On Holding Hands

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Okay, after much rumination, it occurs to me that the impulse to write these things is not going to go away, so against my better judgment, I write them and hope for the best. This post and the one that follow are directed to those issues.

One theme that seems a perennial issue with St. Blogger's is the question of what is "right" during the Our Father. Persons who have no problem flying in the face of teachings on the Death Penalty, war, torture, and other more magisterial teachings seem to have conniption fits over complete obedience to the rubrics of the Mass. If the Bishops have ever spoken definitively, it is on this matter of holding hand during the "Our Father."

Frankly, I don't care much one way or the other. I see two extremes--those who fear emotion in religion and those who think emotion is religion. The chief complaint I hear about the action other than the violation of the rubrics is that it "enforces an unwanted intimacy." But then, Christianity demands of us an unwanted intimacy, an intimacy not on our own terms. The Good Samaritan was not given his choice of the person for whom he was to care. We are not given a choice of who are our brothers and sisters in Christ. And the relationship of brothers and sisters is, for good or ill, intimate. And as there is a communal element of our working out of salvation, there is an intimacy there that goes far beyond the mere holding of hands.

The second argument and to my mind, the weaker is the appeal to authority. The Rubrics don't say it, and if they don't permit it, then it is forbidden, or so some say.

This is not doctrinal, it is instructional. And the reality has ever been that the body of the faithful has always influenced the manner in which things that are merely disciplinary or common practice have been done. For example, at one time in the past frequent confession was not at all the rule. In fact, confession occurred once, very near death to take care of all of those sins accrued since baptism. It was from the desire of the people of God that the practice of frequent confession became the rule rather than the exception.

So hand-holding in Mass--I'm neutral. Where the people of the Church hold hands (this seems to be more pronounced in Churches with a large Hispanic population--though that is merely from anecdotal experience) I hold hands. In churches where they do not, then I refrain from doing so. My inclination tends to favor those that do, largely for two reasons--one is the sense of intimacy and connectedness; the other, and perhaps the more important is that it doesn't allow me the posture which circles in on myself and closes me off from God. Given my own head, I would pray in the "orans" position because it is a meaningful body posture that expresses an openness that traditional poses do not. It is not "just me and God" because I am part of the body of Christ, so I've always been a little disturbed by the folded hands auto-cyclic posture.

On the other hand, because these things are a subject of much debate and much consternation to the masses, I also will not impose on anyone my viewpoint. If I'm in a Church that holds hand and someone near me chooses not to do so--then I will not force that person. I will also not refuse to hold hands with one who wishes that expression of solidarity. Ultimately it will not be rubrics that decide how these things will go, no matter how much the Bishops wish they would--it will be the spontaneous will of the faithful. The worshipping congregation will, for better or worse define this norm.

I sympathize with those for whom this is uncomfortable. I used to be among them. But I've grown indifferent to the matter because it strikes me as much ado about nothing. It is simply an organic evolutionary attempt at change. It may take hold, it may not. Whatever way it goes, so be it, I am content to be in the presence of God at Mass, however that may be expressed.

I suppose that is to say, I can't find myself getting worked up over this one way or the other. But then, I really like Mariachi, Calypso, Creole, and Drum Masses--so I'm not one to judge by.

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In two consecutive posts, the venerable* Steven Riddle takes the charable middle ground on hot topics. I knew there was a reason that I love reading this site...

What really annoyed me was the time John Paul the Great went to South America and there were people complaining about the liturgical dancers at the Mass he said there. Maybe liturgical dance isn't appropriate, but don't you think the Pope would be able to take care of it himself?


*I mean this in the Asian-addressing-a-wise-elder sense, not in the Cannonization-trial sense.

Dear Brandon,

I had considered putting that very point into my post--the outcry at the Canonization Mass of Juan Diego and its liturgical anomalies. Thank you for making mention of it. There are those who disagree, who say that John Paul II was not much of a liturgist--and I would say that it was more than made up for by his enormous love for Jesus Christ and for the people Christ gave him to shepherd. Thanks Brandon.



Dear Steven,

Yes, I had forgotten which the particular Mass in question was, but that was it.

There are those who disagree, who say that John Paul II was not much of a liturgist

I have a lot I could say about people who excuse their own fundamentalist Catholic viewpoints. I had even typed some of it in this very space but then I deleted it, in an effort to keep to the charitable middle ground myself. (Which, by the way, is what I meant to write above, instead of "charable"). Suffice it to say that I think JPtG didn't really "make up" for his failings in any one area as much as we need to consider his overall message in the context of every particular thing he did during his reign.


