ASK FATHER: Weird prayer. Getting everyone to “lay on hands”

From a reader…


This morning I was at a Catholic men’s prayer group. This is a wonderful group of men all holding each other up and pursuing their Catholic faith.  This morning however one of the men, who is in deacon formation, got up and invited all the men to join in offering a blessing on one of our members, in which several of the men familiar with this gathered in a circle around him, put their hands in the air over him and started singing “May the Lord Bless you and Keep you” This sent shivers through me, not in a good way, I just bowed my head and prayed with them.  So I guess the question is; is it right to feel like that was super weird? Or maybe that is acceptable in our Church to wave you hands in the air singing blessings over people? It felt an awful lot like a throwback to something in the 80s/90s through that I have been actively working to help purge from our church.  I believe it originated with the cursillo program.


Ah, laying on of hands. Yes.

There is a long history in the Church of laying on hands, dating back to Apostolic times. The New Testament records several instances of the Apostles laying hands on their successors, and the faithful being exhorted to go to the elders for healing by the laying on of hands.

Outside of the apostolic and sacramental tradition of laying on of hands, in Holy Orders, Anointing of the Sick, and sometimes Penance, there’s little historical record of laying on of hands. Abbots were consecrated thusly, and in some religious orders, new members were added by this ritual.

But the general practice of members laying hands on each other as a sort of blessing? Nope, that’s not apostolic, that’s pretty much brand new. I don’t think it originated in the Cursillo movement, but I think it probably had some roots in the Protestant, Pentecostal tradition.

It is pretty weird. When we ask for a blessing, we’re asking for something from a superior – from someone in Holy Orders, from a parent, from a religious superior. Of our equals – our brothers and sisters – we don’t generally ask for blessings. Instead, we ask for prayers. Fraternal prayers. Which may be offered with a hand on a shoulder, or hand grasping hand, or even – horrors in our touchy feely era – without even touching each other!

In most places, the practice of laying hands on each other is dying out. New generations want authentic tradition, not made up rituals and weird, hippie-type emotionalism. When one encounters this sort of throwback prayer, one can either roll one’s eyes and go along with it, sit stoically back and refuse to participate, make fun (perhaps by starting to sing Kumbaya or Michael Row the Boat Ashore), or make a Catholic suggestion – “Hey guys, instead of that, why don’t we pray the litany of the Sacred Heart together for each other?” or “Joe, we did that last month, how about this month we pray a rosary?”

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  1. JamesF-J says:

    Disappointing that this apparently came from a man in formation to the diaconate (presumably meaning the permanent diaconate?) – What does it say about his formation? I can assure readers that none of my brothers in formation for the permanent diaconate would do anything like this – and please can I ask for your prayers as we are approaching ordination in only a few days. With thanks J

  2. rcg says:

    This is great. We need to know the real history and facts because, so offen, someone will appear in a parish and give a brief “history” lesson as to why it is traditional to have liturgical dancing, etc. Even if something did happen in history, even in the Bible, I don’t know that we should do it. Otherwise we would all sleep through the Mass of the Transfiguration.

    As far as blessings go: is it really the exclusive provence of the superior? Don’t we “bless the Lord and his Holy Name” in psalm and prayer?

  3. I am a Cursillo brat from the 60s, the original Cursillo Movement. Never once in my life did I ever see or hear of anyone that wasn’t a priest do the “laying on of hands”. Actually I never saw Fr. Fidelis do this.

  4. Marie Veronica says:

    Thank you for this Q&A post – it’s been on my mind. It happens with some frequency after Mass that we are asked to “extend our hand in a blessing” over someone or some group of people. I don’t. And I tell my kids not to do it either, but instead to pray for them. My answer for us not participating has been, “our hands are not consecrated.” I assume that is the right response. I suspected it was part of the charismatic movement and have seen it done at other parishes in my travels. At any rate, it always makes me feel uncomfortable.

  5. DavidR says:

    Slightly OT, but related:
    several years ago our priest started telling the audience (yes, that’s intentional) to “raise your right hands in blessing” for various and sundry individuals, e.g. HS graduating class, confirmands at Easter vigil, etc. Yuk.

    I sit in the front row and absolutely refuse to take part in the charade, and I know he’s aware of me. If I want to do audience participation, I’ll attend the Durham Performing Arts Center.

