A helpful reader not my wife pointed my attention to the following helpful Q&A, answered by Msgr. Matthew Mitas and printed in last week's Review:
Dear Father’What is the importance of posture in prayer?
by Msgr. Matthew Mitas
Q: I’ve noticed that in many parishes of late, it’s become common practice for many of the faithful to hold their hands out at their sides, palms upraised, during the Lord’s Prayer. Somehow I missed the catechesis on this. Which rubric of which document established this?
A: You’re referring to the orans (Latin for "praying") posture, which is mandated by the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, but only for the priest celebrant. Let’s examine your question more closely.
Most religions have recognized the importance of posture in prayer, whether it’s the lotus position of the Hindu yoga or the traditional Muslim form of kneeling, face down to the ground. A good posture better disposes one to receive the grace for which he is praying. In our Catholic tradition, there are various postures that relate to the different forms of prayer and are appropriate to the role of the one who prays. For example, we stand when petitioning the Almighty, we kneel (or genuflect) in homage and adoration before Him, and sometimes it is even proper to prostrate before Him (as the priest does in the beginning of the Good Friday service) to express our powerlessness before Him.
The orans posture, whereby one raises his hands from his sides with his palms facing forward, apparently pre-dates Christianity. It was used by pious souls to express openness to God and a vivid awareness of being in His presence when addressing Him. In our tradition, it was adapted early on for the use of the priest while he presided at Mass, most likely because it closely resembled Christ’s outstretched hands on the Cross. After all, the priest stands in the place of Christ at the great, unbloody re-enactment of Calvary which is the Mass. The exact positioning of the hands was modified over the centuries to where it is now most frequently practiced in the manner described in your question. Quite a few people in the charismatic movement in the 1970s began imitating the orans posture in their private devotions and sometimes would even do so during Mass.
In the 1990s, many of our American bishops were disturbed that a great number of our people had adopted the practice of holding hands at the praying of the Lord’s Prayer, another practice not mandated. Unsure of how best to bring this abuse to a halt, they proposed making the orans posture mandatory for all the faithful at Mass, and petitioned the pope to ratify the change. The Holy Father, however, rejected their petition, because the orans posture is recognized as a priestly posture and inappropriate for the laity to assume at Mass. (Anyone, of course, can assume whatever posture he chooses in his private, non-liturgical prayer.) By that time, however, some parishes and priests had already jumped the gun and started the practice and, obviously, have failed to curtail it despite the instruction from authority in Rome.
Two points should be made: First, no priest has the authority to mandate this practice for his whole parish.
Second, since the orans posture is, by custom, a priestly posture, the laity really should not be assuming it on their own initiative. The Mass is the action of the whole Church and not a private expression of an individualistic faith.
Any changes to our ancient customs and practices need to be exceedingly well thought out, consistent with our best traditions, and undertaken by and with the express approval of authority. Then, if the change is mandated, there must be overwhelming catechesis on it so that everyone understands what is being done and, more importantly, why it’s being done.
This breezy, 1960s, you-do-your-thing-I’ll-do-mine approach to the Mass has got to go. Frankly, it’s selfish. The purpose of the Mass is to make us one and express our unity. That can only happen when we are one Body, under one Head.
Msgr. Mitas is pastor of Immaculate Conception Parish, Union.