Practical Matters in the Sacred Liturgy

The Mass is the feast of heaven and earth. And as with everything else that takes place on earth, there are many practical aspects to be considered. In this article, we will take a brief look at gestures, language, silence; what “active participation” means, and the relation of all to the sacred.

The Worshipping Body

Bodily gestures in the Catholic liturgy are very important. Every time that we participate in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, our bodily gestures make up an integral part of our worship. Making the sign of the Cross, genuflecting, sitting, standing, kneeling, and the beating of our breasts are all components and expressions of worship.

In recent times, there has been much confusion regarding certain aspects of our hand gestures during the Catholic Mass. I would like to take a few moments to address this confusion. There are three questions that are always being asked: 1) Is gesturing toward the priest with the hand while responding, “And also with you” considered correct? 2) Should the congregation pray with hands held in the orans position during the Our Father? 3) Is holding hands as the congregation recites the Our Father correct or even appropriate?

At the present moment, it is true that there is not a single ruling on the subject of hand gestures, either from the Congregation of Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments or from the US Conference of Bishops. I believe that definitive norms on gesturing would provide clarity and uniformity. However, in the absence of such a norm, I would like to share my thoughts on resolving this issue.

Regarding the first question, as to a gesture on the part of the people towards the priest when the people respond “And also with you,” my research on the subject reveals no historical basis for this gesture within the liturgical tradition of the Latin Rite of the Catholic Church. Nor is there any history of people gesturing with their hands during the beginning of the Preface. These hand gestures, which have become quite common in parishes throughout the country, are innovations that have been introduced.

As to praying with hands held in the orans position during the Our Father, there is a historical precedent for this bodily gesture in Catholicism. Pope Benedict XVI, writing as Josef Cardinal Ratzinger, in his widely popular book The Spirit of the Liturgy, provides a detailed discussion of this subject (203-204). That being said, it is also true that praying with folded hands has always been part of our Catholic tradition.

However, I would argue that praying with hands held in the orans position during the Lord’s Prayer or at other moments in the liturgy by the congregation is an innovation that has been introduced and encouraged as a novelty. Let us remember that no one has the authority to spontaneously introduce novelties within the Catholic liturgy. The process for introducing any new rite or gesture into the liturgy in a stable or even binding manner is already contemplated in liturgical law. This process entails a two-thirds majority vote in the Conference of Bishops and the approval, or what is called the recognition, of the Holy See, before any change may take effect. Thus, if neither the US Conference of Bishops nor the Holy See has seen fit to prescribe any new posture for the recitation of the Our Father, it hardly permits any lesser authority to impose a novel gesture not required by liturgical law and expect the faithful to follow their decrees.

This is also true regarding the gesture of holding hands during the Our Father. There is nothing in our liturgical tradition that shows any history of the congregation holding hands during the Our Father. This too is an innovation that has been spontaneously introduced.

Regarding these innovative gestures and the silence on the part of the Holy See and the Bishops’ Conference, it seems to me that there is a very clear answer on the subject. We need to keep in mind that the revised Roman Missal from Vatican II is not a departure from the Missal in use previously. The liturgical reform mandated by the Second Vatican Council organically flows from the Tridentine liturgy. Therefore, since there is no evidence of innovative hand gestures in the Tridentine liturgy, there should be no innovative hand gestures in the Vatican II liturgy without a clear and precise decision from Church authority.

Thus we can draw the following conclusions: 1) the use of hand gestures towards the priest with the response “And also with you” is an innovation that has no place within the Catholic Mass; 2) the use of the orans, a position with an established historical precedent in Christian prayer, should not be introduced into the Catholic Mass until a definition has been given by the authority of the Church; 3) the gesture of holding hands during the Our Father has no historical tradition in the Catholic liturgy and should not be introduced into the Catholic Mass unless the competent ecclesial authorities were to decide to introduce it.

The use of bodily gestures within the Catholic Mass requires unity. People become confused when one parish does one thing and down the road or in the next town, another parish is doing something entirely different. For precisely this reason the Church says: “Therefore no other persons whatsoever, not even a priest, may add, remove, or change anything in the liturgy on their own authority” (Vatican II, Sacrosanctum Concilium, 22.3).

The Language of Worship

The idea of using the vernacular, or the language of the people, in the Catholic liturgy is not a new one. The Council of Trent considered the possibility of allowing the Mass to be celebrated in the vernacular, but it decided that because of the turmoil being caused by the Protestant Reformation, that it would be better for the sake of the unity of the liturgy that it be celebrated in Latin only. However, the Council of Trent did say that explanations in the vernacular should be given during the Mass, and that the possibility of the use of the vernacular should be addressed by the Church at another time in the future.

The use of the vernacular in the liturgy came from the Vatican II document on the liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium. However, it must be understood that the principles elaborated in this Vatican II document were already being widely developed in what was called the Liturgical Movement which began during the Pontificate of St. Pope Pius X, and which became a very intense movement from the Pontificate of Pius XII right up to the opening of the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965). There were even isolated places where the Holy See allowed the use of the vernacular in the Latin Rite before Vatican II. We should also remember that the Eastern Rite has always used the vernacular in their liturgy. So, let us keep in mind that the vernacular is not a new idea.

