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.