ASK FATHER: Hand positions during Mass

From a reader…


How should a layman position his hands when praying the Mass?

It might come as a surprise that, for centuries, there were scant rubrical directions for the posture of the faithful at Holy Mass.

Unlike the minute detail for the gestures of the priest and other ministers in the sanctuary
(who need to be closely controlled lest their egos get in the way of the true liturgical Actor), some customs developed for lay people, but there were few written laws to regulate the postures of the congregation. Modern critics of “the way things used to be” like to sneer that this was because of an excessive focus on the priest and a denigration of the laity, whose presence at Mass was – so they say – merely accidental to the real action. That’s one interpretation of things.

Another interpretation is that the Church, in her wisdom, recognized that the faithful attending Mass are not a monolithic body.

The people in the congregation participate at different points in their interior lives.  They have different needs and expectations, different dispositions and attitudes. And that’s okay. Some may have a particularly deep piety.  They may be moved by interior graces to kneel in humble adoration throughout the Mass. Some may be distracted by other concerns, such as small children, or the pressures and stresses of life. They might try to be attentive, but keep wandering off mentally. Some may be finding their way back to a fuller practice of the faith and may want to simply sit in a back row, behind a pillar, and observe.

One might say that the principle of gradualism has been at work for centuries on postures for Mass.

All are welcome.  We Catholics, especially traditional Catholics, are into diversity.  It’s only liberals who want to force everyone not to kneel.

We don’t want to force everyone into a lockstep posture: stand NOW!, sit NOW! … smile, shake hands, bow, twirl, wave the ribbon, laugh at the puppet, scowl at the self-absorbed promethean neopelagians and the rigid intellectualists….

To put this in terms of psychogeography, Holy Mother Church permits folks to be where they are at interiorly.

Even if in yesteryear there weren’t many written rules, for our forebears who truly believed, some postures were almost demanded by what is going on during Mass. One stands for the Gospel. One kneels for the consecration. One kneels to receive Holy Communion.  It’s obvious.

Spiritual authors, guiding people to holiness, recommended postures for specific prayers. For example, St. Dominic outlined nine postures of prayer in a sort of a spiritual calisthenics: bowing, kneeling, genuflecting, prostration, lifting one’s arms, walking, and so forth. But at the liturgy of the Mass, for the most part Holy Church allowed a measure of freedom of posture.

The current General Instruction of the Roman Missal contains some explicit rules about the postures of the congregation, but still there is a good deal of flexibility.

Back to the question.

For the hands….

Although there are no real directions, for most of the Mass a respectful folding of the hands would be best. Placing them in one’s lap when seated would be good.

Refraining from using them to scratch unnecessarily, or to fluff one’s hair, or to wave at one’s neighbor, or to touch the bald spot of the man in the row ahead of one are all virtuous policies.

I am not entirely set against shaking one’s index finger at the pastor when his homily lapses into material heresy, but that should be done with a little discretion, so as not to call undue attention to oneself… except the pastor’s.

Finally, at the time of the Offertory collection – and I want to stress this – it is especially good to position one’s hand properly to pull out one’s wallet so as to open up that secret pocket wherein one stashes large bills.  This is perhaps the most virtuous use of one’s hands at Holy Mass.

I hope this helps.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
This entry was posted in "How To..." - Practical Notes, ASK FATHER Question Box, Liturgy Science Theatre 3000, Self-absorbed Promethean Neopelagians and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.


  1. APX says:

    With regards to hands, it’s really hard to do anything with them when you’re holding a missal.

  2. EoinOBolguidhir says:

    While I appreciate this as the amusing, lighter fare it is meant to be, I do have one serious comment to make, which will be familiar (perhaps to the point of boredom) to readers of this web-log. Holding one’s arms with the humeri adducted and slightly externally rotated, elbows flexed ninety degrees, palms pronated during the Pater Noster is the hallmark and gesticular shiboleth of people who practice an insidious form of clericalism that says the laity must do what the Priest does, for what the laity do appropriately themselves has no value.

