Postures and Gestures During the Our Father
Date: August 20, 2023
Author: Fr. Edward McNamara, LC
Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and sacramental theology and director of the Sacerdos Institute at the Pontifical Regina Apostolorum university.
A reader from the Philippines, M.A.S., asked about a July 16 circular letter (No. 2023-03) issued by the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) on the posture to be adopted during the Lord’s Prayer. Our reader asks several precise questions regarding this action by the bishops some of which I will try to address.
Question 1: May the CBCP (a lesser authority than the Holy See) allow during the Lord's Prayer at Mass the use by the Filipino faithful of gestures and postures, including those innovations (for example, holding and or raising hands), which have not been approved with a formal recognition by the Holy See? Will this not violate the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM) paragraphs 395 and 396?
Question 2: May the CBCP validly allude to the Italian translation of the Roman Missal for the use of the orantes posture, which was approved through a recognition from the Holy See for Italy but not for the Philippines?
Answer: The relevant paragraphs of the GIRM say:
“395. Finally, if the participation of the faithful and their spiritual welfare require variations and profounder adaptations in order for the sacred celebration to correspond with the culture and traditions of the different nations, then Conferences of Bishops may propose these to the Apostolic See in accordance with article 40 of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy for introduction with the Apostolic See’s consent, especially in the case of nations to whom the Gospel has been more recently proclaimed. The special norms handed down by means of the Instruction on the Roman Liturgy and Inculturation should be attentively observed.
“As regards the procedures in this matter, these should be observed: Firstly, a detailed preliminary proposal should be set before the Apostolic See, so that, after the necessary faculty has been granted, the detailed working out of the individual points of adaptation may proceed. Once these proposals have been duly approved by the Apostolic See, experiments should be carried out for specified periods and at specified places. When the period of experimentation is concluded, the Conference of Bishops shall decide, if the case requires, upon pursuing the adaptations and shall submit a mature formulation of the matter to the judgment of the Apostolic See.
“396. However, before proceeding to new adaptations, especially profounder ones, great care shall be taken to promote due instruction of the clergy and the faithful in a wise and orderly manner, so as to take advantage of the faculties already foreseen and to apply fully the pastoral norms in keeping with the spirit of the celebration.”
While the procedure for converting the contents of the circular letter into particular legislation for the Philippines remains open to the bishops, they might not have considered this process as being necessary for several reasons.
The above norms of the GIRM refer to adaptations to particular cultures, but these gestures are not specific to the Philippines and are currently found all over the world.
The circular letter does not establish new legislation as such but clarifies the legitimacy of already existing custom. The bishops are likewise very clear that nothing is to be imposed on any member of the faithful, and hence none of the faithful are required to change their current liturgical practice.
There are good reasons why it is possible to refer to the action of the Italian bishops’ conference without feeling the need to follow a similar legal process. When the Italian bishops voted to permit the orans posture for the Our Father in the liturgy, they understood they were introducing a liturgical novelty that required the permission of the Holy See. The reasoning behind this novelty could well be the perception that the Lord’s Prayer had assumed a new role within the liturgy as a prayer of the whole assembly as is explained in the circular letter.
The Philippine bishops, however, can reasonably consider that they are not before a liturgical novelty but a practice with at least 30 years of continual use. In some communities it could have acquired canonical status as a legitimate custom. This difference would allow for a distinct, less legal approach to that of the Italian bishops.
Our reader makes a third question on the circular letter:
Q3: By the letting the Filipino faithful adopt any posture or gesture they please on the grounds of "respect" and "fraternal charity" in order to let each individual "express" and "experience" being a "child of God" in his or her own way, is the CBCP circular not in violation of the following paragraphs of the General Instruction to the Roman Missal?
-- Paragraph 42, which directs attention "to what serves the common spiritual good of the People of God, rather than private inclination or arbitrary choice" [inquirer’s italics]
-- Paragraph 43, which calls on the faithful to follow instructions given in accord with the Missal for the sake of uniformity [inquirer’s italics] in gestures and bodily postures
-- Paragraph 95, which calls on the faithful to avoid any appearance of singularity or division
-- Paragraph 96, which advocates the use of gestures and bodily postures as a beautiful expression of "unity" in forming "one body"
Here I would suggest that our correspondent is reading too much into the circular letter and the GIRM.
