Should the congregation have defined prayer postures at Mass?


I know there are times to sit, stand, and kneel at Mass. But should there be rubrics about what the congregation does with its hands at Mass?

Many people like to criticize when lay congregants raise their hands in the orans posture or hold hands during Mass - the orans posture was even forbidden (or strongly discouraged - I don’t remember) by one bishop for the congregations in his diocese because he said it was a priestly gesture at Mass (never mind the many images of laypeople in the orans posture in the Roman catacombs). I’m not that concerned about how people improvise what they do with their hands at Mass when there is no rule regarding what they should do - people have been holding Rosaries and doing all kinds of things for centuries. What I am wondering is whether or not there should be rubrics for what everyone should do with their hands at certain times. Should we have our hands joined in prayer at certain times? Should they be palm to palm or fingers interlaced? Should our right thumb go over our left thumb? Should our hands rest on our breast? Should there ever be a time when rubrics tell the whole congregation to raise one or both hands in any way? Priests have been improvising, too, by asking the congregation to raise their hands at times. RC priests are infamous for asking for forgiveness rather than permission when it comes to just about everything - and especially liturgy. Rather than let people improvise willy nilly, why not just say exactly what laypeople are supposed to be doing with their hands at any point in Mass ? I actually find it distracting having to figure out what I should do with my hands - every time I join them in prayer I think for a bit over how I should do it. I like rules! Whatever rules are drawn up can allow for inculturation as long as it is sensible and allows for Mass to be solemn.


Of course, the images in the Roman catacombs represent souls of people, especially the departed, and are not representations of lay people at Mass.

To your larger question, no, I don’t think so. The 1962 rubrics, the one’s still in force for celebration of the forma extraordinaria (“Traditional Latin Mass”), precisely define every movement of the priest and are silent on the posture and positions of the laity. Aside from prohibiting people from assuming priestly postures (like the orans) during Mass, I say let the people follow custom.


I’ve come to the conclusion that the omission of what to do with your hands was intentional. The bishops can’t agree.

“For there can be no doubt that, among a thousand possible positions of the body, outstretched hands and uplifted eyes are to be preferred above all others” - Origen (3rd century)

Orans is a traditional posture used by the laity. Nobody denies that it can be entirely appropriate outside of Mass. It’s argued by some that during Mass, orans is a priestly posture. It’s true that it was. Until the 1950’s (yes, before Vatican II), the priest alone said the Pater Noster on behalf of the people. Thus, the orans. Now, it’s a communal prayer. It would make the most sense if everyone did it or nobody did, not even the priest. But I say, if you’re going to do it, why not during the Universal Prayer as well? That’s also a communal prayer. So my preference is that nobody does it but it’s only a preference. I don’t cringe in the least if others do it or even hold hands, so long as its not imposed.

Anyway, this will sort itself out over the next few hundred years. Who knows, maybe some liturgical scholar in the year 2514 will cite this very post.


If such postures were regulated, how would they be enforced? There seem to be a limited number of alternatives: have someone circulating through the congregation chiding people publicly when their posture doesn’t conform to the rules; make lack of conformity a matter of sin; or, no enforcement as such. Do we really want the Church regulating what to do with our thumbs?


The same way that enforcement is done for the mandate to make responses and sing the prayers and hymns. Isn’t it on pain of sin already?

In reality there is, and would be, no formal enforcement at all. No priest is going to come out and urge people into confession when they fail to participate in the Mass. That is just on the conscience of anyone who has an idea of liturgy.


It is not sinful to not sing the prayers and hymns at Mass. The Sunday obligation is fulfilled by attending Mass. Period.


So if everyone in a parish or a diocese decides not to make the responses in the sacred liturgy, this would not be a problem for anyone?


Whether or not it would be “a problem for anyone” is another question entirely and has no bearing whatsoever on whether or not it is sinful. We do not sin by failing to make the responses, we sin by failing to attend Mass.


Liturgical law is clear when it indicates in the imperative which responses are to be made by the assembly. I do not see how it can be said to be anything but disobedience of the law when refusing to follow the Order of Mass.


