Pastor’s Corner – November 7, 2014

with Fr. James


Recently someone asked me about the meaning of the congregation holding hands during the Our Father. That is a good question, but difficult to answer for the simple reason that it is not a liturgically prescribed gesture. It is instead a popular addition that took hold in many parishes in this country four or five decades ago. It is so ubiquitous that many assume it is an integral part of the Mass.

In partial answer to this question, first let’s look at the general liturgical principles of posture at Mass. (We already considered their symbolism at Mass in Liturgy Corner 7.) Then we’ll consider how holding hands might fit in with these principles.

The primary go-to source for questions on celebrating Mass is the General Instruction of the Roman Missal. It has been given the unfortunate anagram “GIRM”, and is found at the beginning of the Roman Missal. The main principles given on posture are in GIRM no.42:

The gestures and posture of the priest, the deacon, and the ministers, as well as those of the people, ought to contribute to making the entire celebration resplendent with beauty and noble simplicity, so that the true and full meaning of the different parts of te celebration is evident and that the participation of all is fostered.

That is a bit flowery, but it echoes the language of Vatican II. The main point is that each posture and gesture should not be superfluous, but beautiful, simple, and a clear manifestation of what is happening at each point in the Mass. GIRM 42 continues:
Therefore, attention should be paid to what is determined by the General Instruction and the traditional practice of the Roman Rite….rather than private inclination or arbitrary choice.

Many people may well find congregational hand-holding to be movingly simple and beautiful. Not all agree, but that is a matter of taste and personal space. Possible meanings would clearly include unity and solidarity. But the crucial question is how does this gesture fit in with the meaning of what is going on at that moment in Mass? Why here and nowhere else at Mass?

You would be hard put to give a consistent and principled answer to those questions. Liturgically speaking, it is an unwarranted addition not to be found in any edition of the GIRM or other official liturgical documents. And although holding hands at the Our Father is a popular notion that caught on, in its origins it was likely determined by “private inclination or arbitrary choice.”