides? Do you raise them? Or maybe join hands with the people to your left and right?
These might seem like trivial considerations, but when it comes to liturgy, the smallest gestures can be significant. And it’s clearly become a contentious issue in the Philippines, the country with the world’s third-highest Catholic population after Brazil and Mexico.
How do we know that? Because the country’s Episcopal Commission on Liturgy has just issued a ruling on the matter.
‘With hands extended’
But before we look at the Filipino bishops’ verdict, what does the Church teach about how we should approach the Lord’s Prayer at Mass?
The authoritative document is the General Instruction on the Roman Missal (GIRM), which sets out the norms for the way Mass is celebrated in much of the Catholic world — that is, the Mass of Paul VI, also known as the Novus Ordo or the Ordinary Form of the Roman Rite.
The Our Father — the prayer that Jesus taught his disciples — comes during the Liturgy of the Eucharist, the second part of the Mass after the Liturgy of the Word. The Lord’s Prayer section of the Mass, which arrives immediately after the Eucharistic Prayer and marks the start of the Communion Rite, has four parts.
The GIRM explains that, first, the priest says the invitation to recite the Lord’s Prayer with his hands joined, either saying or singing the words: “At the Savior’s command and formed by divine teaching, we dare to say…”
Second, the priest, “with hands extended,” recites the Our Father together with the people.
Third, the priest alone, also with hands extended, offers what is known as the embolism, a short prayer that is spoken or sung after the Our Father, beginning “Deliver us, Lord, we pray…”
Fourth and finally, the people say the doxology, or short prayer of praise: “For the kingdom, the power and the glory are yours now and for ever.”
What the Filipino bishops are saying
In a circular dated July 16, the Episcopal Commission on Liturgy in Manila tackled the question of whether lay people should, or are even allowed, to “hold or raise hands” during the Lord’s Prayer at Mass.
The letter, signed by commission chairman Archbishop Victor B. Bendico of Capiz and addressed to Church leaders, noted that the GIRM “neither forbids nor prescribes raising hands or holding hands while praying the Lord’s Prayer at Mass.”
“Since the GIRM is silent on this matter, either forbidding or prescribing it runs counter to the intent of the Instruction,” it said. “Both gestures are liturgically accepted to accompany the praying of the Lord’s Prayer. We are therefore exhorted to exercise sincere respect to each other in the gesture we express during the prayer.”
The letter suggested that the understanding of the place of the Lord’s Prayer at Mass changed following the Second Vatican Council.
“If in the past, in the Roman liturgy, the Our Father was considered a presidential prayer, with the Vatican II liturgical reform it became the prayer of the entire assembly,” Bendico wrote.
“Since the GIRM is silent on the gesture that should accompany the prayer, the faithful can recite or sing it with a gesture that can best help them to experience and express themselves as God’s children.”
The archbishop noted that many lay Catholics chose to adopt the orans posture, with hands outstretched and their palms facing upward.
“Nothing in the Scriptures nor in the Christian tradition of worship forbids them from doing so,” he said. “Praying with outstretched arms evokes the biblical attitude of the person praying (e.g. Moses in Exodus 17:8-16; Solomon in 1 Kings 8:54). Paul’s instruction to Timothy is to ‘pray, lifting up holy hands’ (1 Timothy 2:8).”
To support this position, the archbishop referred to the Italian translation of the Roman Missal, the Latin liturgical book used for the celebration of the Roman Rite.
The Italian version says: “During the singing or recitation of the Lord’s Prayer one may hold one’s arms outstretched; this gesture, provided it is properly explained, is to take place with dignity in a fraternal atmosphere of prayer.”
Cardinal Jose Advincula shared the ruling in a July 13 letter to his flock in the Archdiocese of Manila.
He told the clergy and lay people of the archdiocese that the verdict “clarified the issue of the proper gesture” during the Lord’s Prayer at Mass.
“Let us respect the decision of the faithful on the gestures they take, whether raised or joined hands or holding each other’s hands,” he wrote. “This should be done in harmony with the nature of the prayer and in deference to others who are present in the celebration.”
“Therefore, it is not proper to prohibit the raising of hands in praying the Lord’s Prayer and equally, it is not proper to demand from the faithful to raise their hands in this part of the Mass. The faithful are to be respected with the decision they make on this matter.”
The bishops’ ruling provoked a mixed reaction, judging by the comments on the Facebook page of CBCP News, the Filipino bishops’ news service.
“Now, I can truly express my faith in the praying of Our Father with the raised hands without being ostracized by my Christian brothers and sisters,” wrote one user.
Another shot back that “the bishops raise their hands while they pray the Our Father because that properly belongs to the priestly order.”
A third commenter tried to reassure the verdict’s critics: “For those who will be disappointed with the decision of the CBCP [the Philippines bishops’ conference] please take note, they are not forcing you to do the orans.”
“Is it possible to put this issue finally to rest?” asked another. “For me, this is so trivial and petty.”
While there seems to be a special intensity to the issue in the Philippines, Catholics elsewhere also periodically debate the question, with the discussion often following similar lines.
The debate generally divides people into two camps: Those who believe that the orans posture is a priestly posture which should only be adopted by clerics, and those who argue that, since the GIRM takes no position on the matter, lay people should be free to choose any posture of prayer and reverence.
Holding hands during the Mass also provokes strong opinions, with some suggesting that the gesture was imported from Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and then popularized by charismatic groups.
Others, especially family members who hold hands during the Lord’s Prayer, appear to find it a helpful expression of their unity before God. Others still argue that the gesture is superfluous as reciting the prayer in unison already conveys this.
For U.S. Catholics seeking authoritative advice on hand postures during the Lord’s Prayer, the website of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops is the obvious place to turn.
Its “Prayer and Worship” section says pithily: “No position is prescribed in the Roman Missal for an assembly gesture during the Lord’s Prayer.”
Some Catholics argue that this is unhelpfully brief and fails to properly adjudicate on the different practices adopted by Catholics.
Others have called for a deeper reflection in the Church on precisely what the orans posture signifies when it is adopted during the Mass.
As the canon lawyer Edward Peters has written, “While the orans position as such has a rich tradition in Jewish and 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.”
While the Filipino bishops’ ruling may help to dampen tension around the issue, the debate has a long way to run yet.