ASK FATHER: Priests who bless with their fingers in the Greek icon “ICXC” style

From priest…

QUAERITUR:

At the moment I’m at a presbyteral retreat. When you get a bunch of priests together, you’re bound to see the whole range of liturgical “sensibilities,” leaving aside entirely the dinner table conversation… [For sure.  I look forward… no… I anticipate most gatherings of priests with a measure of dread.  An exception would now be that great retreat/conference held by the St. Paul Center, which I just attended.]

Anyhow, when they give blessings, I notice that some priests attempt to contort their hand in the form of the Greek “ICXC,” or at least the form seen in many icons, where the first and middle finger are straight up, and the rest of the fingers down (and not to mention the “bear paw,” the “eagle claw,” etc.)  [Good descriptors.]

It’s my understanding that the way for Latin Rite priests to bless is with all 5 fingers straight up, and the palm turned to port. I remember even reading a dubium, or a rubric, or something something saying as much, but my search hasn’t returned anything.

What do you think?

I think that priests of the Latin Church should behave like priests of the Latin Church.  Let the West be Western and the East be Eastern.  We have our ways of doing things which are entirely proper and good.

And worse than the Greek icon thing is the palm turned outward sweep, and also the “claw” as you say, which look less like a liturgical gesture and more like the rubbing of a steamed up mirror in which the self-admiring priest can see himself being profound and simply wonderful.

In the matter of the actualization of hands for blessings, let us turn to old manuals of liturgy, books of ceremonies.  We are, after all, delighted to be Unreconstructed Ossified Manualists in doctrine and liturgy is doctrine in its most sublime manifestation, whence and back to flow all good things.  These old tomes are consistent about hands.

Isn’t it interesting that the books have paragraphs on what to do with your hands?  The Roman liturgy congregation even specified these things.  How wise is Holy Mother Church!  After all, our hands are one of our most important means of interpersonal communication.  We have happy gestures and angry gestures, some famous and pretty much universal across borders and centuries.  And don’t get me started about Italians.  One thing we note, however, is that when people don’t know what to do, their hands reveal their lack of ease.  This is especially the case with children.  And since priests who are liturgically ignorant are as childish (or womanish) as men can be, the Church told us exactly what to do with our hands.

So, here’s how Latin, the Roman priest blesses, making the sign of the Cross on himself or over others or over objects, liturgically, which is never wrong.

Caveat: Don’t be robotic.

First, the little crosses at the Gospel.  Nearly everyone gets this wrong.  The priest or deacon’s palm of the left hand is put upon the book, straight fingers and thumb pressed together.  With the right hand, straight fingers pressed together and thumb extended out at an angle but on the same plane as the fingers, he makes a small cross in two distinct strokes, lifting the hand for each, with the end or near end of his thumb at the beginning of the Gospel text.  The whole arm with hand moves, not just the thumb, making twitchy jerks. Then, he puts his left palm, still with thumb and fingers together on his chest, and, with his right hand, still straight and with thumb out a little, he traces small crosses on his forehead, lips, and breast below his left hand.  The downward stroke is first and, lifting up and resetting, the transverse follows from left to right.  The whole arm with hand moves, not just the thumb, making twitchy jerks.  The motions should be distinct and not wavy.  Mutatis mutandis this is also for the altar at, for example, at the Last Gospel.  Bottom line: open hand, not balled-fist.

Next, blessings over people, objects, places.  The dimensions of the Sign of the Cross is proportioned to the size of the object.  For example, blessing the oblata on the altar: just stick to the oblata on the altar, not a foot on either side of the corporal.  For a rosary, you don’t have to throw your shoulder out of joint.  For places and people, the Sign would be larger, much as the same size as when the priest makes the Sign upon himself.