    And, btw, I never fail to thank him for saying Mass. :)

  6. CharlesG says:

    That takes me back a while to when I was in RCIA, and they had a retreat for us catechumens. On the one hand, one of the retreat activities was good old fashioned adoration and benediction, which I loved. However, this group laying on of hands was another activity, the thought of which made me very uncomfortable. They said it wasn’t mandatory, so another lady and I sat it out on the sidelines of the scrum, but I don’t know whether it would have been more awkward to participate or to sit by forlornly and watch! This RCIA program was at a Jesuit church in NYC, by the way, but I hasten to add the instruction was not as heretical as you might think, and I supplemented the assigned reading with plenty of solid orthodox catechetical materials…

  7. Ave Maria says:

    Yes, one parish here still invites the congregation to extend their hands to bless someone. I generally fold my hand and say a prayer. I have also attended healing services where prayer teams will lay hands on the person to be prayed over.

  8. Red_Shirt_Hero says:

    As one of the men who will be lying on the Cathedral floor with you on Sunday, I share your concerns about this man’s formation. It is always worrying when people feel traditional Catholic ways of doing things aren’t ‘meaningful’ enough, so have to invent things. I find it generally involves a prayer focus of some tie-dye cloth with a ‘meaningful’ rock or branch placed on it, with not a crucifix in sight!


  9. William says:

    Of course this came from Pentecostals. Like Protestants in general, there’s a tendency to read Scripture outside of the historical context – both contemporary with the text, the historical background of the text (Judaism), and the historical consequences of the apostolic age (primarily ante-Nicene Christianity).

    Doing that in the 1960s gets you hippie theology. Doing that as socialist sympathizer in Latin America gets you liberation theology. Doing that in 2018 America gets you SJWs.

  10. LeeGilbert says:

    When something new appears in the prayer life of the Church, there is no lack of faithful who will say, “The old way was better.” Recently I stumbled on someone who is wroth with Pope St. John Paul II for introducing the Luminous mysteries of the Rosary! And new things are always appearing, among them the Rosary itself, the Miraculous Medal, the Brown Scapular, the Green Scapular, Devotion to the Sacred Heart, the Scriptural Rosary, the Brigittine Rosary, litanies of all sorts and on and on. The Church was well on its way before blessing oneself with holy water was introduced. There were no St. Benedict medals before St.Benedict. Last October my wife and I stumbed on devotion to the Guardian Angels and are pursuing making a consecration to our guardian angel next October. Whoever heard of such a thing? Not I! And yet, what is wrong with it?
    And one might ask a similar question with regard to the laying on of hands, although I will admit it is of a different order altogether and deserving of a close look. In 1968 when the Charismatic Renewal was still little known, we had a small prayer group that met at the Carmelite center in Darien, Illinois. Evidently the Carmelite priests who led us apprised Bishop Blanchette, and he forbade us either to lay hands on one another or to speak in tongues. We complied, as if the Lord Himself had so commanded us, yet it seemed to strike at the heart of what we were all about. Yet we quietly obeyed. The result was that the Lord blessed us abundantly both in numbers and in charisms. Fr. Frank Phillips, take note! Seeing our reverential obedience, the bishop relented, almost to our regret. In the meantime, Jesuits from their theologate in Aurora came to see what it was all about, and we were able to tell them that, yes, the bishop both knew and approved. And they in turn carried the renewal to the Philippines and elsewhere.

    It was common practice then, and I imagine it still is-though I have not been to a charismatic prayer meeting for the better part of forty years- toward the end of the meeting to ask if anyone needs prayers. A chair is set up, the person sits in the chair, people gather round and put their hands on his shoulders, ask what he needs prayers for, and they pray for him. So many times it was I sitting in that chair, asking for physical, emotional, or financial relief, the healing of relationships, guidance and so forth. NEVER, and I mean never, was there not at least an incremental improvement in the situation, and eventually everything was cleared up and I was in a position to get married. We’ve been happily married now for 41 yrs, our daughter is a solemnly professed contemplative nun, our 40 yr old son and his family practice the faith, yet without that fraternal concern expressed by hands laid on my shoulder and the prayers that flowed from that concern, it never would have happened.

    As far as blessings go, surely being blessed by a priest and being blessed by a layman are two entirely different things, yet if we baptized laymen do not have the power to bless why does Scripture encourage us to take delight in blessing? “He loved cursing. May it come upon him. He took no delight in blessing. May it be far from him.” Again, Our Lord said, “Bless and do not curse.” This is only for priests? As for raising one’s hand to do so, we Catholics do things with signs and gestures. Yet, I will admit that for a layman to do this in the course of a Mass seems wrong and a usurpation of priestly prerogatives.

  11. RichR says:

    I see this in gatherings where there are people 60 years or older. It’s seeped into the ACTS retreats as well. Harmless, but weird. Between the GIA hymnals and the “raising of hands for a blessing”, I wonder if we will ever did ourselves of the hippie era.

