Monday, March 23, 2009

The Self-Perpetuation of Innovations

The other day as I was at daily Mass at a parish other than my own, when the time for the Our Father came, I found that despite standing with my hands folded and my eyes closed, an elderly gentleman from the next pew had actually walked over and thrust his hand out towards mine to hold it. This always puts me in a predicament since he seemed so insistent on holding my hand (I have actually had people tap me on the shoulder while I am praying the Our Father with my eyes closed and hands folded in order to call my attention to the fact that their hand is extended) - because I am a softy, I ended up taking his hand, thinking it better not to offend against charity. Perhaps I am wrong about this, but it is a prudential judgment and at any rate not the point of this post.

But as I was leaving Mass, I contemplated the phenomenon of holding hands at the Our Father and the way the innovations tend to spawn other innovations. As I thought about it, I began to see that the holding of the hands at the Our Father is not simply a novelty/abuse, but it is actually five novelties. Five you ask? Yes, five. Here's how.

The origin of holding hands at the Our Father is undoubtedly connected with the laity adopting the orans gesture during the prayer. Once everybody takes the orans position, it is natural that hands will touch in a crowded pew, and then it is inevitable that people will think to start holding hands. So why do the laity adopt the orans posture?

Here is innovation number one. Dr. Ed Peters points out that originally the priest only adopted the orans gesture when praying out loud and alone (as in the Opening Prayer and the Post-Communion). However, when praying out loud and with the people (in the Gloria or Creed), he joins his hands together. The Our Father, being said in the Novus Ordo out loud and with the people, ought to be said by the priest with folded hands, but is in fact an anomaly.

This is because originally, the Pater Noster would have been prayed out loud and alone, as the other prayers that call for the orans in which the priest is praying on behalf of the people. But in 1958 permission was granted for, among other things, the congregation to join the priest in praying the Pater, provided that they could pray it in Latin (See AAS 50: 643; Eng. trans., Canon Law Digest V: 587). It was not mandated, but it quickly caught on. Thus we had the priest continuing to say the Pater Noster in the traditional orans gesture, but now the laity were allowed to say it as well. This was never addressed, and the rubric calling for or the priest to continue using the orans position during the Our Father simply passed unnoticed into the new rite of Mass. This is the first innovation: having the laity join the priest in saying the Our Father.

Number two comes when the laity decide to adopt the orans gesture. This came when the orans gesture became associated not with the manner in which prayer was offered, but with the Our Father prayer specifically. It was not unpredictable that this would happen once the Our Father became the only prayer said aloud and with the congregation in which the priest adopted the orans position. The laity would naturally associate this position with this specific prayer. This led them to belief the proper position for praying the Pater was the orans and to consequently adopt it. Now we have two innovations.

As I mentioned above, it is not a far cry from the laity adopting the orans to the point where they begin to hold hands. The Our Father does speak about us forgiving others and calling on our common Father, and so I think that what began as the simple postural reality that peoples' hands probably touched as they all adopted the orans quickly was mutated into an unsanctioned position of hand holding. For those who had already chosen to associate the orans with the Pater, this would seem to be in keeping with the spirit of the prayer. Thus we have the introduction of the third innovation: holding hands.

But it does not end there. Anyone who has been to a place where people hold hands during the Our Father knows that at the "For thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory" everybody tends to elevate their raised hands. I am not sure how this began, but we can clearly pinpoint the raising of joined hands during this part as a distinct element from the simple hand holding. Thus the "Pater Noster Elevation" is innovation number four.

Finally, we have something which is not perceptible externally but is noticeable if you have ever held hands during the Our Father. After the prayer is over, when the priest and people say 'Amen' after the "sed libera nos a malo", the person holding your hand tends to give it a little squeeze, as if this 'Amen' is the climax of the affectionate rite of hand holding. It's like they are saying, "Hang in there, brother!" I think this is just a natural outgrowth of the hand holding innovation: if you are holding hands with somebody, it is quite natural to go from that to a gentle squeeze to demonstrate affection. So now we have a fifth element of innovation: the squeeze of the hand of your neighbor prior to releasing it.