Dear Brandon,

Thank you for the correction. I agree with your point about JPtG not "making up." I suppose I should have been more clear. What I meant is that while accepting that I am not an expert on liturgy, I would suggest to those who have greater expertise in the matter that whatever he may have lacked in rubrics, was more than compensated for in love. Personally, I don't think he was lacking. But then, I'm not much of a liturgist either. :-D



Having no particular theological axe to grind in this particular issue, all I can respond with is personal experience. I attended mass at a Latin Rite church a while back, and was somewhat startled when everybody started holding hands for the Our Father. I felt like I was at a 12-step meeting - kept expecting the priest to walk up to the pulpit and say, "Hi. I'm Bill and I'm an alcoholic."

Speaking solely for myself, I found it really disruptive - sort of like everybody doing the wave at the epiclesis. To each his own - but as for me, no thanks.

Dear WA,

You are right. The first time it happens it is utterly disconcerting; but, after a while the novelty wears off and it is natural as what was done before. I do have to say that my own Church goes way too far with holding hands across aisles and people deparately searching so that no hand go unheld.

I started out not particularly liking it, and I have grown to where I do miss it in Churches that don't do it--but I'll be okay any way it goes. The important thing to me is to try not to be disruptive to others whereever I go, whatever the circumstances. When that means holding hands, I do so; when it means refraining, I do so. The critical thing is that I do not become a distraction from God by imposing on others whatever my system may be.



Hi Steven,

Meaning no disrespect to you or your always balanced viewpoint, as one of the liturgical nazis around town I would like to bring up a couple of aspects of the debate that I think warrant consideration.

First, (and I know you know these things, but I need to state them to make my case) the liturgy is a prayer and an expression of our beliefs. Traditionally every action was to have a meaning.

Our actions and posture are an integral part of prayer and help to convey a meaning (i.e., your example of how the orans seems most appropriate for the Our Father - I understand and can relate to that sense, though would not do it myself). Holding hands conveys a meaning as just as genuflecting, beating your breast, and kneeling does. Many of us rigid types, along with (and/or informed by) many clerics who have spoken on the matter think the meaning of hand-holding gives the wrong meaning to what is taking place at that moment.

It's not that I don't like my neighbor or don't think of ourselves as one in Christ, nor am I a germophobe or anything of the like. During the Our Father we are addressing the Father along with the Son and the Holy Spirit. It is an entirely vertical prayer and whatever posture one assumes should reflect that. Holding hands, IMHO, does just the opposite. The ultimate communion is Holy Communion when we are all united as one with Christ.

In defense of those who would object strictly or primarily from a rubics standpoint, I will note that if I had my way I'd be kneeling for everything except the Gospel (standing) and the homily (sitting). I don't do it because the liturgy is not something for me to make uniquely mine, even if kneeling suits my sense of piety best. So, I don't feel like a hypocrit expecting people to refrain from doing any ol' posture they feel like doing, and I think it's prudent for the Church to discourage such things.

I don't know if any of this carries any weight, but it is a perspective that I think has merit.

God bless,

Dear Rick,

I read this last night and started to respond and then thought better of it lest I precipitate another "universalism" blowout. Although I did not take offense or umbrage at anything said, and did not see the same cause; because the issue is sensitive, it requires greater thought.

I have always had a problem with the line of reasoning you put forth here and it stems from several sources. First, I fail to see how holding hands in any way detracts from the motion of the prayer. Indeed, I see it as the appropriate gesture when praying to "Our Father." In holding hands, at least in theory, the many separate I's are gathered into one family under God and offer as one the prayer that is said. Now, compare that, on the other hand, to the creed, which, when properly prayed states, "I believe." In fact, that is the most I can say in the Church, because I haven't a clue what the person next to me in the pew might or might not believe. There is a false solidarity there that can have no base because we cannot know the state of mind or soul of a brother, sister, mother, or father, much less a stranger. Were we to hold hands during that prayer, I would find it quite awkward and in antithesis to the meaning of the prayer.

However, when we pray, "Our Father," the case can be made that the many individuals should in some wise be gathered into a family.

What I see in this particular rubric is a virulent fear of protestantism. As I was raised in my house, every important family occasion and prayer was said with the entire family holding hands. The Thanksgiving blessing, the blessing over the food, even the prayer and song after funerals "Let the Circle Be Unbroken." We declare the cohesive unity of the family in this gesture. Still, on every occasion of importance and gathering, we hold hands in prayer, becoming for a short time one unit rather than three, four, six, or eight individuals. There is a true solidarity there.