Produce a document, any document, stating that the laity sin by not saying the responses.


Produce a document saying that the priest sins by omitting the Penitential Act.


I think you are getting mortal sin and venial sin confused. It’s definitely not a mortal sin to be silent at an Ordinary Form Mass. There are so many ways to commit a venial sin - it can be a venial sin to say the responses at Mass in an inappropriate way or with inappropriate intent! So it could very well be a venial sin to not say the responses at Mass, given that one has been catechized concerning the Liturgy, when the rubrics indicate that they are to be said by the assembly. This is assuming that the layperson in question speaks the language that the Liturgy is offered in, of course.

Are there traditionalists out there who are so attached to the EF that they refuse to say the responses at an OF Mass? If so, wow.


Would it be wrong to impose the orans posture for the entire assembly at any point in the Mass? Aren’t there other times in the Mass where the presider and the congregation are all appearing to do and say the same thing (even if you could argue they are performing different functions)?

I think traditional-minded people tend to associate the orans with being priestly, but as has been pointed out it is not necessarily indicative of a priestly function. Furthermore, in our culture across many Christian denominations who have adopted it due to no influence whatsoever from the RCC (and who may not be basing it on the orans to begin with), it has become associated with prayer, supplication, etc., and not necessarily with priestly ministry.

That said, what is the orans? In the Tridentine Rite, it involved palms forward, hands close to the body in a way that almost no one does now. The “hands raised up in prayer” pose that you see in all kinds of Evangelical Churches and in the pews in Catholic parishes as well is not really related to this - and I would argue it may not even be related historically to the orans figures seen in the catacombs. It may have evolved from secular gestures of supplication. All of this makes me see even less reason why “hands out, palms up” in its many varieties is something exclusively priestly when done during a Eucharistic celebration or in any liturgical context.


We already can’t enforce basic posture, witness the people who kneel when THEY want rather than when the Bishop has mandated, I don’t even want to think about things like where and how to hold my hands at specific times.


You can’t impose hand positions on people. It’s not realistic. There are too many difficulties. E.g., many people, even young people, have arthritis or some other physical condition and are unable to do certain hand positions (like lacing fingers). Some people (me) have to hang onto the pew in front of us for balance or support. And most young parents spend much of their Mass holding at least one child and holding down another child!


Any rule could say that people who have a good reason to do something else with their hands (such as a medical condition or children) would not have to. Just because some people would need to do something different does not mean that you cannot have some standard for what most people should do. And in cases like a Mass in a medical facility or a home for the elderly I’m sure that the rule could allow for greater flexibility. I’m not against licensing pastoral variations in liturgy as long as they are based on necessity rather than personal taste. Inculturation is a different issue which I discussed above.


The majority of people either refuse to say the responses or don’t know the words. Many people just don’t want to be told what to do. That’s human nature, not only the EF people.

As far as people not knowing what to do with their hands, it’s not the worst idea to hold and read a missal or missalette during the Mass. But I don’t want to be the one who tells them what to do.


I cannot think of anything more off-putting than going to Mass and being forced to perform hand gestures in a puppet-like manner. What next?


Before Vatican II we either held our Missals in our hands and followed along with the priest or we kept our hands together in prayer. It didn’t make any difference if we just kept our hands together, fingers pointing up or fingers laced. The idea was that we were praying and the usual, accepted form was hands together in prayer. In all the years I attended Mass I never saw Catholics raising their arms when they prayed. That was something the Protestants did. After Vatican II, I did see some people using the Protestant form of raising their arms. I find it distracting. Also, when we received Communion, we approached the altar with our hands together in a prayerful way. Now if one out of ten people approach the altar to receive Communion with their hands together it’s a lot. I think we lost something when we adopted these Protestant or less sacred attitudes towards the Eucharist and towards prayer in general.
I think it might be a good idea for the Pastor in each parish, or the Bishop, to stress the proper way to hold our hands as we pray the Mass.


I agree with this. This is my experience too. I find all the raising up arms stuff silly.

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