Sticking to liturgy, and this is always right for blessing people outside of a liturgical setting, again, unless the left hand is instructed to be on the altar, etc., the left goes upon the chest.  The right hand, with straight fingers and thumb pressed together and pointing heavenward, is held with little finger toward whomever is to receive the blessing. NOT PALM OUT.   He traces the Sign of the Cross with distinct strokes.  Did I mention, NOT PALM OUT?  Raising his hand, as described, to about the height of his own forehead, as if crossing himself, he begins the downward stroke, again to the point where he would sign himself, while saying, “Pater et Filius or Patris et Filii“. At the nadir he might pause almost imperceptibly to make the stroke more distinct.  Then he raises his hand back up on the same vector as the downward stroke to the point where he will make the transverse stroke.  Moving his hand – parallel to the floor or footpace – towards his own left to about the point where he would sign himself he again pauses almost imperceptibly.  From thence he moves arm and hand, fingers always pointing up and little finger always toward the people, all the way to the right in a straight line to to where he would make the Sign on his own right shoulder while saying, “et Spiritus Sanctus or Spiritus Sancti“.  After that imperceptible pause, he then should put his hands together, palms together, before his chest and go on to the next privileged task of his priesthood.

Blessing with an object like a relic or a monstrance would be different, of course.  Giving blessings when you are Pope would be different, too.

One might object that we see Popes and saints depicted or in photos with hands raised in blessing with their two small fingers tucked down, not quite like the Greek icon thing, but probably symbolizing the three Persons and two Natures.

Sure.  Why not.  Keep in mind that Popes traditionally bless a little differently.

Who am I to judge?

There’s a little more to this, by the way.

There is a theory that Peter himself gave the blessing this way, so that’s why Popes and others do it now.  For example, legend has it that the Spanish of Castile has a coronal fricative, an lisped “s”, perhaps because a king had a lisp and the court then took it on also. It’s probably not true, se non è vero, è ben trovato as the rather charred Giordano might have said without receiving the papal blessing.  That said, there is a theory that the papal blessing developed because Peter had – I’m not making this up, this is really someone’s theory – Peter had ulnar or median nerve (running shoulder to pinky) damage which caused his two small fingers to curl in. Evidence for this is supposedly in a fresco in the Catacombs of Domatilla.  Peter is depicted with shorter ring and pinky fingers.  The idea is that Peter would never willingly have blessed with a hand like a claw or fist, but rather with a more peaceful open hand.  The Bishop of Rome has been imitating Peter’s never damage ever since.  Buy it?  We could also get into the difficulties of making the Vulcan greeting sign, but that might get us off track.  Meanwhile, the two tucked fingers from that nerve damage really is described  in old medical books as “Pope’s Hand” or some such.  That’s when people knew something, even when they weren’t Catholic.

As for blessing with the Greek icon fingers, no. Just, no.

Alas, with the systematic demolition of Catholic identity in the Latin Church over the last few decades, some (priests) have gotten it into their heads that to recover reverence we have to import Eastern art, architecture, music, etc.  NO.  Make it STOP!  We have our own heritage.  In some cases we assimilated some elements from the East (as in Venice, etc.), but organically and harmoniously.

We need our Western patrimony returned in its full splendor.  In that way we can appreciate the Eastern even more.

Another with Pius – who turns out smiled years before Francis was elected.  Lots of pictures with Pius with fingers bent, or slightly bent even with straight hand.  Damage?

St John Paul II of happy memory, straight handed.

But then there’s this official portrait.

Benedict at his last audience… sigh.

Sometimes, you play things fast and loose, as when Benedict once forgot to give the blessing and, laughing, came back to the window!  Still new at the Pope thing.

Don’t any of YOU priests put your hand on the lectern!  Unless you are the Pope.

We could multiply examples of variations of blessings of people by Popes in photos and films.  Cui bono?

But, liturgically, learn the RIGHT ROMAN WAY FOR PRIESTS and stick to it. And, as my old pastor used to say, “When you’re right, you can’t be wrong.”

Bl. Pius IX adds:

“The Book of Blessings… just say NO!”

Heh.

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About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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10 Responses to ASK FATHER: Priests who bless with their fingers in the Greek icon “ICXC” style

  1. FrAnt says:

    A few things: This article might have been an Ask Fr, but it also be considered a Rant. Bravo. Second, The picture of St. John Paul II is flipped, he’s blessing with his left hand. And finally, watching a video of a smiling pope (B16) brought a smile to my face and warmed my heart. Thanks for the lesson. You’d think they’d teach this in seminary.

    [Well done.]

