Holding Hands During Mass

Holding Hands for the Lord’s Prayer

Another week, another liturgical question!

A medical practitioner contacted me recently to express her concern about the introduction into her parish of the practice of people holding hands with their neighbours during the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer.

She said that it had been well documented that the ‘flu virus, which was particularly virulent at the time, was spread by hand contact. She felt very uncomfortable about herself and others being obliged to hold hands with people who had been coughing and sneezing into their hands and blowing their noses. Interestingly, this doctor had no problems on medical grounds about sharing the cup at communion and agreed fully with the official advice given by the Church when the issue has arisen from time to time.

My enquirer wanted to know which liturgical document or rite gave permission for the practice of holding hands during the Lord’s Prayer, assuming that, if no such permission existed, she would be justified in asking for the practice to be banned in her parish.

A lot of things we do without question at Mass aren’t set down in official books. For example, neither the Roman Missal nor the 1975 General Instruction refers to the people making the sign of the cross on their forehead, lips and breast before the reading of the Gospel at Mass. The rubrics state that the deacon or priest who reads the Gospel does so, yet it is usual practice for the assembly to follow suite. Interestingly, the new General Instruction that was recently approved for Australia but is yet to be implemented adds the phrase ‘which everyone else does as well’ to the instructions for the priest or deacon.

The point is this: the fact that something is not mentioned in the rubrics or liturgy documents does not mean that it is not allowed. However, I believe there are good reasons for questioning the practice of holding hands for prayer, apart from the medical grounds which understandably caused my caller concern.

Firstly, holding hands with strangers in public is not part of Australian culture and obliging people to do so by introducing it into the liturgy can be counterproductive. A friend who attends a parish where holding hands for the Lord’s Prayer is practised commented that she often finds herself thinking more about what she is doing and how she is feeling rather than the words she is praying.

Secondly, holding hands has never been an accepted gesture for public prayer. A more appropriate alternative might be to encourage people to adopt the orans stance, with arms raised and palms turned upwards, as practised in some parishes and permitted in the revised Italian Sacramentary.

Finally, holding hands is really only effective as a gesture if the church is packed and everyone present can easily reach their neighbours without having to stretch over pews, move across aisles, etc.

The reason usually given for holding hands during the Our Father is that it creates a sense of unity and community, but this is best expressed by walking together to the table and sharing the one bread and one cup at communion.

While holding hands during the Lord’s Prayer should not be introduced where it is not currently practised, it would be pastorally inappropriate to suppress what is a genuine and long-standing aspect of people’s prayer in some places.

Elizabeth Harrington