Gestures During Mass
The celebration of the Holy Mass involves all of our senses in our worship. As Catholics, physical postures and gestures have always been an important part of worship. Our actions reinforce the words we speak and the attitudes behind our worship. But which gestures are appropriate in the context of the Mass? In recent years American Catholics have seen a dramatic rise in the use of innovative gestures used by the laity in the Mass. But innovation in the Mass is NOT a good thing. That’s why the Church prescribes rubrics for our participation in the Mass.
My wife and I have received “dirty looks” from others in Mass when we don’t hold their hands during the recitation of the Our Father. Some people will simply grab your hand and attempt to force this participation if you don’t respond to their offer to join hands. Obviously this can be an awkward moment. Some folks seem insulted that you don’t want to hold their hands. My wife and I don’t even hold each other’s hands at this point in the Mass, we simply fold our hands and pray. Why? It’s simple, holding hands during the Our Father isn’t an approved gesture for the Mass.
Ok, maybe it’s not an officially approved gesture during the Mass, but what’s the harm? Why is it such a big deal? Why do we need approved rubrics for worship anyway? These are all questions that I’m sure anyone who has thought about it has wondered about. I mean, what’s the harm in a little gesture, even when it’s not sanctioned by the Church?
These are all valid questions that deserve to be answered. Unfortunately, the Church has not done a very good job of catechizing the faithful since Vatican II. So let’s take a look at this important concern. What makes a simple gesture significant anyway?
There is a direct relationship between the way people worship and the way they believe. This has long been expressed in the Church by the Latin maxim, “Lex orandi, lex credendi or the law of prayer is the law of faith. This can be more simply stated as, “As we pray, so do we believe.” The Church prays as she believes, and she believes as she prays. The appropriate words, postures and gestures of our liturgy express and even determine the things we believe. That is why the Church does not allow the minister or the community to modify any sacramental or liturgical rite. Yes, some priests do it all the time, that’s part of the problem. However, they are not allowed to. It is a liturgical abuse.
By way of example, why do we kneel at certain prescribed times during the Mass? Because it shows reverence and honor for Jesus sacramentally present on the altar. The posture of kneeling expresses our belief in the Real Presence of the Eucharist. It also serves to teach this reverence and this belief to our children when they observe us doing it. What do you think would happen if we just stopped kneeling at the Consecration? Or what if we stopped genuflecting when we pass the Tabernacle? Do you think this would affirm and perpetuate our belief in the Real Presence?
This is why the Church has authority over the norms of worship. The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy of the Second Vatican Council says,
22. 1. Regulation of the Sacred Liturgy depends solely on the authority of the Church, that is, on the Apostolic See and, as laws may determine, on the bishop.
2. In virtue of power conceded by the law, the regulation of the Liturgy within certain defined limits belongs also to various kinds of competent territorial bodies of bishops legitimately established.
3. Therefore no other person, even if he be a priest, may add, remove, or change anything in the Liturgy on his own authority.
23. That sound tradition may be retained, and yet the way remain open to legitimate progress, careful investigation is always to be made into each part of the Liturgy which is to be revised. This investigation should be theological, historical, and pastoral.
In other words, additions, subtractions and substitutions to the rubrics of the liturgy can actually lead to a change in people’s beliefs. To examine this a little more closely, let’s take a look at how we wound up holding hands during the Our Father. People didn’t just spontaneously begin doing this one Sunday; it actually had a development. During the 1960’s the Charismatic renewal began in the Catholic Church. Many of the characteristics of the worship of the renewal were adopted from Protestant Pentecostal churches. This included hand holding and raising the hands toward heaven when praying. This form of praying is fine for informal prayer meetings, but is not accepted during the Mass which should be much more reverential.
Meanwhile in the 1990’s some liturgists began arguing for the adoption of the “orans” posture by the laity during the Our Father. The orans (Latin for prayer) posture is the typical posture of the priest when praying during the Mass with hands uplifted and extended outward. This is a very ancient posture of prayer and in Catholic tradition has always been used solely by the priests. The thinking was that since Jesus gave the Our Father to all believers, during the Our Father of the Mass the faithful could exercise the priesthood of the laity, a very limited form of the priesthood of all believers. This was never officially approved by the Church1. Some people read about it and began extending their hands in prayer like the priest, others who had taken part in charismatic prayer began taking their neighbor’s hands and lifting them during the prayer. Neither of these gestures were approved by the Church. The bishops in the U.S. did not forbid hand-holding, even though in 1995 the Bishops Committee on the Liturgy originally suggested that they should do so. They chose not to because one bishop said that hand-holding was a common practice in African-American groups and to forbid it would be considered insensitive.1
Using the orans posture during the Our Father may lead some to a mistaken belief that the laity share in the office of the priesthood to a much greater degree than is true. Hand holding turns our attention from God and toward each other. The Our Father emphasizes the vertical relationship of each of us to our Heavenly Father, rather than the horizontal relationship of the community of believers.
What is even more striking to me is that many people want to use new innovative gestures not approved by the Church and disregard legitimate gestures that are sanctioned by the Church. During the Confiteor or Penitential Rite used at the beginning of the Mass it is appropriate to strike one’s breast affirming that sin is, in fact, one’s own fault. We are to make a “gesture of reverence” just prior to receiving Holy Communion. The U.S. bishops have decided that the gesture should be a profound bow. So each person in the communion line should bow before the Blessed Sacrament just prior to receiving communion. Very few do. Similarly, during the Creed we are to profoundly bow at the words that proclaim the mystery of the Incarnation of Christ. When we say, “…by the power of the Holy Spirit he was born of the Virgin Mary and became man.” we are supposed to bow, but how often do you see people doing that?
Unfortunately, holding hands during the Our Father, not bowing during the recitation of the Incarnation during the Creed, and not bowing before receiving communion betray an ignorance of the faith. For many people this ignorance is not directly their fault, the Church has done little to catechize the faithful. However, when opportunities are available for adult religious education and people choose not to avail themselves of it, they are in rebellion against the Church. The fault is their own and their ignorance is apparent and contagious.
1. Adoremus Bulletin Online Edition. Vol. IX, No. 8: November 2003.