    Fr. Z's Gold Star Award

  2. Blackfriar says:

    In the traditional Dominican Rite (which is, of course, a Latin rite) the priest blesses the people at the end of Mass, for example, with all the fingers extended (“manu dextra totaliter extensa, sinistram pectori applicando”), but the signs of the cross over the elements in the Canon are made with the thumb and first two fingers extended, the ring and little fingers bent back towards the palm. (“…demittat laevam super altare, et signat dextra manu totum sacrificium, tribus … crucibus, nempe tribus tantum digitis extensis, reliquis inflectis versus palmam…)
    You can see this nicely illustrated here: https://youtu.be/12-nE6AtRks?t=15
    Note that the rubric uses the word “laeva” for “left hand” – ratther than the more commonly encountered “sinister”.

    [Thanks for that! Interesting. Again, it is good to see precision.]

    Fr. Z's Gold Star Award

  3. Atra Dicenda, Rubra Agenda says:

    Dear Lord, I miss Benedict.

    And his loss of vitality between 2005 and his last audience is striking.

  4. bobbird says:

    Thanks, Fr. Z for showing us once again why seemingly small gestures all enhance the necessary Sense of Sacred. I have always been disturbed by the “palms out” blessing style, but not knowing why. I passed it off as personal style. It looks kumbaya and weird. I suspected that it was not “kosher” but still valid. It is yet another manifestation of “Do your own thing in the Spirit of Vatican II”. So … when a priest blesses with PALMS OUT — not only the congregants at the Dismissal but also the Sacred Elements just prior to the Consecrations of the Body & Blood (which is actually PALMS DOWN when they do it) … are these blessings valid? I understand that “licit” and “valid” are 2 different things and that it is the WORDS that Consecrate, and that the pre-consecration blessing is just that, a blessing over as yet mundane elements … but what about the congregants at the Dismissal? Would the blessing be invalid, as in “May Almighty God bless US” ?

  5. Kerry says:

    In past woodshops where I taught fine woodworking to adults, the students were told, “Do not put a tool back unless you know, absolutely, where it belongs. Put a chisel in the wrong place,, then any place to look is as likely as any other, and I have to look everywhere to find it.” (One chisel, misplaced in 1999, was never found.) Is any hand position in offering a Blessing as good as any other?

    Ann Barnhardt, has written many times about the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, comparing the precision of the guards there to the precision of Priests offering the Mass. There are no slovenly Tomb guards! Are precision and slovenliness indistinguishable?

    From C. S. Lewis’ Preface to Paradise Lost: “The modern habit of doing ceremonial things unceremoniously is no proof of humility; rather it proves the offender’s inability to forget himself in the rite, and his readiness to spoil for every one else the proper pleasure of ritual.”

    [Great Lewis quote]

    Fr. Z's Gold Star Award

  6. JonathanTX says:

    Regarding the theory that St. Peter sustained some sort of ulnar nerve damage, perhaps we can further speculate that he sustained his injury from his chains while he was imprisoned in Jerusalem.

  7. thomistking says:

    “That said, there is a theory that the papal blessing developed because Peter had – I’m not making this up, this is really someone’s theory – Peter had ulnar or median nerve (running shoulder to pinky) damage which caused his two small fingers to curl in. Evidence for this is supposedly in a fresco in the Catacombs of Domatilla. Peter is depicted with shorter ring and pinky fingers. The idea is that Peter would never willingly have blessed with a hand like a claw or fist, but rather with a more peaceful open hand.”

    This is exactly the sort of nonsense that “publish or perish” leads to (although, it is much less harmful than most of the nonsense the academy turns out these days).

  8. Kathleen10 says:

    I’m really wondering if these rubrics apply to sacred art, statues, etc.?

  9. un-ionized says:

    There’s a priest here who blesses with the flat hand, palm outward. Looks like he’s rubbing the air in a sort of circle. I don’t like it because that is the way Protestants give blessings and they do it that way specifically to not look Catholic, I was told by a Methodist.

  10. “In some cases we assimilated some elements from the East (as in Venice, etc.), but organically and harmoniously.”

    …cough…cough…sack of Constantinople….cough

    [Find a lozenge… that what the Venetians did in their assimilation of architecture. For the other stuff… they left a lot behind!]