The Basilica of Saint John the Evangelist

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"When did Mother Church train us to extend our arms towards the priest when replying 'And with your spirit’? When did she teach us to lift our hands or hold hands during the Lord’s Prayer? I cannot find where Mother Church taught us those things, and I know Mother Stella (my third-grade religion teacher) didn’t teach me them."

Mother Stella knew best

By Frank Trotta

In his new book, That Nothing May Be Lost, Father Paul Scalia reminds us, "Mother Church trains us in the integrity of worship. In the Mass she unites our words and actions. As we make the Sign of the Cross, we say, 'In the Name of the Father….’ As we say that we have sinned through our own fault, we strike our breast. As we confess the Incarnation, we bow low. Our words become flesh."

But when did Mother Church train us to extend our arms towards the priest when replying "And with your spirit"? When did she teach us to lift our hands or hold hands during the Lord’s Prayer?

I cannot find where Mother Church taught us those things, and I know Mother Stella (my third-grade religion teacher) didn’t teach me them. Indeed, the latter would likely have smacked my hands with her pointer for "making fun" of the priest, if I imitated Father Sullivan’s hand gestures during the Our Father.

Why does it matter? As famed author Father Roman Guardini reminds us in Sacred Signs :

"Every part of the body is an expressive instrument of the soul. [W]hen we stand in God’s presence in heart-felt reverence and humility the open hands are laid together palm against palm in sign of steadfast subjection and obedient homage, as if to say that the words we ourselves would speak are in good order and that we are ready and attentive to hear the words of God. Or it may be a sign of inner surrender. These hands, our weapons of defense, are laid, as it were, tied and bound together between the hands of God. "

"Some gestures and postures are reserved for the priest-celebrant," according to Father Bryan Babick of the Diocese of Charleston ("Praying with gestures," The Catholic Miscellany, October 13, 2013). He points out that since the time of Moses, both Jewish and Christian traditions have reserved extended hands as a priestly gesture, much like Moses elevating his hands resulted in battle victories for the Israelites. Each has his role, Moses or the celebrant of the Mass as leader, and the Israelites or the congregants, as those led. Father Babick likens this diversity of roles to "the right foot work[ing] in tandem with the left … in unison to advance us in motion."

Cardinal Robert Sarah, who was appointed by Pope Francis to be Prefect for Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, recently wrote about the Mass and the serious crisis of faith in his essay, "Adapting the Liturgy to Our Decadence." He says:

"[W]e cannot close our eyes to the disaster, the devastation and the schism that the modern promoters of a living liturgy caused by remodeling the Church’s liturgy according to their ideas. They forgot that the liturgical act is not just a PRAYER, but also and above all a MYSTERY in which something is accomplished for us that we cannot fully understand but that we must accept and receive in faith, love, obedience and adoring silence. And this is the real meaning of active participation of the faithful. It is not about exclusively external activity, the distribution of roles or of functions in the liturgy, but rather about an intensely active receptivity: this reception is, in Christ and with Christ, the humble offering of oneself in silent prayer and a thoroughly contemplative attitude."

One simple way each of us can work towards a return to the level of reverence required for the Mass, is to keep our hands folded during most of the Mass, as Mother Stella taught me and as those not fortunate enough to have a Mother Stella can learn from reading Cardinal Sarah’s essay or Father Guardini’s book.

Frank Trotta is a retired attorney and a member of the Basilica of St. John the Evangelist.

10 thoughts on “Mother Stella knew best 05/12/17

  1. Excellent article. I always wince when I see people mimicking the priest with their hand gestures. To me it’s a desire to call attention to oneself during Mass, not to our Lord.

  2. Introduction to prayer often begins with the hands. Parents move tiny hands to the forehead, in the name of the Father. From there it gets even more complicated as the People of God learn to express, in movement and word, personal engagement in communal worship and celebration. Accommodations through the centuries and varied cultures of those the Holy Spirit brings together adds to the complexity and enriches us all. May we recognize and embrace, as did the early Church (see today’s 1st reading — Acts 13: 44-52) all who are destined for eternal life.

  3. Your noted issue is one that I had not previously pondered. I appreciate your thoughtful study and your willingness to share your opinion and educate others.

  4. We all have our own spiritual gifts and our own ways of offering them to others. Aside from the accepted truths, we differ on how to be “Catholic,” from contemplatives to activists. There is room for all of us in God’s house and I pray that we recognize each other’s value to the community.

  5. There’s an old Latin saying: “lex orandi, lex credendi”, which translates to “the law of praying is the law of believing.” The way we pray, dress and act at Mass reflects what we truly believe.

  6. Well written, thought-provoking article. There is something so beautiful and uncomplicated about arms simply folded in prayer. Setting a good example and presumed innocence are two of the most important aspects of positive leadership. Thank you for the great post!

  7. This is a welcome and thoughtful consideration. On my journey of faith from lapsed Episcopalian to high Anglican to Catholic I learned about the orans gesture and that it was commonly practiced by early Christians and carried on at times in the branching church, including the Mother Church. Since it dated back to the earliest practices, according to my source though I can’t remember where in my readings I came across it, I chose to embrace it. I find your thoughts interesting and helpful as I continue to, hopefully with humility, continue to enter into the midst of this community of faith.

  8. Excellent observation. I’d always wondered why some of the congregation would do that during Mass. Had I been more observant I might have realized that extending the hands while in prayer is just another way of flattering ourselves. There are however many paintings and works depicting the saints showing them holding hands in this position. So perhaps it’s also imitation?

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