Mass Confusion: Orans Is the New Black?


In the course of my reversion to the Faith, I had to re-educate myself about what went on at Mass. So, long before I ever sat again in a pew, one way I did that was to watch the Franciscan Missionaries of the Eternal Word celebrate Mass on EWTN on Sunday mornings.

As anyone who’s watched “TV church,” as I call it, knows, the good friars put on a very reverent Novus Ordo Mass in their small church, with a good sprinkling of Latin, excellent performances of traditional music selections from the Adoremus Hymnal and interesting, challenging homilies.

Little did I know just how little this was going to prepare me for much of the real world of the Mass – especially since I resumed regular church attendance in earnest after I moved to Los Angeles.

In its self-proclaimed role as harbinger of the future, L.A. has also rushed to adopt about every innovation in the Mass in the last, oh, 40-odd years, for occasionally better and usually for worse. As the area of the country I came from was slow to change liturgy – and because I’d been away so long – I spent much of my early Masses with a befuddled and/or appalled look on my face.

So, under the heading of “Mass Confusion,” I’m going to periodically touch on one of these “innovations,” starting with a prayer position that, to me, looks like this:


It’s called the orans and in California, it’s pretty universal in the pews at all but the most orthodox and traditional parishes. Frankly, I thought it looked rather weird or even Protestant the first time I saw it. As I had no desire to look like the Bird Girl – and I knew I’d never seen it done as a kid – I refused to do it.

Recently I decided to find out if it was something that I actually should do, if the Vatican had added it in, since it was so widespread. If everyone’s doing it, it must be right … right?

As it turns out, not so much. While, as this article points out, it’s a natural human gesture and has ancient origins, it’s not appropriate for prayer during the Mass (although fine in non-liturgical prayer). From the USCCB:

“Many Catholics are in the habit of holding their hands in the ‘Orans’ posture during the Lord’s Prayer along with the celebrant. Some do this on their own as a private devotional posture while some congregations make it a general practice for their communities.

“Is this practice permissible under the current rubrics, either as a private practice (or) something adopted by a particular parish as a communal gesture?

“No position is prescribed in the present Sacramentary for an assembly gesture during the Lord’s Prayer.”

So, nothing has come down from Rome saying you should do this, and it appears nowhere in the GIRM (General Instruction of the Roman Missal). The section devoted to “Gestures and Bodily Posture” talks about sitting, standing, kneeling and bowing, but makes no mention of hand positions for congregants.

Canon law expert Dr. Edward Peters writes: “While the orans position as such has a rich tradition in Jewish and even ancient Christian prayer life, there’s 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 (meaning unambiguous) per se – lay use of the orans gesture in Mass today, besides injecting general disunity in liturgy, could further blur the differences between lay liturgical roles and those of priests at just a time when distinctions between the baptismal priesthood and the ordained priesthood are struggling for healthy articulation.”

Peters goes on to explain that the purpose of the gesture is to indicate that the priest is praying on behalf of the congregation. But, he points out, having the priest use it during the Our Father, when the congregation is praying aloud with him, could be a source of confusion.

He dates it back to the liturgical reforms of Pope Pius XII, which allowed the congregation to join the priest in saying the Our Father (or, at the time, always the Pater Noster), with the priest continuing to use the orans posture. Apparently this incongruity just slipped by and eventually found itself part of the Novus Ordo.

Peters suggests that the Holy See might consider not having the priest use the posture during the Our Father, which would make his gestures consistent throughout the Mass and would give the laity no reason to imitate him (there’s more detail on all this, including some back and forth between the bishops and the Vatican, in this article that appeared in the Adoremus Bulletin).

It’s also a question of authority. The rubrics don’t originate in the pews; they come down from the Magisterium. There is a specific procedure for introducing changes into the liturgy, but in the case of the orans, an attempt to address the issue didn’t result in an alteration.

Along those lines, just because the rubrics don’t specifically prohibit something doesn’t mean it’s recommended, required or even a good idea.

In reading Scripture, we know that just because the Bible in general – or Jesus in particular – doesn’t specifically mention a thing is forbidden doesn’t mean that it’s permissible (witness the ongoing biblical argument on that score regarding same-sex “marriage”).

As Father Miguel Galvez points out in this article: “I would argue that praying with hands held in the orans position during the Lord’s Prayer or at other moments in the liturgy by the congregation is an innovation that has been introduced and encouraged as a novelty.

“No one has the authority to spontaneously introduce novelties within the Catholic liturgy.

