ASK FATHER: Excessive pious gestures during Mass

From a reader…

QUAERITUR:

Folks at my (exclusively Extraordinary Form) parish genuflect when the cross and then the priest pass them during the procession and recession. They also bless themselves everytime the priest does during the mass. I did not seen this at another traditional parish in a different state and I’m wondering if this is just a cultural thing for people from certain countries or maybe just the newness and unfamiliarity most of us have with the EF. It seems excessive to me.

May I suggest that you do what you choose to do and allow others to do what they choose to do?

There are no indications in the traditional Missal about what the congregation is to do.   As a matter of fact, there are far more indications for the congregation in the Novus Ordo.

There are traditional practices which vary from place to place.  However, some gestures make sense.  For example, kneeling for the consecration, singing responses, making the sign of the Cross when receiving an absolution or blessing, etc.

If someone wants to make the sign of the Cross at the same time as the priest… what’s wrong with that?  It seems to me that that isn’t an intolerable confusion of roles of laity and priest.

It seems to me a reasonable thing to make a pious gesture as a processional Cross – the symbol of our salvation – is formally brought into the sacred space of the church at the beginning or end of Holy Mass.

People don’t have to be in lockstep.   Provided that they are not a massive distraction to others, congregants have freedom.

 

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31 Responses to ASK FATHER: Excessive pious gestures during Mass

  1. Akita says:

    The genuflection police strikes again!

    [The question was sincerely asked. Be wary of rash judgment.]

  2. Akita says:

    Years ago, in a magnificent Cathedral in my hometown, built by the most despised ethic minority of the time was a life size crucifix hung on the side of the main altar on a sturdy stone pillar. Jesus’ feet with a big nail protruding was within reach of a passer-by. At the end of Mass my mother would lean forward and kiss the feet of Our Lord. Many people did so and the foot was shiny from so many pious gestures.

    I fear that might make some latter day heads explode. Think of the germs!

  3. HvonBlumenthal says:

    At anglo-catholic services of holy communion in Oxford, in the 1980s, the practice was to cross yourself as the cross passed and bow to the celebrant. Im not a fan of anglican theology but anglo catholicism is (or was) a treasure house of liturgical memories from pre Vatican I days.

  4. Rob83 says:

    Lots of people at the extraordinary form do lots of different things. None of it is bothersome because nobody insists that others join them in their practice. If something seems worthy, others will start to join in, and then we can say hello to our old friend, organic development.

  5. Dinocrates says:

    In my parish there is a sweet old man who prostates himself on the floor before leaving at the end of Mass. He waits until most of the church is empty before doing this. I don’t think it’s excessive. I think it is beautiful and edifying. Maybe it’s because it’s him and not some goofy holier than thou type.

  6. Chuck Ludd says:

    I’m curious about readers’ reactions to 2 gestures by the lay faithful at Mass: the orans at the Our Father and holding hands at the sign of peace. I personally find the orans to be a confusion of roles between the laity and the clergy inasmuch as the orans is so clearly related to a gesture of the priest at Mass but (a) the orans is quite ancient and in its antiquity was not necessarily the domain of a priest, and (b) although I find it distracting I try to ignore it when people do it. Holding hands at the sign of peace to me seems more intrusive and completely distracting from Our Lord on the altar. When I am at a parish where I know this happens, I try to sit at the end of the pew so I only need to ignore one person, though I am sometimes concerned that my self-righteous refusal to hold hands could be a source of distraction for the person whose hand I have ignored.

  7. MaryW says:

    At Mass I do what is comfortable for me. Head covering, Communion on the tongue, no Oran’s, prayer hands during the Our Father (like the deacon), although I do give the sign of peace usually with a wave. My biggest gripe at the NO in the parish I attend are the altar “girls”; not so much for their presence, but for wearing cassocks and surplices.

  8. MaryW says:

    At Mass I do what is comfortable for me. Head covering, Communion on the tongue, no Oran’s, prayer hands during the Our Father (like the deacon), although I do give the sign of peace usually with a wave. My biggest gripe at the NO in the parish I attend are the altar “girls”; not so much for their presence, but for wearing cassocks and surplices.

