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

  • whart

    Mathguy, I tried that recently and got unceremoniously ‘poked’
    in the arm..someone insisted that I hold their hand.

    • Paul Sadek

      That has happened to me too. Makes you want to just poke them back, doesn’t it? :)

      I have also had a nearby stranger GRAB one of my already-folded hands. I now make a point, when I attend that parish, to fold my hands TIGHTLY, in the event of nearby “grabbers.” It shouldn’t take that, but for some, it does.

  • Francis

    First of all, welcome back to the Catholic church. Secondly, why be so nit-picky? I’ve been in congregations where people were encouraged to join hands during the Lord’s Prayer, clap during songs, use the orans prayer position, etc. etc. The congregation usually does what is asked by the celebrant. So what? I’m still trying to figure out what a “good sprinkling of Latin” means… much is too much? How much is just enough? Why do we need any Latin at all? Why is it considered “good”? What’s not good enough about English? I would not think that someone who had been away from the Mass would approach it (in any form) with an appalled attitude. Humility might be more appropriate.

    • Paul Sadek

      We are ALL called to humility, of course, and that includes the celebrant. One of the manifestations of humility in the celebrant is OBEDIENCE to the magisterium in the celebration of the liturgy. The local parish priest simply does not have the authority to change the mass so that it “feels good” to HIM.

      “Why do we need any Latin at all?” Because the Church encourages it, as a part of our rich heritage. But, alas, there are those who believe that the Church doesn’t know what it’s talking about, and “I’m going to change the mass to the way *I* like it.”

      OK, so by looking for obedience from our priests, I guess I’m a “nit-picker” too. So be it.

  • Donna

    Our priest used the orans position to stop people from stretching across every pew and aisle and holding hands lifting them in the air.

    • Paul Sadek

      Sounds like there was a bigger problem there.

      Personally, I have no problem with people using the orans position, even though it usually requires a bit more pew space to keep the outstretched hand from poking me in the face :)

      Nor do I have a problem with families or friends holding hands during the “Our Father.” Having someone unfamiliar to me insist on holding my hand is simply annoying, and a distraction from prayer in the highest degree. If the priest verbally “commands” it, I’ll do it to avoid being a distraction myself; but it’s no less annoying and distracting to me.

  • Kit

    The liturgy is public worship, not private prayer. What is fine in private is not in a public setting. You’re not there to just make yourself feel better, you’re there to do honor to Christ and His Church in the way the Church, guided by the Holy Spirit, thinks you should (and this goes for all the other silly or misguided or even heretical VII innovations that bubbled up from the pews). I thought this looked wrong as well when I first saw it, and more than a little self-indulgent. And as a faithful Catholic, not a dissenter, if the Magisterium of the Church doesn’t think something I’m doing in the Holy Mass is wrong, I’m not going to do it. Unless, of course, I think I know better — which is just what some people (not those who just go along with the next guy in the pew like he was their shepherd) are saying when they do things like this. Either you accept the teaching of the Church on the Church’s own liturgy or you petition to change it in the proper way. Nobody has the right to just make stuff up because they like it.

    • Kit

      or “doesn’t think something I’m doing … is right,”

    • Tom P

      How you hold your hands while praying is not “changing the liturgy”. It is not a matter of whether you “accept the teaching of the Church”, especially when there is no formal teaching on the proper way for a lay person to hold his/her hands. To quote St. Augustine, “in essentials, unity; in doubtful matters, liberty; in all things, charity.” When it comes to the liturgy, the prayers, and forms are essential, not hand posture.

      • Kit

        It is an essential; it is to have unity. Read the pieces cited. The rubrics are available online (and linked in the article). This is Mass, not your living room. Orans is a specific posture that means something. The Church doesn’t care if you’re standing on one leg, have your hands in your pockets or folded across your chest. These positions do not have a liturgical meaning. The orans does, and it’s reserved for the priest for that reason. For Pete’s sake, have the humility to allow the priest to pray on your behalf instead of thinking you have to ape his movements. This is why the Church in America is disintegrating into quasi-Protestant chaos, because people in the pews substitute their wants, likes and judgments in liturgy for that of the bishops (who, in America, are far too laissez faire out of moral weakness and fear or rebellious, stiff-necked parishioners), for canon law and for the Holy See. “If I want to do it, and I don’t see where the harm is, then I’m going to do it. So there.” And we expect this kind of attitude to stand against the evils the world is foisting on us. Perhaps if we are more obedient in the liturgy we can learn to be obedient in life. And Pope Francis is named after a saint who, above all things, prized the Eucharist and a beautiful liturgy — and respect for the unique role of our priests, without whom there would be no Mass.