None of these gestures are particularly sinister, other than that they are unsanctioned and can give rise to a false ecclesiology, which I guess is sinister. I only mention them to show how one innovation can lead to a progression in which many others are spawned. And notice how, while the Vatican never mandated lifting joined hands or anything like that, all those gestures can nevertheless be traced back through a logical regress back to an official act of the Church in 1958 which permitted the laity to join the priest in saying the Pater out loud.

A great example of how changing the liturgy, even in seemingly minute ways, can lead to things that the people making the changes may have never imagined.


Stella Orientis said...

I concur with your hypotheses for innovations two and three, but contest four and five. I have not observed these phenomena consistently, and suspect they may be more an American custom (of not anywhere else) than universal, particularly the "elevation" and the "squeeze". These do occur sporadically in Australia (I have observed them incosistently in Sydney, Adelaide and Perth) but not uniformly or even predominantly as you appear to say.

Clare Mulligan said...

I was under the impression that all of this came via the charismatic movement. Why no mention of this in your post?

Anonymous said...

Here in Oklahoma it varies by parish but your post made me think back over the last 35 years or so of my conscious life, and I can tell you that this phenomenon has become very pervasive in the new mass. Growing up, there was one parish where everyone held hands at the PN--now every parish does it. I agree and have experienced all 5 of your innovations, although number 4 only over the last 15 years or so, and number 5 only occasionally.
I am and always have been a regular NO attendee--didn't have much awareness about the old mass until about 5 years ago. But I have always disliked the handholding and elevating. My wife is a convert so she likes to do it--I do it with her but if I'm alone I keep my hands to myself. the Sign of Peace is distracting too--I have read that Rome is considering moving it to just before the offertory. I'd prefer they do away with it altogether but I'll take what I can get. It is just too distracting and has become too irreverent to do so close to Holy Communion.

Another "innovation" that I have noticed only over the last 5 years or so, is at the 2 parts of the Mass when the priest says "Peace be with you" and we answer "and also with you"--people have adopted the orans posture there as well. the priest spreads his arms to the whole congregation in saying his part, and the people now do it back to him. Seems a little too informal for me.

Boniface said...

I found this sentence particularly interesting:

But I have always disliked the handholding and elevating. My wife is a convert so she likes to do it

I recall that when I first reverted from Protestantism, I liked hand holding as well. I wonder why this is...

Boniface said...


I was not aware that this was connected with the charismatic movement...if you know more history about it, could you enlighten us?

I would definitely say that this practice exceeds the boudnaries of charismatic parishes, for it is endemic in almost ALL Novus Ordo parishes with very few exceptions and is not specifically connected to the charismatic movement, at least now in 2009.

Jeffrey Pinyan said...

I wouldn't call the allowance for the faithful to pray the Our Father aloud with the priest an "innovation" in the same way the other four are.

As you pointed out, in 1958 the Church permitted the people to recite the prayer in Latin with the priest in low Masses. (cf. De Musica Sacra 32) Surely this was a laudable recovery of the practice of the ancient Church, no? I'll check my copy of King's "Notes on the Catholic Liturgies" to see if it mentions when the congregation stopped praying the whole prayer.

The introduction to the prayer implies that the congregation will say it together with the priest: "Præcéptis salutáribus móniti, et divína institutióne formáti, audémus dícere..."

I'm under the impression all the Eastern Rites have the Our Father prayed aloud by the faithful.

(After some scouring on the internet...)

I found this epistle of Pope St. Gregory the Great (Tome IX, Epistle 12):

"But the Lord's prayer [orationem Dominicam] we say immediately after the prayer [mox post precem] for this reason, that it was the custom of the apostles to consecrate the host of oblation to [ad] that same prayer only. And it seemed to me very unsuitable that we should say over the oblation a prayer which a scholastic had composed, and should not say the very prayer which our Redeemer composed over His body and blood. But also the Lord's Prayer among the Greeks is said by all the people, but with us by the priest alone." (source)

Boniface said...


by 'innovation" I am not making a negative or positive judgment about the practice of saying the Lord's Prayer with the priest - I am merely stating the historical fact that it was something new introduced in the late 50's/early 60's. Perhaps it was the ancient practice - but by 20th century standards, it was an innovation.