So, I look at Our Father and say, what gesture, what position, what motion might suggest our unity rather than our separateness. Why, holding hands, of course.

That said, I can asknowledge that this is at best a forced unity, a coerced solidarity, and the symbol may not speak for all; whereas the ultimate neutrality of not holding hands and standing with arms at side during the prayer, at least does not impose anything on anyone. This argument, I can buy and so I do not advance my own with the vigor that I might otherwise do. That some are made uncomfortable, that some are unused to it, that some would see it as specious, is perfectly reasonable and feasible. I have no problem with that--and so the reasonable solution is the neutral solution--one that does not force anything on anyone else.

Nevertheless, I do like the symbolism of holding hands. I even like the slightly uncomfortable notion that is reinforced by this that we are all one family praying as a unity before the Lord, gathered and connected in the body of Christ. I used to be quite uncomfortble with it for all of the reasons that have been suggested--the forced itimacy of it, the forced nature of it, the ultimte non-reality-in-fact in the physical world of it. But through the gesture I have come to accept my own parish and community more and have come to understand the meaning of the body of Christ and of the family of God better.

It is evident from discussions that others would not feel this way. It is for that reason, I believe that my bishop has been mysteriously silent on the topic, even while enforcing all sorts of outré and odd differences as suggested by the GIRM (standing during the consecration portion of the Eucharistic prayer--which later he reversed). It would seem to depend uniquely upon the congregation. It is my opinion that it is so strongly rooted in some communities that undoing it would be a source of such community pain and anguish, with so little to gain, that it would seem unwise. Again, with the recent changes in GIRM, the bishop hand us standing for the Agnus Dei, kneeling for the "I am not worthy" and standing again as we waited for reception of the Eucharist, and then sitting or standing after reception. While people attempted to comply, it just made a huge mess of Mass. So too with the specific instruction on reception of the Eucharist, I see head nods, body bows and genuflections--no one is certain what to do and the head-bowing instruction is insufficient to most--they cling to something else.

I've gone on too long, but you get the point. I'm not saying that you are incorrect, merely that I fail to see the reason of it. I don't understand, and I mean this literally, I fail to comprehend how holding hands in any way detracts from our attention to God--but do keep in mind the background I have outlined for you. I suspect there are a great many protestants who feel this way.

One note I would add though, is that whatever one feels about the matter, one should not make oneself the center of attention and fuss. There are some who do not wish to hold hands while the whole congregation is doing so--that is fine. Fut I have seen people physically move way down the aisles, stare, glare, and fuss until you got the impression that Mass was all about them. The proper way to address any such abuse is to speak to one's pastor, and if that does not resolve satisfactorially, to continue the protest to the Bishop.

My understanding of obedience, however, suggests that the chain of command must be followed, and if there is no satisfaction at the level of the Bishop, then one must pursue one's own course in not holding hands. If, however, a local priest tells me, "Let us join hands as we pray in the words our savior gave us," I will join hands with anyone willing--because that is what obedience calls me to at the time. I will not, however, force this on anyone who chooses not to hear or obey; nor will I say that such obedience is incumbent upon them, because I could understand how one might say that refusal to hold hands is in fact obedience to a higher authority. Rather than get tied up in all of that, I choose simply to celebrate Mass as the local congregation sees fit. If we hold hands, fine. If not, that also is fine. Futher I will admit that according to present instruction the latter may be the more perfect way of celebrating at the present time.

But my codicil is that changes in rubrics and in matters of practice almost always flow from the people and not from instruction imposed from on high. Creole Masses, Drum Masses, Mariahci Masses, Litrugical Dancing and other such things are normative in different parts of the world, and even in different communities in the United States. That is one of the wonderful things about the Catholic Church, her rituals and rites are so plastic that they can indorporate cultural differences without ever losing their intrinsic meaning.

I hope this did not sound either too defensive or too arrogant. I really don't intend it to; but I feel that given the integrity and sincerity of you comment, you are entitled to at least of glimpse of my thought, however incorrect it might be, in the matter. I stand ready to be obedient--if the Bishop tells us to stop doing this, I shall stop; however, as I've said, so far there has been no instruction at all regarding this from him--no correction of perceived abuse, etc. So, I will let it be for now and adapt myself to the local practice. Whatever way it is done, so long as I am in the presence of the Lord, it really doesn't matter to me. The critical thing is God alone.





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This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on April 24, 2006 9:41 AM.

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