  9. Ed S says:

    Years ago, in the LaCrosse Diocese, then Bishop Burke instructed his priests to explain to their congregations that the Orans position was for the celebrant. It had become so widespread as to be distracting at times by exuberant displays. Although there were some parishioners who resisted, as they became the outliers, it all but disappeared. Now the only people who use the position are visitors. My wife and I simply hold hands at our side.

  10. Just Some Guy says:

    I feel like there still should be some kind of guidelines for the faithful for at least the Low Mass. At a parish in my diocese, the lay faithful kneel the whole Mass except for the entrance, Gospel, and recessional. It seems a little odd for me, but I don’t think that they know what to do, and no one has given them an alternative.

  11. Imrahil says:

    Actually, “kneeling through all the Low Mass” seems to be the official thing, though – except for entrance, Gospel, Last Gospel (!) and recessional. However, around here, we tend to get up for the Gloria, if there is one.

    Oh, and it’s always nice on an Ember Day to jump up at the Oremus, quickly, to be in a position where you can do something about the Flectamus genua. Of course, some guides say that precisely for this reason the Kyrie also, not only the Gloria, should generally be heard standing (though they mean “in High Mass”), but that just doesn’t feel right, at least on weekdays and/or when the color is violet or black.

    On the other hand, if I am late and all I get is a standing place, I even stand through the Offertory (though not the Canon, once the singing is over).

  12. Fr. Kelly says:

    Chuck Ludd asks about the laity using the so called orans position at the Lord’s Prayer and holding hands at the sign of peace. I am not sure I have seen the latter. I remember a fad of people holding hands at the our father and swinging them up for the embolism (for the Kingdom…) afterwards.

    As to the former, we can take some instruction from concelebration in the new rite.
    The Main celebrant is instructed to hold his hands apart during the Our Father and the deacon and all the concelebrants are instructed to keep their hands together. It seems exceedingly odd for lay people to make this priestly gesture at a time when most of the priests present ar forbidden to do so.

    With regard to the forming of long chains in the pews by holding hands indiscriminately during the Our Father, I can recall how it used to strike me when I was still saying Mass versus populum (before we went exclusively to ad orientem worship at my parish) I would look out to see my people holding hands over against me and it most reminded me of the game Red Rover that we used to play as kids. “Red Rover, Red Rover, send N. Right Over!” And the one called had to run and with utmost force try to break through the line whil they tried to hang on for dear life.

  13. Andrew says:

    From the 1997 “Instruction on certain questions regarding the collaboration of the non-ordained faithful in the sacred ministry of the priest”: – Article 6 (Approved and signed by various members of the Curia):

    “In eucharistic celebrations deacons and non-ordained members of the faithful may not pronounce prayers – e.g. especially the eucharistic prayer, with its concluding doxology – or any other parts of the liturgy reserved to the celebrant priest. Neither may deacons or non-ordained members of the faithful use gestures or actions which are proper to the same priest celebrant.”

    (An example of a gesture proper to the priest is the “orans” posture.)

  14. Chuck Ludd says:

    A correction to my previous post. I am not sure what was running through my mind when I wrote about holding hands at the sign of peace (I may not have had enough coffee at that point of the day). I meant holding hands during the Lord’s Prayer. In my haste in writing I was mixing up my delight in parishes where the sign of peace is omitted to avoid the distraction. My question to the audience was about the alternative distractions of parishes in which the orans has become commonplace versus parishes which hold hands. After reviewing some comments (and further reflection over the day) perhaps I prefer the holding hands parishes to the orans parishes because at least there isn’t a confusion of roles like there is with the orans — but real preference is a sung Pater Noster.

  15. bobbird says:

    Not long ago, at a parish out of state, I participated in the pre-Mass Rosary in the side chapel. A elderly lady who was there was also in our pew during Mass. She INSISTED that people glad-hand her when the priest gave the “OK” of “Introductions to your Neighbor” after the processional, wanted hugs and/or hand-shakes during the Sign of Peace. My wife and daughter complied, but I remained obstinate. I pretended she wasn’t there. This lady could not or would not understand the concept of “Get out of my personal space”. Would charity require me to indulge her? Or was my own recalcitrance a necessary “correction” for those whose license at Novus Ordo Masses knows no bounds?

