Apologize and Don't Be Sorry!

A site dedicated to thinking through the common objections to the Catholic Faith as well as questions of a general religious nature.

Location: Prague, Oklahoma, United States

Just your basic 21st century priest trying to bring the Gospel to everyone who will give it a fair hearing.

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Dear Father Tharp,
Can you give an explanation of why holding hands at the Our Father is incorrect?
Thank you,
Theresa Hurt, OKC.

Before we consider whether a particular gesture is appropriate to the Sacred Liturgy, we need to consider the nature of liturgical action. Put briefly, the liturgy is a holy exchange. Christ, in the Incarnation, takes to Himself a human nature. Through this human nature, He gives to Man what he does not possess himself, namely union with God and forgiveness of sin. Therefore, it becomes Man’s obligation to return to God, in thanksgiving, all of the good things God bestows on him. In the Sacramental Liturgy, we represent this through both visible signs (e.g. bread and wine) and ritual gestures. We receive these signs and gestures through the Tradition (cf. GIRM 2000 #42). The Magisterium of the Church is responsible for implementing a set form for these signs and gestures. Hence, our first criterion for determining the lawfulness of a particular gesture rests upon whether that gesture has received approval for use.

The ritual gestures of the Sacred Liturgy are a second language, spoken with the words of the Body. Hence, these ritual gestures must speak in concord with the Faith of the Church. If a gesture during the liturgy either obscures or detracts from the content of Faith, then it must not be done. Additionally, ritual gestures allow the congregation to express their unity, not just as a particular body gathered in one place, but also as members of the one Church throughout the world (GIRM 2000 #42ff.). So, our second criterion for determining the lawfulness of a particular gesture rests upon how that gesture correctly communicates the truth of the Faith.

Now, we can think through your question. Let’s take our first criterion. Is permission given in the relevant liturgical documents for the holding of hands by the congregation? For this, we look toward two documents: The General Instruction of the Roman Missal (2000) and a recent instruction from the Congregation for Divine Worship Redemptionis Sacramentum (2004). Consulting the General Instruction, we find no directive to hold hands at the time of the Our Father (cf. GIRM #36, 42, 81). As for the priest, he is directed to hold his hands extended during the Our Father as a sign of his unifying and leading the Church in prayer (GIRM 2000 #151, 237). Turning to Redemptionis Sacramentum, no mention is given to this gesture. However, we find this comment: "The reprobated practice by which Priests, Deacons or the faithful here and there alter or vary at will the texts of the Sacred Liturgy that they are charged to pronounce, must cease. For in doing thus, they render the celebration of the Sacred Liturgy unstable, and not infrequently distort the authentic meaning of the Liturgy" (RS #59). In a parallel sense, this could apply to ritual gestures given they function to communicate authentically the content of the Faith.

If you inquire about this practice of holding hands during the Our Father, the answer you generally receive is "It makes us feel like we have real fellowship or community." Here’s where the distortion lies. The Our Father is not the source of our unity as the Church. It is the Holy Sacraments, particularly Baptism and Holy Communion, that makes the Body one. In Baptism the wounds of original sin are healed and the individual is grafted into the Body of Christ. In Holy Communion, this union is perfected. St. Augustine puts it as "The Church makes the Eucharist, and the Eucharist makes the Church." The Sacraments create unity not just in the particular place they are celebrated but throughout the entire body of Christ, reaching across time and space. Furthermore, as a celebrant, I find the holding of hands a bit odd as a visual symbol. While it is supposed to be a moment of closeness, I notice what happens is that the ranks close and everyone is on their row and disconnected from others surrounding them. This in turn detracts from the reality that worthy reception of Holy Communion is what strengthens the bond of Communion in the Church—and not just holding hands.

Granted, holding hands during the Our Father is not the worst of all liturgical abuses. At the same time, though, we are obliged to remain obedient to norms for the celebration of the Holy Mysteries. The Mass is the worship of God and not an opportunity to make someone feel good. If someone finds emotional solace in the Mass, that is icing on the cake. The first question is "What have I come to offer to God?" If anything, the Mass should call us to seek out those who are lonely and give them more than just a little hand holding.