Throughout the Mass, various gestures are prescribed for both the priest and the faithful worshipers. For example, we begin and end Mass by making the sign of the cross; during the Confiteor, we strike our breast; we sign ourselves with the cross on the forehead, lips, and heart at the proclamation of the Gospel; during the Creed, we bow at the words professing our faith in the incarnation of our Savior; we kneel during the Eucharistic Prayer and after the Lamb of God; and we receive Holy Communion either on the tongue or the hand. All of these prescribed physical gestures help make the act of worship at Mass one which involves our whole being, body and soul, thoughts, words, and actions. They also help create a spiritual disposition to receive our Lord in Word and Sacrament. Moreover, these gestures are prescribed, just as the readings from Sacred Scripture and the Order of the Mass are, to make the Sacrifice of the Mass a unified act of worship throughout the whole Church– in a sense, every Catholic is doing the same thing, the same way. To find the rubrics (regulations which govern the Mass) concerning these gestures, one may turn to the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (2001), On Holy Communion and the Worship of the Eucharistic Mystery Outside of Mass (1973), Instruction on the Worship of the Eucharistic Mystery (1980), and Instruction on Certain Norms Concerning the Worship of the Eucharistic Mystery (1980).
However, in all of the liturgical documents for the universal Church or of those particular ones issued by the United States Bishops Conference, nowhere is the holding of hands during the Lord’s Prayer mandated. Frankly, this gesture arose among the various liturgical innovations in the aftermath of Vatican Council II. Perhaps the holding of hands was introduced with good intentions to highlight the unity of the congregation as they pray, “Our Father,” not “My Father.” Yet, if unity is the key, then should we not be holding hands throughout the entire Mass?
The unity that is sought really comes later and after a spiritual progression: First, we fall on our knees as the priest offers the sacrifice of the Mass: we recall not only our Lord’s passion, death, and resurrection but also our need as individuals to offer ourselves to Him. Second, we pray in the words our Savior taught us, the Lord’s Prayer, in which we ask, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us,” even the person next to us in the pew. Third, we offer the Sign of Peace, a gesture found in the earliest Masses to show a genuine unity based on peace and forgiveness. Finally, we receive Holy Communion which truly brings us into communion with our Lord and with each other. Looking at the logic of this spiritual progression to real unity, the holding of hands at the Our Father is extraneous.
Can a congregation hold hands anyway, even if it is extraneous? While no one can find fault if a husband and wife, or a family want spontaneously to hold hands during the Lord’s Prayer, the priest does not have the right to introduce, mandate, or impose it. The Code of Canon Law (1983) does mandate: “The liturgical books approved by the competent authority are to be faithfully observed in the celebration of the sacraments; therefore, no one on personal authority may add, remove, or change anything in them” (Canon 826.1). (Note that this Canon repeated a previous mandate found in both Vatican II’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (1963) and the Instruction on the Worship of the Eucharistic Mystery, #45 (1967), which was issued to address certain abuses arising in the liturgy after the council.) Therefore, a priest who introduces, mandates, or imposes the holding of hands during the Lord’s Prayer is violating the norms set by the Church.
The Church also reminds the priest, who is the guardian of the sacraments and who acts in persona Christi in offering the Mass: “The priest should realize that by imposing his own personal restoration of sacred rites he is offending the rights of the faithful and is introducing individualism and idiosyncrasy into celebrations which belong to the whole Church” (Third Instruction on the Correct Implementation of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, #1 (1970)). A person in the pew should not feel obliged or coerced to hold hands with someone else during the Lord’s Prayer, yet congregational “peer pressure” could easily lead to such feelings. One can only imagine how intimidated a person must feel by the rest of the congregation if he does not desire to hold hands, whether because of personal preference, or because of another reason such as arthritis or a cold.
Granted, the holding of hands during the Lord’s Prayer seems to have become almost a tradition in some parishes throughout the country. Nevertheless, we must remember that this gesture is not prescribed, it is an innovation to the Mass, and in its goal to build unity and sensitivity, it can be alienating and insensitive to individuals.