From Reverend Know-it-all:
Dear Rev. Know-It-All,
I was distressed this past Sunday when the priest celebrating Mass that I attend forbad people to raise their hands at the Our Father. Only the priest should raise his hands in prayer. He was very insistent and I am very confused. Was he correct in saying this?
Perhaps this particular priest is a liturgist. I am sure you have heard the question asked, “What is the difference between a liturgist and a terrorist? You can negotiate with a terrorist.” Enough levity.
Actually, there is a point behind your priest’s inflexibility, but often, especially when I stick my nose in, a simple question has a long answer. Here goes.
Being of advanced age, I remember when the radical changes in the liturgy were introduced in the mid sixties. It was the era of the Red Guard in China, the hippies in California and the liturgists in the Catholic Church. It seemed that every week we were putting the altar in a position and the placement of the tabernacle was a game of “Where’s Waldo?”
There were clown Masses, there were polka Masses, there were flamenco Masses. They consecrated bagels and doughnuts and often the wine at Mass was port or Mogen David. I suspect that months went by in some places without a valid (real) Mass being celebrated. Feminist groups would have feminist Masses in which milk was used instead of wine. It was a glorious springtime of weirdness.
And the churches pretty much emptied out because the more exciting they tried to make things, the more boring they became.
The most striking thing about Catholic worship, once upon a time, was the amazing reverence that Catholics showed for the presence of God. In the noise of the world, a Catholic Church was place of dignity and stillness in which it seemed almost possible to breathe God in like air.
As the world got louder, some people flinched. They thought, “Well, we have to keep up with the world. Heaven forbid that young people should be bored, they might leave the church!”
Well, guess what! We made it more exciting and young people all left anyway.
The most important word in the Catholic vocabulary at the time was “relevant.” How could we make Mass relevant? It is wisely said that he who marries the spirit of the age soon finds himself widowed. The world moved on and many in the church stayed firmly rooted in the sixties. At this point that’s almost fifty years ago. I get a big kick out people who want to sing modern songs in church. Some of the songs they think of as new are forty years old.
What does this tirade have to do with your question? I’m almost there.
In the midst of all this excitement and grooviness there appeared the PENTECOSTAL MOVEMENT (you may know it by it’s current moniker Charismatic renewal). Believe it or not the Rev. Know-it-all was and is an ardent devotee of Pentecostal spirituality. I’m not so sure about the Charismatic renewal, but that’s a story for another day.
At the heart of the Pentecostal experience is a joyful encounter with the Holy Spirit, though some would say it’s not the third person of the Trinity that Charismatics encounter. I suppose it depends entirely on the circumstances. Still, the response to the encounter was commonly a renewed joy in prayer and a spontaneous lifting of the hands in abandonment to God.
When one of these renewed people would go to Mass, surprise! There was the Holy Spirit, and they tended to react in the joyful exuberance of the prayer meeting. The priest raised his hands in prayer, just like at prayer group and so up would go the arms!
The Pentecostal movement went begging for authentic Catholic teaching and what they got was clown Masses and pop theology. They drifted in and out of some very anti-Catholic circles and pretty much lost the understanding of what Mass is, as did just about everybody else on planet earth.
We decided that Mass, being the most important thing in the life of the church was the only thing. One would get requests for Mass in the strangest places. “Father, we just got new carpeting in the pre-school. Could you come over and bless it by saying a Mass? The children would just love it.” So one would try to say Mass on a two foot tall table while trying to entertain some sugar-crazed four-year-olds. An octogenarian nun beamed and played folk music on an un-tuned guitar. Ah, the sixties, when we were young and as dumb as a bag of door knobs!
Where was I? Oh yes.
The Catholic Church had lots of wonderful ceremonies. We had benedictions and novenas and processions and vigils and pilgrimages and lots of swell stuff, but Mass was Mass was Mass. It still is.
But, Mass became the community business meeting, the kindergarten graduation, the dedication ceremony for the new gym and on and on.
Mass is the un-bloody restatement of the covenant of Calvary, nothing less and nothing more.
If I’m not mistaken, in the ancient days of my youth, we didn’t have Mass along with Confirmation. Confirmation was a sacrament and stood on its own. Strictly speaking, weddings were performed without Mass, though they were usually followed immediately by a Mass of thanksgiving.
(ATTENTION: HERE COMES MY POINT)
All this is said to make the point that Mass is not a prayer meeting.
It is a very precise presentation of the covenant between God and man.
It might be marvelously appropriate to raise your hands at the prayer meeting, but Mass is not a prayer meeting. It is not me and Jesus; it is Christ and His bride. In the traditional understanding, the priest stands in for Christ who raises his hands interceding for his bride. That is the tradition. Sacred tradition doesn’t change. Human traditions do. I don’t know that the raising of the priest’s hands alone is sacred tradition. We’ll see.
It’s smart to change even human traditions slowly and thoughtfully when and if they need change. Most of the experiments of the sixties were abysmal failures. If we learned nothing else from the springtime of weirdness, it is that we should probably look before we leap.
So, the answer to your question, “Should we raise our hands at the Our Father,” is “Probably not.” It’s not our tradition. I’ve even begun to think, old Pentecostal Catholic that I am, of believing we should have prayer meetings in the hall, not the church.
The church building is the throne room of God, a place of profound reverence and, though the whoopie appropriate to a good prayer meeting might be reverent as far as I’m concerned, someone one else might not have the same opinion. It is best to avoid scandal. I love a good prayer meeting with people babbling in Babylonian, dancing in the aisles and swinging from the chandeliers. I just think all that should happen in the parish hall.
Still, I’m not about to excommunicate you for raising your hands at the Our Father, but don’t get me started on holding hands at the Our Father. That can get creepy.