  3. One of the things I really like about the traditional Mass is that I am free to just be there and pray and participate quietly, letting Christ in the person of the priest do all the heavy lifting. In the new Mass, the congregation is driven like cattle through a noisy obstacle course, while the ministers at the altar just do whatever they want. This is known as the Golden Age of the Laity.

  4. L. says:

    Every time I see people at Mass waving their hands and doing other strange things with them at Mass, I start thinking about how to make hand shadow figures and wondering whether doing it would be any more inappropriate.

  5. Mary Jane says:

    Hubby and I sing in the choir…that pretty much dictates our hand positions for much of Mass. :)

  6. Sid Cundiff in NC says:

    I’ve heard of Liberals who have the people imitate the gestures of the priest. There are more than just a few errors with this. I also don’t like the hand-holding at the Pater Noster (and lifting them at “For the kingdom…”), and the opening of hands at the et cum spiritu tuo. The former is a practice that seems to be taken from AA meetings and childhood memories of campfire songs; I simply avoid doing it (at an OF Mass) and ignore extended hands (or tell them that I have a cold). Fortunately, EF Masses are free of this.

    I remember in seminary a priest (the house liturgist, the house Duce, and an ultra-Liberal), who at the Pater Noster would raise his hands in the “hands-up” gesture, thinking it the gesture of prayer in the early church (it wasn’t). We who found him more than just a bit irksome liked to think that he was being arrested by the local sheriff.

    If folks want gestures — whoop and holler, shoot the dollar –, let them attend a Protestant Pentecostal service and be slain in the spirit.

  7. Charles E Flynn says:

    Here is a thorough discussion of the Orans question:

    Another Look at the Orans Issue , by Dr. Edward Peters.

  8. rodin says:

    Since I use a missal to follow the mass that rather settles the issue for me.

  9. If the Filipino couple in front of me want to hold hands during the Our Father, fine. If the pious divorced man on the other side of the church chooses to assume the Orans position during the Our Father, fine. If the elderly Italian lady behind me chooses to say the entire Mass under her breath in Italian, complete with rattling rosary beads, fine.

    We do not exchange the sign of peace in 0ur parish, for which I continue to be grateful.

    That is all.

    As you were.

  10. Glennonite says:

    I was hoping that you would address the (stup…um, protes…um, childish) orans position that many today have adopted. It’s like monkey see, monkey do… until they’re tired and just stop. Hey, if you’re gonna mimic the priest, then keep it up until he lowers his hands. Don’t just stop because you’re tired. It drives me crazy.

    I just fold my hands, bow my head and close my eyes for the Our Father. It works well for me on a couple of levels; I just have to keep in that position long enough to avoid seeing the raised, hand-holding, tent revival, “For the kingdom, the power…”.

    I really thought you were going to remind us to, “Say the black, do the red”.

  11. Pingback: “I’m Not Sure What to do With My Hands…” | Learning Christ

  12. majuscule says:

    Deacon told me once that deacons are not to imitate the position of the priest’s hands during the Our Father.

    If Deacon shouldn’t, then why should we?

  13. Sliwka says:

    TL;DR: If people are not told what is acceptable/not acceptable, can you blame them for wanting to pray with their bodies in the only way they see it being done?

    Whilst I agree that mandating particular postures for laity (especially erroneously) is troublesome, I am surprised by the suggestions of a couple here already that if want to posture our bodies in prayer, we are secretly Protestants. May I remind you that we are not souls trapped in bodies, but whole persons and Mother Church regularly gives us things with which we can engage our entire selves in prayer and spiritual matters (cf CCC 2702).

    I see people praying in the orans to not necessarily be copying Father, engaging in lay clericising, or some other negative, but responding to a natural desire. If it is a posture reserved for clergy during the liturgy, then gentle catechisis is needed during Mass. Give the people viable options. Discuss theologically why we want to pray with our bodies, why certain postures are for clergy (e.g. the Dr Peters article about a priestly prayer FOR the congregation).