  12. Hidden One says:

    I cannot speak to a long time ago, but these days it is a Cursillo/Ultreya practice for a group of lay people (not necessarily all Catholics) to hold out a hand and sing a blessing.

  13. rcg says: As far as blessings go: is it really the exclusive provence of the superior? Don’t we “bless the Lord and his Holy Name” in psalm and prayer?

    “Bless” pretty clearly means different things in different contexts. To bless can mean to venerate, praise, do reverence. That is the only sense in which we can bless God, to Whom we can add nothing whatsoever. As to the other kind of blessing, the power to bestow a blessing flows from authority. That is why a parent can bless a child, or (horror!) a husband can bless a wife, but not the other way around (unless the child is a priest).

  14. L. says:

    Several years ago I was at Sunday Mass in a church in my diocese. Before the Priest dismissed us at the end of Mass, he invited everyone to extend their right hands to bless someone for something or other. I declined to do it, but was amused by a sight that resembled films I’d seen of the Nuremberg rallies in Nazi Germany.

  15. MB says:

    Hmm. I once went to a conference with an experienced exorcist, and he told us that you are only allowed to ‘pray over,’ ‘lay hands,’ or ‘bless’ people you have legitimate authority over. So, a priest can bless lay people, husbands can bless their wives and children, and a wife can bless her children. He also said that to bless someone that you do not have authority over is actually the sin of usurpation, or exerting authority where you don’t have any. He also mentioned that lay people praying over people particularly in the context of deliverance ministry can be a ‘door opener’ … and he was an exorcist so, enough said!

  16. James in Perth says:

    Interesting article and comments. I formerly belonged to a charismatic Catholic organization when I lived overseas. At special moments in a person’s life, we were asked to “lay our hands” on a person to pray for special blessings (e.g., safe journey, recovery of health, etc.). The men would gather around a man and women around a women. People would touch the shoulder, back, or arm of the person being blessed.

    I am quite conservative but never felt uncomfortable with this sort of activity and I don’t believe it crossed any lines. It was not like an ordination. I experienced it as a humbling experience of love and care. Given the holy people who were praying for me, I do not believe the door was opened to evil either.

  17. The Masked Chicken says:

    I was going to let this go, but reading a few comments has prompted me to write something.

    Fr. Ferguson wrote:
    “But the general practice of members laying hands on each other as a sort of blessing? Nope, that’s not apostolic, that’s pretty much brand new. I don’t think it originated in the Cursillo movement, but I think it probably had some roots in the Protestant, Pentecostal tradition.”

    The practice is not, in itself, weird or even new, in one sense. It is merely sad because of where it comes from and what it implies. It is only very tangentially connected to the Cursillo movement.

    The practice of laying on of hands has a Biblical pedigree, being used for two related purposes: to impart something or to commission. For instance, Jacob imparted a blessing to his sons by laying on of hands; Moses commissioned the 70 Elders by laying on of hand (semikhah, in Hebrew). Laying on of hands indicates a change in state or status. Another early Biblical precedent was Elijah bringing back the son of the widow by lying on top of him three times and passing his spirit to Elisha by giving him his mantle. In both cases, the idea of the imparting or transfer of the spirit of life or prophecy was conveyed by a covering of the one person to the other, either directly by the body (or hands) or indirectly by a mantle. The laying on of hands to impart a gift or blessing is an extension of this idea of covering.

    In the New Testament, Jesus imparts a blessing to the children by touching them (haptomai, Mk. 10:13) and the two senses of imparting and commissioning may be found in the epistles: 2Ti 1:6 – “Hence I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands;” and Acts 13:1-2 – “While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off. So, being sent out by the Holy Spirit, they went down to Seleu’cia; and from there they sailed to Cyprus.”

    The laying on of hands for the two senses of imparting and commissioning occurred, also, in early post-Apostolic times. Irenaeus, writing in the second century, in his work, Against Heresies, writes:

    “Those who are in truth His disciples, receiving grace from Him, do in His name perform [miracles], so as to promote the welfare of other men, according to the gift which each one has received from Him. For some do certainly and truly drive out devils, so that those who have thus been cleansed from evil spirits frequently both believe [in Christ], and join themselves to the Church. Others have foreknowledge of things to come: they see visions, and utter prophetic expressions. Others still, heal the sick by laying their hands upon them, and they are made whole.”

