The Answer: Because everyone else is.
Catholics who attend attend most Novus Ordo Masses are no doubt aware that there’s a lot of hand holding and reaching out going on now during the Lord’s Prayer. Since there is no prescribed posture set by the Holy See or in the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM) by our bishops during the Pater Noster, it makes one wonder how the outreaching and hand holding has become seemingly mandatory during this part of Mass in many congregations.
I have read about people saying that parishioners down the pew will approach them expecting them to hold the stranger’s hand. Sometimes, in fear of appearing rude, they reluctantly give in. If there is no one around to hold hands with, people will open their arms, bend their elbows and face their palms upwards while they pray just like the priest. This posture is called ‘Orans’ (Latin for “praying). My favorite part, whether they are hand-holding or in the Orans posture, people hold their hands up juuuust a bit higher during the doxology: “For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory…”. So how the heck did this all start? Surely someone, somewhere instructed us all to do this during Mass, right? Nope.
Catholics who have been going to Mass for the past few decades probably don’t remember this happening as much in the 90’s and earlier. I know that it was new to me when I returned to Mass. At first I just assumed I never noticed it before because I didn’t pay as close attention when I was younger…so I played along. Then, as I started looking into the reason for this, I slowly realized the truth. No one can say why this happened. It likely happened because of a couple factors.
Much thanks to the blurring of the line between clergy and laity following the Second Vatican Council, when everyone felt they had to act like a priest, I’m sure someone at some point wanted to mimic the Orans posture of the priest. When a couple people did it next to each other, it seemed natural for them to hold hands. When people saw people in the pew in front of them doing this, they became self-conscious of their posture. Scared of being labeled “that family that doesn’t know what they are doing at Mass”, they started holding hands without any discussion as to why they started doing this. Does this sound about right?
The fact remains; the Orans posture is reserved for the priest during Mass and, historically, associated with someone in a priestly office. In fact, deacons are forbidden to even use the posture during Mass. So it seems weird that we are taking it upon ourselves to engage in a prayer poster that only the priest is allowed to do at the altar. That would be like us laying prostrate in prayer because priests are doing it during an ordination Mass or Good Friday service.
This all being said, the practice isn’t banned. If people want the warm and fuzzies by holding hands during what should be the most solemn of prayers, taught to us directly by Jesus Christ, go ahead.
Just don’t feel rude if you opt to shut your eyes and clasp your hands when some happy stranger walks up to you expecting a hand hold. You are not forced to engage in any posturing during this part of the liturgy. We should be focused on the Christ in the tabernacle rather than ourselves. The Sign of Peace is a much more appropriate time to lend a hand to your neighbor (even though some people can turn that into a whole fiasco too, complete with peace signs and kiss-blowing 20 pews away).
If you are concerned with the level of sentimentalism in your congregation, mention to your priest that you feel uncomfortable when people expect you to hold hands–chances are he will completely understand since this was never something that the laity was instructed to do! ☩
What are your thoughts on this?
For more reading, check out what Catholic Answers has to say about it.