    Sid, I am a convert; and have been going to Mass since 2007 (even before my conversion). No one has ever told me what I am supposed to do or not do. While I can understand our frustrations at your “stick-em-up” Pater, can you really blame people who have been told nothing?

  14. Gerard Plourde says:

    Following up on rodin’s comment, my St. Joseph Daily Missal from 1962 (which I received on my 9th birthday after being Confirmed) directs the following postures – Kneel from Prayers at the Foot of the Altar through the Epistle, Stand for the Gospel, Stand for the Creed, Sit for the Offertory, Kneel for the Canon through Communion, Sit for the Ablutions, Kneel for the Final Prayers, Stand for the Last Gospel. This pretty much comports with my memory of the postures we assumed prior to the liturgical reforms. These instructions may have been limited to the U.S. where churches had pews and kneelers. I know that many Churches in Europe had no seats and it is my understanding that the faithful stood for the entire Mass.

  15. Geoffrey says:

    “With regards to hands, it’s really hard to do anything with them when you’re holding a missal.”

    Agreed. I always use a missal, whether at the Ordinary Form or Extraordinary Form.

    And when asked to “extend your hand(s) in blessing”, just fold your hands in prayer.

  16. DavidR says:

    At the Rite of Dismissal for our candidates/catechumens Fr. asks us to raise our right hands in blessing; I refuse to do that. My wife asked me why, and I told her to an observer it looks like a National Socialist rally in 1938.


  17. Supertradmum says:

    Of course, what I hate is the clerical hand positions done by some of the laity, copying the priest in the orans position. A no-no.

    I have seen this in five countries now in my life, so it must be a wide-spread aberration from the charismatics.

    I love to see the little children properly folding their hands in the traditional manner. So cute.

  18. The Masked Chicken says:

    But, but…what does one do with wings?

    The Chicken

    [There’s always that sauce.]

  19. Sonshine135 says:

    I do not mind what other people do, but I do particularly dislike when there is an expectation by the person next to me to hold hands during the Pater. That does not happen in my current church, but it does happen a lot at other places where I have visited.

  20. +JMJ+ says:

    Our parish is a NO parish, and I keep my hands folded during the Pater. But when we’ve gone to parishes where the custom is to reach out and hold hands during it, I have had people literally reach over, grab one of my hands, and attempt to drag it over to them. AAAAARGH!

    A glare and a raised eyebrow usually does the trick though…

  21. jaykay says:

    Gerard Plourde says: “I know that many Churches in Europe had no seats and it is my understanding that the faithful stood for the entire Mass.”

    Not really, Gerard, or at least not since at least the early 18th century and probably earlier. Certainly by the 19th century one would need to have been in a very remote and poor area indeed to find a church that had no seating at all, even rudimentary e.g. simple benches. Seating was pretty universal.

    My own memory is that the simple “Mass Books” that came out in the mid-60s (such as I got for my first Communion circa 1966) had rudimentary directions as you describe, except that one now stood for the Our Father and then knelt immediately afterwards and remained kneeling. And when the “New Mass” (as it was popularly called) was introduced in 1970 the same directions were followed… and still are to this day in my particular area, although I have seen minor variations in some other parts (I’m in Ireland). In regard to hand positions, we kids were instructed to keep hands joined “properly” only for going up to and coming back from Communion, but otherwise there were no instructions, other than those imparted by one’s parents or elder siblings which generally centered on a discrete clout for fidgeting or some other misdemeanour (of which there were many). Adults almost universally just kept their hands clasped respectfully if not holding a missal or rosary, but generally not in the full “hands-joined” position, which I think would have been considered a little showy and holier-than-thou – especially for men.