    By 400 A. D., however, St. John Chrysostom would write that the gifts are, “long gone.” Of course, the gifts still existed and exist in the Church in a more diffuse way, but nothing like the large-scale manifestation of the Apostolic era. After that point, the laying on of hands was used for ordination (an imparting of the Sacrament of Orders) and commissioning in a liturgical sense, but there is no record that I know of (I have not done an exhaustive search, however) of even the ecstatic heretics such as the remaining left-overs of the Montanist movement of two centuries earlier (who did exist in scattered pockets even in the early 400’s), up until the Cathari in the twelfth-century, using laying on of hand for anything other than sacramental or hierarchy-based (superior to inferior) purposes. Parents or Abbots might put their hand on children (flesh or spiritual) that they were blessing, but this was a far cry from a ritual laying on of hands.

    The Cathari, in the 12th and 13th-centuries used laying on of hands as part of their Consolamentum ritual to render either the new ascetic Cathar or the dying person as a “Perfect,” (i.e., perfectly pure), free from guilt or regret. Around the same time, the Bogomils, another dualistic heresy, like the Cathari, were traveling around Europe, “curing the sick,” by laying on of hands. This was not associated with any Sacrament (because they rejected the Church), but resembled the practice in the Apostolic era.

    After the Protestant Reformation, the Anabaptists (who had no hierarchy), apparently, laid hand on laymen to send them off to preach. I know of no other group (although there may have been some) that used an informal laying on of hands (most Protestant groups used the laying on of hand in a formal sense for “ordination”) after this point until the 1860’s when it became associated with the early faith-healing movement by the Scottish doctor, Dr. Charles Cullis. This practice continued through the middle to late Twentieth-century in the faith healing ministries of Kathryn Kuhlman and Oral Roberts. It became standard in early Pentecostal circles by the turn of the twentieth-century to lay on hands either as an individual or within a group setting for either imparting the Holy Spirit or setting someone aside for some ministry. The history of every little splinter group of Protestants who used informal laying on of hands would take a long time to collect. Some of the more important ones included the Topeka Bible College (where neo-glossolalia began) and the Asuza St. Mission, in California. Protestant or not, as far as I know, every group that used informal laying on of hands after about 200 A. D. was eventually to be labeled heretical.

    For Confirmation, Holy Orders, and Extreme Unction, Catholics used formal laying on of hands. The informal use in Catholic circles began in the mid-1960’s. Its connection to the Cursillo movement is indirect (indeed, the current practice of praying over someone in the Cursillo was an import from the developments of the 1960’s and did not start with it).

    In 1967, two theology professors at Duquesne University, Dr. William Storey and Dr. Ralph Kiefer, had just come back from a Cursillo (which, at that time, had no laying on of hands praying) and were lamenting that they did not seem to have the power to really affect their student’s lives, spiritually. After having a visit from Ralph Martin, who suggested they read the book, The Cross and the Switchblade, by David Wilkerson, they decided to approach a local Pentecostal group (without the permission of their bishop) to be prayed for to receive the baptism in the Holy Spirit by the laying on of hands. The rest, is history. The Catholic Charismatic movement took off, starting with what became known as the Duquesne Weekend and spread to Notre Dame, which became the center of activity in the late 1960’s – early 170’s until it spread to Ann Arbor Michigan, where Ralph Martin and Steve Clark were living.

    All of this happened, in part, in my opinion, because of a misapplication of the principles of Ecumenism set forth in the, then, recent document on Ecumenism, Unitatis redintegratio, from Vatican II which, supposedly, allowed Storey and Kiefer to share the Protestant Pentecostal prayer experience of their Separated Brethren. The informal laying on of hands was in the wind before this, however, because of the emphasis on resourcement that was being pushed by La Nouvelle Theologie in the Catholic Church from about 1925 to the late 1950’s and their restorationist desires to return to earlier (as in very early) Church practices. Indeed, many groups, such as the early Pentecostals, who tried to bring back the practices of the early Church, as if it were somehow purer and more innocent, took Scripture as their template, interpreting it according to their own insights.

    One such passage is the commissioning prayer mentioned, above, from Acts 13. The sentence, “Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off,” (in Greek: tote n?steu? kai proseuchomai kai epitith?mi cheir epitith?mi autos apoly?) indicates that individuals laid hands on them, as in a commissioning, after they had fasted and prayed, not while they were praying. There is no instance in Scripture that I know of where there were groups praying over an individual, but the Pentecostals extended the idea from a single person to a group.

    The Pentecostal’s idea that they were restoring the ancient, “Baptism in the Holy Spirit,” fit right in with La Nouvelle Theologie’s restorationist tendencies (as well as Modernist tendencies from the recent past), so there was an underground in the Vatican sympathetic to it in the 1950’s when South African David du Plessis, dubbed, “Mr. Pentecost,” visited the Vatican (as he recounts in his biography) long before 1967. This may account for its easy reception into 1960’s Catholic culture (as well as the radicalism and experimentation of the Post-Vatican II period).