“The process for introducing any new rite or gesture into the liturgy in a stable or even binding manner is already addressed in liturgical law. … If neither the U.S. Conference of Bishops nor the Holy See has seen fit to prescribe any posture for the recitation of the Our Father, it hardly permits any lesser authority to impose a novel gesture not required by liturgical law and expect the faithful to follow their decrees.”

He goes on to mention one of my pet peeves at my own parish, “This is also true regarding the gesture of holding hands during the Our Father. There is nothing in our liturgical tradition that shows any history of the congregation holding hands during the Our Father either in the pew or crossing over to the other side of the church. This too is an innovation that has been spontaneously added.”

This gesture is practically coerced at my current parish, where being unwilling to hold hands with a stranger can cause momentary confusion at best and a stern look of disapproval at worst. It’s probably meant to enforce the notion of community, but it does just the opposite for me.

In his essay on the orans, Catholic apologist Jimmy Akin also emphasizes that, barring a change from above, the gesture is reserved to the priest, concluding with, “Consequently, in the liturgy, laity should not be praying with hands outstretched.”

Image: Wikimedia Commons


Categories:Liturgy Theology

  • Augustine Thomas

    You’ll be far happier if you attend the proper Mass. They’re hard to find, but you don’t EVER have to worry about the irreverence that goes with 99% of NO Masses.

  • Vincent

    Holding hands became popular in many parishes during the 70’s and 80’s. I first starting seeing the orans posture in the late 90’s and it was specifically presented as an alternative to holding holds. The idea was, “Hey, we’re not really supposed to be holding hands, but here’s this ancient posture that you can adopt that is almost like holding hands and has deeper roots in the Tradition.” Since then, orans has really caught on in many parishes.

    I find meaning in both gestures, although I prefer holding hands. I’ve always found something profoundly beautiful and appropriate about joining hands with those around me following the Great Amen of the Eucharistic prayer. It might be the hand of a child or the hand of an elderly person, a banker or a homeless person, a teenager or a widow… it doesn’t matter… we stand as one body united by Christ’s sacrifice re-presented before us. The body of Christ on the table, and the body of Christ around the table. I know touching other people makes some people uncomfortable, but that’s kind of what I like about it. Sometimes it IS uncomfortable. Jesus loved nothing more than getting people who were uncomfortable with one another at the same table eating together. Human touch is such a powerful thing. There are people in our society (homeless, disabled, etc.) who are in many ways ‘untouchables’. What a beautiful thing if we made it a standard part of our Eucharistic practice to hold hands together and afford such people some human touch. I know we already have the sign of peace, but it is so brief and perfunctory. (And how sad that we have diminished the ancient kiss of peace between Christian who truly embraced as brothers and sisters to the briefest of handshakes between pew occupants who relate as strangers.)

    I have to deeply disagree with you on the idea that directives coming down from the magisterium is the only way change is supposed to happen in the Church. That idea has never been followed in practice (popular devotions and practices have always shaped liturgy) and was specifically repudiated at Vatican II; read Lumen Gentium. The Church does have a heirarchy that has been invested with authority by Christ (I don’t wish to deny that). But that fact must always be held in tension with the image of the Church as the People of God. We must respect not only the apostolic authority of our heirarchical leaders, but also the sensus fidelium. I was very glad to see Pope Francis emphasize this point in his recent interview with America Magazine. We’ve still got way too many people working with a pre-conciliar ecclesiology.

    • Gia

      As far as the Mass is concerned the ONLY way it should ever change is by permission of the Holy Father. No one below that has any right to innovate. Putting the orans where it doesn’t belong to replace something that also doesn’t below is doing a wrong to correct a wrong. And if you want to go hug people or hold hands with them feel free to do it anytime outside of Mass. Forcing it on people doesn’t create community, it creates resentment on the part of those who don’t wish to participate and feel pressured and coerced, which is hardly in keeping with the spirit of the Mass. Being touched should always be voluntary unless it’s an emergency.

  • Sean

    Oh for the lack of the “Sisters” not teaching in all our Catholic schools and the Baltimore Catechism classes. For sure the students of my time had been told plan-out that “you do not imitate the Priest during Mass in any way”. They marshaled it home to us by assuring that it was a sin. I miss the Latin, the Sisters taught every alter server, it was an honor and a privilege to be an Alter Boy and the Latin came in handy all around the world back then.

  • Jacob Alvarez


    This link (there’s more detail on all this, including some back and forth between the bishops and the Vatican, in this article that appeared in the Adoremus Bulletin) is broken. Can you please fix it?

    Thank you

    • Kate

      Fixed! Thanks for the catch.



Receive our updates via email.