  22. Clinton says:

    I’m reminded of a lovely story the late Catholic publisher and writer F.J. Sheed told
    about Hilaire Belloc. Whilst at Mass in London’s Westminster Cathedral, Belloc remained
    kneeling throughout, as was the custom he was taught as a child. He was approached
    by a sacristan…

    Sacristan: “Excuse me sir, but here at the cathedral we stand at this part of the Mass.”
    Belloc: “Go to hell.”
    Sacristan: “Oh, pardon me sir, I didn’t realize you were a Catholic!”.

  23. VexillaRegis says:

    Dear Chicken,

    just do as the angels – flap around :-)!

  24. The Masked Chicken says:

    Regarding the modern use of the orans position among the laity, it snuck into the Church with the Charismatic Renewal, but at no point in history of which I am aware was this position used among the laity in what we would think of as a liturgical setting. St. Paul talks about this in 1 Corinthians, chapter 11 and 14, but when he says, “When the Church comes together,” (Greek: synerchomai), there were really four different settings. Early in the morning, apparently, was the proto-Mass of the Catechumens, which was modeled on the Jewish Synaxis and included readings of psalms, prophetic books of the Old Testament. Then, came a homily or exhortation. Later in the day, the baptized re-assembled for the Agape feast, at which bread and wine were consecrated and eaten. Following that was a period of spiritual exercises, where prophecy, tongues, healings, the extraordinary charisma were employed. However, this practice died out by the First century – essentially, when the apostolic age ended. Even, then, this practice was not a liturgical practice, per se, referring to some already pre-established text or event in the history of the Jewish people, but was an ad hoc, extemporaneous event. The concept of prophecy was different during and after the apostolic era, because prophecy lost the sense of new revelation with the death of St. John. While prophecy still is a gift of the Holy Spirit, it is an expression of emphasizing existing teaching, rather than introducing anything new. In other words, the spiritual exercises of the early Church were no longer needed or, indeed, could be trusted, after the Apostolic Age. St. John Chrystostom, writing in the 400’s would testify the, “The gifts are long gone.” The spiritual exercises were an extraordinary sign for an extraordinary age which was replaced by a structured Mass and a structured Church.

    To my limited knowledge of liturgical history, the people in the Charismatic Renewal were introducing a novelty that had never been seen before in the Church in a strictly structured portion of the liturgical setting, thereby upsetting good order. They did this without seeking permission of the Church, as if their personal experience of being, “led by the Spirit,” trumped the liturgical praxis which actually bore the signature of the Holy Spirit by virtue of the authority of the Church’s power to bind and loose. In other words, where there is the Holy Spirit, there is obedience to lawful authority, so, ask yourselves if the use of the orans position among the laity bears the true mark of the Holy Spirit. It is ironic, really. A group claiming to be lead by the Holy Spirit acting in a manner contrary to the fruits of the Holy Spirit.

    The Chicken

  25. Phil B says:


    Cover your face with two, your feet with two, and fly around with the other two.

  26. Mary Jane says:

    Chicken, my first thought when I read “what does one do with wings?” was: “eat them”. My apologies, I’m hungry at the moment! :)

  27. VexillaRegis says:

    Mary Jane, LOL!

  28. More on the Orans posture
    “Orans” Posture and Hand-Holding During the Our Father Are Against the Rubrics

  29. av8er says:

    My earliest childhood memories of Mass was in Mexico in the early 70’s and when we moved back to the states, other than the language, there wasn’t much difference. I was also in Long Island so that might say something. We all did the orans position before I knew that it had a name. Actually didn’t knkw the name until a few years ago and from this blog I think.

    Knowing better now I (as well as my kids)keep our hands together, unless their holding the Hymnal or Missalette, in prayer form.

    Went to Mass with my Mom and Dad one Sunday, they have an active “faith community” whatever that means. Well, during the “Our Father” she held out her hand and expected me to grab it and I turned and whispered “We’re not Protestants”. Her mouth hit the floor. I immediately felt terrible. But at the sign of the peace she asked “are we allowed to do this?” And we both chuckled. Reverently.