    Of course, few in the Church had a clue as to what the Pentecostals were really doing (Fr. John Harden did), since the theology could not even begin to be understood until 1985 with Robert Tuttle’s dissertation on Wesleyan mysticism, but the narrative presented by the Pentecostals of recovering the Baptism in the Holy Spirit was, to a large extent, uncritically accepted (although, to his credit, Bl. Pope Paul VI did have his doubts, but, apparently, at least in one version of the story (I have heard a couple), Cardinal Suenens convinced him that the movement was okay to use in the Catholic Church).

    The practice related by the reader in the question:

    “This morning however one of the men, who is in deacon formation, got up and invited all the men to join in offering a blessing on one of our members, in which several of the men familiar with this gathered in a circle around him, put their hands in the air over him and started singing ‘May the Lord Bless you and Keep you,'”

    is, really a conflation of two separate ideas: the orans position and the laying on of hands. The orans position was used in prayers of large groups very early on in the Church outside of the liturgy. Of course, it is mentioned in Scripture in many places, but in the application to groups, that is questionable. In Nehemiah 8:6, it says:

    “And Ezra blessed the LORD, the great God. And all the people answered, Amen, Amen, with lifting up their hands: and they bowed their heads, and worshipped the LORD with their faces to the ground.”

    This use of of the orans position is by way of affirmation, not prayer, per se. In 1 Timothy 2:1-8, St. Paul says:

    “First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all men, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life, godly and respectful in every way….I desire then that in every place the men [apparently, not women, MC] should pray [for these intentions], lifting (epair?) holy hands without anger or quarreling;”

    This is, however, talking not of group prayer, but individual prayers within a group. There is a distinction.

    It is not clear from Scripture that the orans position was used in a group prayer setting, where everyone was praying the same prayer, at once, but rather, more likely, as a group posture for the prayers of individuals praying in a group. In any case, the practice indicated by the reader conflates the orans position (raising of hands) with the commissioning aspect of the laying on of hands.

    The practice of praying over people in the sorts of Catholic groups the reader mentions is an off-shoot of the orans/individual laying on of hands by the Charismatics, who, almost certainly, copied the group prayer idea from Pentecostals (who, unlike Catholics, had no compunction against using the orans position), who may have gotten the idea from conflating or misinterpreting Scripture passages such as Act 13 and others. The practice seems to have been an ad libitum developed in the large-group structures of the early Pentecostal churches and filtered into the Charismatic Renewal.

    Scripturally, as a group prayer stance, it, probably, has no historical roots. Without going into a lot of the background of Charismatic theology, it can be a very coercive activity, if not actually spiritually abusive, if not done properly (Cardinal Suenens said as much in one of his books on Charismatic practice). It has no Church-approved authority as a commissioning prayer and while it may impart things, good or bad, to a person, one has to be very careful about what one is doing. Merely trusting God to make things right is somewhat presumptuous, because this type of prayer has no history in the Church and why should God support something so antithetical to the lived experience of the Church? Any good that comes from it, in my opinion, is a form of mercy on the invincible ignorance and weakness of the people doing it.

    I realize that some people have had positive experiences in Charismatic settings with this type of prayer. One should thank God for that, but it is up to the Catholic Church to give a definitive analysis of the phenomenon of the modern day attempted mass revival of the Charisma, but, so far, I have seen nothing on the Catholic side that even comes close to an unbiased analysis that takes into account all of the data and only one on the Protestant side (or as close as he can get without the benefits of Catholic theology). Again, I cannot go into why the Charismatic practice is spiritually limiting, as that would involve a more thorough analysis of the underlying theology.

    In any case, my advice is that if this type of prayer is suggested, to leave the scene, if possible, because it indicates a certain immaturity in the person initiating it. One might argue that that will cause scandal, but, in fact, the prayer, itself, is, rightly understood, a scandal, although, probably done in invincible ignorance by the majority of people. This form of orans/commissioning group pray is only about 100 years old, being a de novo invention of the early North American Pentecostals, but the informal laying on of hands for commissioning or imparting has only ever been associated with heresy, since the time of Tertullian. Unless people stand up for authentic pray, however, these sorts of shenanigans will continue to harm and confuse the people of God.

    The Chicken

    P. S. I apologize if the above is not very clear. I have been having a terrible time since Palm Sunday and I have decided to limit my commenting activities both here and elsewhere, online, until my situation clears up so as to not cause scandal by any poorly thought out comments. I wasn’t going to make the comment, above, but I had some background information I thought might be helpful. I realize it might be subject to counter-arguments. In any case, it is the best I can do at the moment.

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