  16. ProfKwasniewski says:

    How interesting! Just in recent days I’ve received two separate inquiries from readers about this very business.

    As Fr. Z notes, the laity’s bodily postures and actions were never regulated in the usus antiquior. For nearly 2,000 years, and even now, there is no set of rubrics that governs what the laity do. Whether they stand, sit, kneel, beat their breasts, make the sign of the cross, all of this is up to them.

    The liturgical reformers, who were generally of a bureaucratic and even (at times) fascist mentality, were disturbed about this lack of uniformity, which struck them as devotionalistic if not dissolute, and succeeded in creating, in the Novus Ordo, a totally regulated set of actions for the congregation.

    The problem is, what they agreed on is rather minimalistic, so that one ends up with the surprising paradox that the old rite tended, in the customs that grew up around it, to promote more bodily activity during the Mass, while the new rite tends to encourage something more rationalistic.

    Here is an article I published a while back listing all the physical gestures one is likely to see some people do at a Latin Mass:

    http://www.newliturgicalmovement.org/2014/12/how-traditional-latin-mass-fosters-more.html

    We should relinquish the very modern idea that everyone should be doing the same thing. I rather like it when everyone makes these physical gestures, but it simply can’t be imposed or demanded. The custom of imitating some of the priest’s gestures is a way to make the prayer more holistic, more “whole-person.” At least I have found it to be so…

  17. FromVicBC says:

    Our Divine Worship Mass is a combination of both worlds in many ways. The daily missal indicates when to kneel, cross yourself and other gestures (down on one knee during the Nicene Creed when we recite about the incarnation of Jesus). We have an amazing Master of Ceremony (lead alter server) so I follow whatever he does.

    My children and I bow our heads as the procession passes by us to show our respect. I think of it like wooting for the football team as they head out onto the field. They’re about to go and make an offering to the creator of the universe; I think they deserve at least that much.

  18. Pius Admirabilis says:

    That is what I love about the TLM (among other things, of course!). In the Novus Ordo, if you don’t make some gesture, people after Mass – even if they haven’t talked to you for years – will come up to you and scold you for not following the “rituals”. At the TLM, you can do whatever. Even keep kneeling during Solemn High Mass, which is not encouraged, but also not prohibited.
    I tend to do the genuflection when the priest passes my pew (at SHM) because I see in him alter Christus. I don’t do that at HM, though.
    I also think there’s a difference between being pious and honoring Christ, and just being overly dramatic and showing off one’s own “holiness”. Making the sign of the Cross whenever the priest does it, is maybe unusual, but nothing to worry about (it even makes sense, as Father explained). But, and that might be a personal quarrel, I sometimes see a certain family entering the Church for Mass, and before entering the pew, they make a full on proskynesis/prostratio (laying flat on one’s face, like the priest does on Good Friday). I think that’s a bit over the top. Dinocrates gives an example of someone doing the proskynesis where it looks natural. I have nothing against that in principle. Maybe it’s the general attitude that draws the line.

  19. Grant M says:

    Two quotes that have stayed with me over the years:

    “What pleased me most about a Greek Orthodox mass I once attended was that there seemed to be no prescribed behavior for the congregation. Some stood, some knelt, some sat, some walked; one crawled about the floor like a caterpillar. And the beauty of it was that nobody took the slightest notice of what anyone else was doing. One meets people who are perturbed because someone in the next pew does, or does not, cross himself. They oughtn’t even to have seen, let alone censured. ‘Who art thou that thou judgest Another’s servant?’”
    C S Lewis: Letters to Malcom: Chiefly on Prayer.

    “In Orthodox and usually Conservative, everything is in Hebrew. In Reform, most is done in the local language, though they are increasingly using Hebrew.