While clearly the GIRM does not allow for arbitrary gestures it does not require absolute uniformity in all things. I would also point out that the criticism he makes of the circular letter could also be applicable to the action of the Italian bishops, approved by the Holy See, since they also leave it up to the individual faithful whether to adopt the orans posture during the Our Father.
Hence, while recognizing the legitimacy of the decision made by the bishops’ conference and the choice to proceed through a circular letter rather than through legislation (which they are still free to pursue), I do believe that the letter could have offered stronger arguments.
The letter lays some stress on the argument from silence. This is, however, a weak argument in liturgical law.
Liturgical law is by nature descriptive; it says what is to be done and usually is silent about what is not to be done.
With respect to liturgical acts, the liturgical books distinguish postures from gestures. The rubrics give fairly detailed descriptions as to the postures of both priest and people. Thus, people know which of the four basic postures (standing, sitting, kneeling and bowing) they should assume at each part of the Eucharistic celebration.
With respect to gestures, however, while those of the priest and deacon are described in detail, those made by the faithful are only described when a specific gesture is to be performed. For example: striking the breast during the “I confess,” the triple sign of the cross at the Gospel, and little more. Indeed, the rubrics are silent regarding the gestures of the people not just during the Lord’s Prayer but during most of the Mass.
If any conclusion may be drawn from silence, it is not that any gesture may be performed but that no particular gesture is required.
This does not exclude the possibility of the development of local customary gestures, either new or old. In many places people will still strike their breast at the “Lamb of God” even though it is not in the rubrics, and, as we have seen, in other localities people have adopted the orans posture during the Our Father.
My point is that it is best to avoid using the argument from silence to justify the legitimacy of these new customs but rather to strive to provide good theological and symbolic foundations that permit the gesture to be organically integrated into the celebration.
Indeed, the argument from silence can easily backfire.
For example, someone could use the argument from silence to propose introducing the assembly adopting the orans gesture during the Eucharistic Prayer, a gesture with theological implications that would be very different from the meaning of the same gesture during the Our Father. The argument from silence could inadvertently open a floodgate of unwanted innovations.
It could also be added that the Church has not been totally silent about holding hands. In 1975 the Congregation for Divine Worship answered the following doubt:
“On the Sign of Peace
“Whether the practice can be admitted which occurs here and there in which those participating at Mass, instead of expressing peace to each other at the invitation of the deacon, hold hands while the Lord’s Prayer is sung?
“R. Holding hands has for a long time been on its own a sign of communion rather than of peace. Moreover, it is a liturgical gesture introduced spontaneously, though on private initiative: It is not found in the rubrics. Nor can it be understood by what reason the gesture of peace at the invitation ‘let us offer each other the sign of peace’ should be suppressed, which has such great significance, grace and Christian character, in order that another sign of lesser significance may be introduced at another time during the Mass. For this reason, if it is a matter of substitution, this must simply be rejected. Notitiae 11 (1975) 226”
It must be admitted that this official response does not condemn the practice of holding hands per se, but only if it substitutes or anticipates the sign of peace. It does show, however, a certain underlying ambiguity in the gesture that requires attentive reflection.
For this reason, and as a strictly personal opinion, I do not consider that the two practices, although legitimate, are on equal footing. The “orantes” which is both posture and gesture is an ancient Christian practice found depicted on the walls of the catacombs.
Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict XVI, in his book The Spirit of the Liturgy, deemed it “the oldest gesture of prayer in Christendom.” He continues: “It is also a gesture of seeking and hoping. Man reaches out to the hidden God, stretches out toward him. Arms extended have been compared to wings: man seeks the heights, he wants to be, as it were, carried upward by God on the wings of payer. But for Christians, arms extended also have a Christological meaning. They remind us of the extended arms of Christ on the Cross.”
The meaning of holding hands is less clear. Some years ago we offered our personal take on holding hands during the Lord's Prayer, and have not changed our opinion.
Although there are very few official declarations regarding this topic around the world, it would seem that many local bishops or diocesan liturgical offices follow a path like that adopted by the bishops of the Philippines. There are practically no absolute prohibitions regarding either gesture, and there is an insistence that there should be no obligation on the faithful to adopt either gesture uniformly as an assembly.
One difference that can be perceived is that there would seem to be a preference either toward making no gesture or the orans posture, and a gentle, but not absolute, discouragement of holding hands.
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