        • Paul Sadek

          Quite agreed on unity, Kit. This is why, when visiting a parish, I will usually go along with whatever harebrained innovation the priest demands–if everyone else is doing it–to keep from being a distraction. This includes remaining standing during the consecration (the Church VERY clearly calls for us to kneel), holding hands, clapping, or using his own version of the creed.

          HOWEVER, I probably won’t visit that parish again.

        • Tom P

          Sorry, but the hand posture of the laity is not an “essential” element of the liturgy. If it were, there would be specific rubrics regarding it. There aren’t. If you follow the link in the article to the USCCB site for the GIRM and read #43 regarding bodily posture of the laity it is silent on positions of the hands. Nothing about interlocking fingers, or holding hands or a 45- or 90-degree angle. How you or I position our hands does nothing to the validity or licitness of the liturgy. I would argue that the actions of the clergy, the setting, the elements are all essential.

          Secondly, please stop the ad hominem attacks in your posts. You do not know me, you do not know my motives or thoughts. Don’t assume that I don’t “have the humility to let the priest pray on my behalf.” I am faithful to the Church; not a “dissenter”, nor am I “quasi-Protestant’. I am however much more focused on what is happening at the altar than what’s going on in the pews around when I’m at mass. I don’t like clown masses, can’t stand liturgical dance and even love using Latin and chant. I’m the first to point out to the music director if other titles are substituted during the Lamb of God. We are called to unity, but not to be robotic clones. Yes, the mass is communal prayer, but it is still an encounter with the Living God, and that is also very personal (ex opere operantis). We ought to be filled with joy at this encounter, not sullenly worried about whether someone looks like their not participating correctly. I’m not advocating for liturgical chaos, nor would I suggest that exaggerated actions causing distraction should be accepted. I am advocating for allowing a little personal engagement within the context of the communal worship.

          Just out of curiosity, when all of the congregation does hole hands at the Our Father (something I don’t like) and one person does not join in out of concern for proper adhesion to rubrics, who is displaying non-unity within that community at that time?

  • Tom P

    I think this is what Pope Francis had in mind when he said, “The church sometimes has locked itself up in small things, in small-minded rules.”

    We’re not talking about altering the mass or even changing the prayers or words of the liturgy, but how people are holding their hands. We’re bothered by something the the rubrics and the GIRM don’t specifically address, yet for some allows them to feel a closer connection to God, and we want to shut that down? It is a posture of prayer that predates formal rubrics and even Latin. It is rooted in scripture (Nehemiah 8:6, Psalm 28:2, Pslam 63:4, Psalm 134:2, Psalm 141:2, Sirach 48:22, Lamenatations 2:19, Lamentations 3:41, 1 Timothy 2:8).

    What is the harm? Where is the offense? I lift my hands in the orans position during the liturgy as a way of expressing my openness and vulnerability to God; like a child before his father. At no time while I’m doing this am I thinking about confusing my baptismal priesthood with the sacramental priesthood. Although, it should be pointed out that my participation in the liturgy is in fact rooted in my baptismal priesthood (Sacrosanctum Concilium #14). As JPII taught us in his Theology of the Body, the body is an expression of the soul. We pray with our bodies as much as we do with our minds or spirits/souls. The orans posture is one of surrender and humility.

    If we’re really going to worry about policing how people hold their hands in prayer at mass then should we also start policing whether they should cross their legs while sitting? What about standing? Is it permissible to shift your weight from one leg to the other, or should you evenly balance on both at all times?

    • Robert M.

      Amen! Concerning ourselves too much with things like this is one good example of how we lose people to other denominations or out of being faithful Christians altogether.

  • Mathguy

    To avoid holding hands during the mass, I put my hands in the usual prayer position and close my eyes.
    It seems to work fine.



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