    “In Orthodox, the person leading the service has his back to the congregation, and prays facing the same direction as the congregation; in Conservative and Reform, the person leading the service faces the congregation.

    “Conservative and Reform are rather rigidly structured: everybody shows up at the same time, leaves at the same time, and does the same thing at the same time; Orthodox is somewhat more free-form: people show up when they show up, catch up to everybody else at their own pace, often do things differently than everybody else. This is difficult if you do not know what you are doing, but once you have got a handle on the service, you may find it much more comfortable and inspirational than trying to stay in unison.”
    Jewish Liturgy: https://www.mechon-mamre.org/jewfaq/liturgy.htm

  20. JonathanTX says:

    I’m less bothered by the lay Orans, or the raising of arms at the Embolism, than I am by the “squeezie-poo” of hands at the Amen.

  21. Edelwald says:

    We attend the EF in Paris when visiting our family there. It is well attended with a remarkable choir. The traditions for the laity associated with the EF have very much been kept alive there and there is much genuflection and crossing throughout the liturgy. But, various people do various things with a tendency for most to cross themselves frequently as well as genuflect. In the US some EF parishes I have attended seem to be looking for what precisely to do because of a loss in the traditional gestures coming from the NO and then the felt need to make use of them. I would encourage the individual to attend an Eastern Rite Catholic Divine Liturgy. I have been tempted to count how many time we cross ourselves during the course of the liturgy. But it feels and seems very natural.

  22. ReginaO says:

    I had the same question as this person – just wanted to know in case it was required to bow for the priest and the crucifix. In my parish it started more recently and I thought it was just that I didn’t get the memo. Probably more like someone saw it somewhere else. Thanks again to Fr. Z for the answer.

  23. un-ionized says:

    ReginaO, the only place I’ve ever seen this done is at the Mass on EWTN.

  24. Lurker 59 says:

    I too have had the question of what should/could be done for when the crucifix and priest pass in procession. I am grateful for Fr. Z for mentioning this and seeing that my instincts were sound.

    There is no such thing as “overly pious”, just the tendency of people to either act holier than thou to get attention or to not mind their own business, also to get attention. Both are vanities and narcissisms.

    How we worship our Lord can be very personal, There is an intimacy that is lost when the congregation is in lockstep. The Mass is an intensely intimate encounter between God and man. It is ironic that the purpose of the Liturgical Reforms of VII was to increase this intimacy but the flattening and formalization that occurred decreased this for most people.

  25. pbnelson says:

    As a general rule I tend to copy what the well-trained altar boys are doing, and am chary of mimicking the priest.

    For example, during the confiteor, I refrain from pounding my heart three times when the priest says “mea culpa”, but I do pound my heart at the same time as the altar boys when they say their “mea culpa”. I also cross myself at the same time they do after they’ve said the confiteor and priest is blessing them.

  26. TonyO says:

    Neither may deacons or non-ordained members of the faithful use gestures or actions which are proper to the same priest celebrant.

    Thank you, Andrew.

    Some stood, some knelt, some sat, some walked; one crawled about the floor like a caterpillar. And the beauty of it was that nobody took the slightest notice of what anyone else was doing.

    That’s great, Grant. But I will bet you that they were not making the actions (or saying the words) that are proper to the priest, now were they?

    f someone wants to make the sign of the Cross at the same time as the priest… what’s wrong with that? It seems to me that that isn’t an intolerable confusion of roles of laity and priest.

    I am going to go out on a limb, here, Fr. Z, and suggest that when the priest makes the sign of the cross over the bread and wine as part of the preparation before the consecration, for a lay person in the congregation to make the sign of the cross at the same time is indeed a confusion of roles of laity and priest. [It would depend on the manner of the sign. Made in the same way that the priest makes it, or used to bless oneself.] Or, worse yet, it suggests a possible confusion of matter for the sacrament – as if the person making the sign of the cross over himself meant that he himself were similarly situated as the bread about to become Christ’s own body! Yeah, it has pretty grating overtones. [It may be that a person is moved in that significant and solemn moment, understanding the importance of self-oblation, to make the sign of the Cross.]

