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

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About Author

A native of the Adirondacks and Saratoga Springs in northern New York State, journalist and fiction writer Kate O'Hare now lives in Los Angeles, where she's on a neverending quest to find a parish in the L.A. Archdiocese with orthodox preaching, excellent traditional music and parking.

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