Saturday, December 3, 2011

Ask Tony: What's wrong with holding hands during the Our Father?

Recently, the bishop of Covington, Ky., Most Rev. Joseph D. Foys, issued a decree in his diocese that has liberal Catholics up in arms and conservatives rejoicing. Of special note is paragraph 4c:

Special note should also be made concerning the gesture for the Our Father. Only the priest is given the instruction to “extend” his hands. Neither the deacon nor the lay faithful are instructed to do this. No gesture is prescribed for the lay faithful in the Roman Missal; nor the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, therefore the extending or holding of hands by the faithful should not be performed [bold type mine].
Strictly speaking, this forbids the practice of laypeople taking the orans (literally "praying") position, where hand are held up and off to the side. But by extension, it also means the congregation is not to hold hands during the Our Father. This is why Bryan Cones, among others, has thrown a nutty about the decree.

Well, what's so bloody wrong with it? Why shouldn't we hold hands as a sign of unity and family?

For one thing, it's not culturally appropriate. Holding hands isn't a mere sign of "liking" or of general benevolence; it's an act of intimacy, of special closeness. It's only appropriate to certain relationships in our culture. Extending the act beyond those bounds is awkward, artificial and a distraction, especially for people who don't care to be touched by total strangers or to hold hands with people of the same sex (not even all same-sex couples hold hands).

Why is it artificial? Well, the posture was introduced by some (arguably) well-meaning liturgists and "reformers" to demonstrate that we as Catholics are all united in our faith. "Look at how united we are! We're one big, happy family of believers! Isn't this nice?" (Can you hear the Church Lady say, "Well, isn't that special"?)

So far as we need to show any unity, we do that by saying our responses and going through our liturgical postures together; the Creed (whether Apostles' or Nicene) is an especial sign and affirmation of union in faith, even though we once again say "I believe" rather than "We believe", a construction which takes personal ownership of the articles of faith. 

But every thing we do in the Mass is — or ought to be — directed towards the proper worship of God, from silent prayer and preparation before the Introit to waiting before the priest leaves before exiting the church. There's plenty of time before you go in and after you come out to get chummy with your fellow churchgoers. Whatever distracts or detracts from that focus needs to be eliminated ... especially if it's a liturgical abuse.

It also occurs to me that holding hands, like sex, generally suffers from promiscuity of practice. There are beautifully open-hearted people, especially women, who do seek out that kind of tactile intimacy from people they like precisely because it does have meaning to them. Most people, however, don't have that radical open-ness; they may suffer themselves to be touched, but don't necessarily become better friends for their tolerance. And for some others, an uninvited touch is an invasion of their privacy; one woman of my acquaintance, a supervisor and college classmate, couldn't stand to be touched even by her children. (Don't go there.) In general, the more people you hold hands with, the less intimate each individual contact becomes until it loses not only intimacy but meaning.

What's the counter-argument? 

Well, the counter is that the rubrics of the Missal and the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM) don't forbid the laity from taking the orans posture or holding hands in so many words. However, the "argument from silence" doesn't work; there are lots of other practices they don't specifically forbid that common sense and common decency tell us would not be appropriate at a church service of any type, let alone the Holy Sacrifice of the Eucharist. (Of course, you don't need to demonstrate either common decency or common sense to be certified a liturgist these days; still ....) In fact, the working presumption up until the last forty years was that, if it wasn't called for in the Missal, it wasn't permissible. Bishop Foys has simply made that presumption law within his diocese ... for which he deserves a nomination for the 2011 Ecclesial Backbone Award.

Frankly, there may be a large slice of the Church in America that are emotionally vested in this one-big-happy practice, but I suspect if the rest of the American hierarchy followed suit and forbade the orans posture by the people as appropriate only to the priest-celebrant, most of us in the pews would drop hands with a sigh of relief. It simply isn't natural to us. We suffer it because we think we're supposed to do it, but we feel uncomfortable and ridiculous doing it. It's phony togetherness; it distracts and detracts from proper worship of God while contributing nothing of substance to us — let's just get rid of it.

You want to hold hands with your spouse, your children or your "significant other" during Mass? Fine, but do it naturally, with your hands down. And for God's sake — I mean that literally — don't make it an obligation for the rest of us!