    We should relinquish the very modern idea that everyone should be doing the same thing.

    Peter K, I have no problem with that as a overarching standard. However, I believe that when we are assisting at mass we are participating in the liturgy, and thus our words and actions may take on liturgical meaning. If when standing, I shift my weight from my left to my right foot, that’s an action that doesn’t have any symbolic meaning. But if I raise my arms into the orans position and (audibly) say the words by which the priest invites us to say the Our Father (in the NO), that’s got tons of symbolic meaning. The words and actions proper to the priest have to be off-limits to the laity, or there will be theological confusion. Is it possible that making the sign of the cross every time the priest does runs the same risk – that at least SOME of those times, the action is proper to the priest, even though the action generically (making the sign of the cross) is not reserved to the priest?

    perhaps I prefer the holding hands parishes to the orans parishes because at least there isn’t a confusion of roles like there is with the orans

    Chuck, in my experience, in virtually all places where they “chain” hold hands at the Our Father, they always hold their hands UP, and most people who are at the end of a chain, and those who are not near anybody at all, take on the orans posture in lieu of holding hands. As a consequence I take the holding-hands posture as being (and as meant to be) a modified orans gesture.

    There is no such thing as “overly pious”, just the tendency of people to either act holier than thou to get attention or to not mind their own business, also to get attention. Both are vanities and narcissisms.

    How we worship our Lord can be very personal, There is an intimacy that is lost when the congregation is in lockstep.

    True in part, I think., not entirely. While our response to God during the Mass is intensely personal, the Mass itself is public worship. It is, also, the worship of the Church, i.e. a community, not just a collection of individuals. Remember St. Paul warning us about doing things that could lead a brother into a mistake (you yourself may be strong enough spiritually to do something that looks kind of iffy, but your brother may not be, so take concern for your brother and don’t do it). If doing something would seem showy or excessive to “an ordinary person”, it’s probably not a good idea. Such as laying prostrate rather than genuflecting during the Credo. (Actions outside of Mass, when hardly anyone is around, are per se not those of liturgical action, so don’t come under the same constraint.)

    So, can we temper the almost Nike-like suggestion (“if it feels good, do it”) of Fr. Z’s initial comment “May I suggest that you do what you choose to do and allow others to do what they choose to do? [That’s an insulting and absurd reduction of what I wrote.] with a caution about prudence and respect for the affect on others: rightly, people should not take offense at a certain range of generically pious and worthy gestures, but some actions are outside of that range.

  27. TonyO says:

    But as long as we are at it: I find constant confusion about how one handles respect for Jesus reserved in the tabernacle, and the altar. Maybe it is present only at NO churches, but I don’t think so. So let me ask this: Both from the standpoint of specific law (rubrics), and from the standpoint of custom which is deep-seated enough to carry the weight of law,
    (1) outside of Mass, does one (a) bow, or (b) genuflect to either (i) the altar, or (ii) the tabernacle. And then (2) during Mass, likewise, does one bow or genuflect to the altar or the tabernacle? Assume, for these purposes, that they are placed separately so that it is possible to attend to one without doing so to the other.

  28. JonPatrick says:

    Before I reverted to the Catholic Church I spent many years in a high Anglo-Catholic Episcopal church in which the more pious had gestures such as crossing oneself at the end of the Gloria or Credo, bowing as the processional cross passes, and so on. I have seen many of these at the EF I sometimes attend.
    We also attend the Eastern Rite divine liturgy which has many signs of the cross (basically anytime the Trinity or the Theotokos is mentioned), metanies, kissing of the icons, etc. which is never in lock step but varies by individual.

  29. WmHesch says:

    Imitative gestures have prevailed at different times. The 17th century liturgist Andrea Piscara Castaldo, for example, suggests everyone should strike their breast at the “Nobis quoque peccatoribus”

  30. Diana says:

    As a new TLM goer, I found this discussion to be very helpful, as I often ask myself the same thing as I watch what others do: “should I be doing that?” “why are they doing this?” I’m grateful for the knowledge presented here and feel I can relax now and enjoy worshipping my God at Mass. Thanks!

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