  30. lmo1968 says:

    It makes me laugh when people assume people are praying in the orans position because they are imitating the priest. The priest generally prays palms forward not up. I pray the Our Father with my palms up, as I was taught by my spiritual director. He has proven himself trustworthy in every other respect, and I see no reason not to trust his veracity in this instruction as well. If people don’t like how I pray, I suggest they look away and focus on their own prayer.

  31. Uxixu says:

    If someone must be emulated, it should be most natural for the laity to emulate the server rather than the clergy. Of course, they’re practically non-existent in the ordinary form but there’s plenty to see and witness in the extraordinary form.

    Growing up novus ordo, orans was the norm so that’s what I knew and did. I don’t do it anymore, though. Kneeling, joined hands seems so natural though often I’ll interlock fingers rather than folded hands. I do find it useful to hold the hands of my little ones during the Our Father in the ordinary form, though I generally don’t with strangers.

  32. LA says:

    Is feeling tired a good enough reason to sit instead of standing during the reading of the Gospel?

  33. Is feeling tired a good enough reason to sit instead of standing during the reading of the Gospel?

    When change of life gets the better of me, I have been known to sit throughout the whole of Mass. It’s that, or faint very obviously, or (in extreme cases) throw up.

    I would think if you’re in danger of fainting, or you are sick, or very elderly, or have a leg injury, or are so tired you think you are going to die, then you should sit down, no matter where you are.

    PS If you are in any of these states, then get someone else to drive the car to and from Mass. I’m just sayin’.

  34. PS. Am I shamed by my weakness when I see the beautiful mother of 9-and-pregnant-with-her-10th standing gamely throughout Mass, varicose veins notwithstanding?

    No. She’s clearly a lot tougher than I am, and also destined for a much higher place in Heaven.

    I will just have to sit on the doorstep and play cards with St John the Baptist, who, we have been reliably informed, is less great than even the least in the Kingdom of Heaven.

  35. ts says:

    I have this burning question but it isn’t about hands. It is about genuflection vs. kneeling during the creed: et incarnatus est de spiritu sancto ex maria virgine: et homo factus est.
    I have noticed that many are kneeling at this time not genuflecting. Any information on this is welcomed. I have been meaning to as the priest but haven’t had opportunity and this topic has reminded me. It is a TLM. Thanks, Tracy

  36. Matt R says:

    TS, usually in the EF, when the priest and ministers recite the Credo, they genuflect on one knee at that point. If they are still standing when the choir sings from Et incarnatus est onward, it is often easier to genuflect on both knees. It is a more balanced posture, and when one is in the pew, it’s pretty darn hard to genuflect on only one knee…But honestly, as far as the congregation goes, my attitude is, “Meh. Who cares so long as they kneel?”

  37. KateD says:

    A question I’ve had for a long time is regarding those little red crosses in the missal. Someone told me we are to make the sign of the cross at those points. But looking around at the everyone in the pews, very few do. Is it appropriate?

    After reading the following I do it just in case, but would like to know if it is okay.

    “The Liturgy
    A: At the Mass, the genuine Mass, the Tridentine Mass, thrity-three signs of the cross were formerly made, and now only very few are made; sometimes two or three at most. And at the last one – the Benediction – people are not even obliged to kneel (screams and weeps pitifully). Do you know how much we should like to kneel, to kneel down if we could (he moans and weeps)?
    E: Is it right to make thirty -three signs of the cross during Holy Mass? Tell the truth, in the name of…!
    A: Of course, it is right; it is even obligatory. Then we are not there in the Church; then we are forced to flee. But as things are now, we are in the Church. The Asperges should also be reintroduced. At the Asperges we were forced to flee before the holy water and before the incense. Incense, too, should be reintroduced. And the prayer “Holy Archangel Michael”, and three times the “Hail Mary” and the “Hail Holy Queen” should be prayed again after each Holy Mass.”
    – Warning From the Beyond to the Church of today, Bonaventur Meyer

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