The widespread use of the vernacular was another good reform from the Second Vatican Council and particularly with respect to the Liturgy of the Word. However, it was not the mind of the Council, nor is it the intention of the Church today, that the Latin language should be considered something of the past, never to be used again in the Catholic Church. There is an important place for the Latin language in the Catholic Mass. The liturgical life of a parish must both embrace the vernacular and frequently present the Latin prayers of the Mass and liturgical music throughout the liturgical year.

Since for the most part Latin has not been used in most parishes throughout the country since the Second Vatican Council, pastors will have to take the time slowly to educate their people, teaching them basic Latin responses and introducing the congregation to Gregorian Chant, polyphony, and the beautiful hymns of our Catholic heritage. Nationally, there is an interesting phenomenon occurring: while some older priests and laity are repelled by any use of Latin, conversely more and more younger priests and laity are finding the use of Latin to be exciting, fulfilling, and very spiritually uplifting.

On the subject of the use of Latin, Pope Benedict once wrote:

All the same I must admit that in the wake of the Council a lot of things happened far too quickly and abruptly, with the result that many of the faithful could not see the inner continuity with what had gone before. In part it is simply a fact that the Council was pushed aside. For instance, it had said that the language of the Latin Rite was to remain Latin, although suitable scope was to be given to the vernacular. Today we might ask: Is there a Latin Rite at all any more? Certainly there is not an awareness of it. (The Feast of Faith, 84)

The Sacred in Silence and Action

Silence is essential. There are moments when brief periods of silence are to take place within the Catholic Mass. Aside from these brief moments, I strongly believe that we need to recapture the practice of silence before the Mass begins and after it is has ended. It is incorrect that social conversations take place in the church before Mass and after Mass. All social life can be conducted outside of the church before Mass begins, and all social life after Mass can take place outside of the church or in the parish hall.

In my parish, after a long period of patient instruction, I have achieved a beautiful climate of silence in our church. However, at the same time, our parish enjoys a very intense community life that takes place outside of the Mass. I firmly believe that silence, which allows an individual really to encounter God, will develop the community life of the parish. We cannot have an encounter with one another unless we can have an encounter with God. When we encounter the transcendent in the liturgy, we will automatically reach out to our brothers and sisters. But the encounter with God can only take place within silence.

Sacrosanctum Concilium gave us the words “active participation.” Over the years, much has been discussed and debated regarding the meaning of these words. I think the meaning is quite simple.

At the time of the Council of Trent, the Catholic Church was going through a very difficult time. The sacrificial nature of the Mass, the ministerial priesthood, and transubstantiation were all under intense attack from the Protestant reformers. Therefore, the Church decided that the liturgy should emphasize these essential aspects of our faith.

The concept of active participation within the Catholic Mass, as understood by Sacrosanctum Concilium and the Liturgical Movement leading up to the Second Vatican Council, restores the proper participation of the laity due to their membership within the priesthood of the faithful. Thus, the reformed liturgy of the Second Vatican Council brought about a beautiful relationship between the ministerial priesthood and the common priesthood of the faithful.

One of the roots of liturgical abuses since the close of the Second Vatican Council comes from the fact that many members of the clergy deny the essential difference between the ministerial priesthood and the common priesthood of the faithful. In other words, there is no ministerial priesthood. If priests no longer understand who they are, then they will no longer understand what they are supposed to do within the Catholic liturgy. What develops is a liturgical circus in which “active participation” is understood as everyone “doing something.” Moreover, their activity is subject to continual, spontaneous, and arbitrary creativity with no order or reference to the liturgical norms and principles of the Church and in violation of the sacred nature of the liturgy.

Everything that involves the liturgy must bring us to the sacred. Architecture, paintings, statues, music, vestments, and liturgical vessels serve to bring both the priest and the lay faithful into contact with another world. Modernity needs continual reminders of the transcendent. The church building and everything that goes on within it (including our attire) must reflect the existence and the presence of the sacred.

In the earthly liturgy we take part in a foretaste of that heavenly liturgy which is celebrated in the holy city of Jerusalem toward which we journey as pilgrims, where Christ is sitting at the right hand of God, a minister of the holies and of the true tabernacle; we sing a hymn to the Lord's glory with all the warriors of the heavenly army; venerating the memory of the saints, we hope for some part and fellowship with them; we eagerly await the Savior, our Lord Jesus Christ, until he, our life, shall appear and we too will appear with him in glory. (Second Vatican Council, Sacrosanctum Concilium, 8)

© Copyright 2006 Catholic Exchange

Father James Farfaglia is Pastor of St. Helena of the True Cross of Jesus Catholic Church in Corpus Christi, Texas. Originally from Ridgefield, CT, Father has founded and developed apostolates for the Catholic Church in Spain, Italy, Mexico, Canada and throughout the United States. He may be reached by email at


Fr. James Farfaglia is the pastor of St. Helena of the True Cross of Jesus Catholic Church in Corpus Christi, TX. His Sunday homilies and blog can be found at You can contact Father James at

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