A priest in the orans position, normally used

when he offers prayers aloud and alone

on behalf of a then-silent congregation

The “Orans” Posture
Whenever the priest leads a prayer for the Assembly
he prays with his hands in what’s called the orans
position. This is the original posture for prayer,
from the time of the Old Testament time: arms lifted up,
hands upraised, raising the arms heavenwards to
God who dwells in heaven. The folded hands posture
for prayer is a latecomer: it came from Germany in
the late Middle Ages. The priest only adopts that
stance a couple times in the Mass, when he says a
private prayer


The sacred Liturgy of the Catholic Church is the complexus of sacred signs instituted by Jesus Christ, or by his Church, that both signify and convey sanctifying grace to those who participate in the realization (i.e. making real, making present) those signs.

What are those sacred signs?  They are baptism, confirmation, reconciliation, eucharist, marriage, holy orders and anointing of the sick.

In Baptism it is the pouring of water on the head of the one being baptized while the Holy Spirit is invoked.

In Confirmation it is the anointing with the oil of Chrism on the head of the one being confirmed while the Holy Spirit is invoked.

In Reconciliation, it the confessing of sin to someone possessing Holy Orders, accompanied by genuine contrition, and the reception and performance of penance.

In the Eucharist it is the action of one in Holy Orders memorializing the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the Cross with the subsequent reception and adoration of the Real Presence of Jesus Christ.

In Marriage it is the exchanging of vows fidelity and love between a man and a woman and Jesus Christ with the commitment to being open to the procreation of new human life.

In Holy Orders it is the conferral on a man of a sharing in the powers granted by Jesus Christ to Peter and the apostles to be living instruments in the reconciling of man to God.

In the Anointing of the Sick it is the invocation of God’s grace on an individual who is experiencing the physical consequences of Original Sin.

Because these seven signs, which collectively are known as the Sacred Liturgy, involve the signification and the actual conveying of God’s grace they are called Sacraments.

Because each Sacrament involves the interaction between a person and God they constitute worship of God.


The Liturgy, then in rightly seen as an exercise of the priestly office of Jesus Christ.  It involves the presentation of man’s sanctification under the guise of signs perceptible by the senses and its accomplishment in ways appropriate to each of these signs.  In it full public worship is performed by the Mystical Body of Jesus Christ, that is by the Head and his members.

From this it follows that every liturgical celebration, because it is an action of Christ the Priest and of this Body, which is the Church, is a sacred action surpassing all others.  No other action of the Church can equal its efficacy by the same title and to the same degree.
Sacrosanctum Concilium, No. 7

Worship of God is the highest activity of the human person involving as it does the subjecting of the whole human person, body and soul to an acknowledgement of the total otherness, majesty and divinity, of God.

The Church, from the beginning has considered it its duty and responsibility to regulate the actualization of this worship of God through the actualization of each of the seven sacraments.

Over the course of the two millennia of the Christian era, the Church has changed and modified the way in which the Sacraments, i.e. the public worship of God, are celebrated by its members.

Up until the reform of the Second Vatican Council the Church’s liturgy was regulated through the publication of directives contained in the official liturgical books of the Church:  the missal, the ritual, the breviary, etc.

It is recognized by many scholars that the liturgical books published by the Church since the Second Vatican Council omitted many directives  that formerly helped to preserve some of the beauty and solemnity of the Liturgy of past centuries.  That is why some of these scholars have called for a “reform of the reform.”

The omission of many directives from the liturgical books has allowed individuals, both priests and laity, to exercise their creative talents to introduce into liturgical celebrations many innovations, some of which are good and many of which are not so good.

The celebration of the sacrifice of the Mass, the Eucharist, has, for example, in many places taken on the character of party rather than a representation of the bloody sacrifice of Our Lord Jesus Christ on the cross.  For two millennia the sacrifice of the Mass was seen as something necessitating a certain degree of solemnity.  It is the nature of a party for the participants to be joyful and to interact with one another.  The Mass, on the other hand is focused on the altar and sacrifice of Christ, the interaction of the faithful in the pews is neither necessary or desirable. By their mere presence they are united spiritually.

The Novus Ordo form of celebrating the Mass contains only a few instances where the priest celebrant is required to genuflect before handling the consecrated host, the Eucharistic body and blood of Jesus Christ, compared with the many genuflections required by the Extraordinary Form of celebrating the Mass.  As a consequence many Catholics no longer understand the significance of the act of genuflecting, of touching one knee to the ground, out of respect of the Eucharistic presence.  It is increasingly rare to see Catholics genuflecting after entering the church before leaving an aisle and entering a pew.  This is not insignificant; our actions sometimes speak louder than words in expressing what we believe.

Speaking of words, along with a diminished awareness of the presence of Our Eucharistic Lord, there is a diminished reverential silence in many of our churches.  Verbal interaction is very much part of a party by the participants, but in our Churches, especially when we enter them for the celebration of the Liturgy, a reverential silence is deisrable and is traditional.

What prompted this post was the reaction to my previous post on posture, especially the orans posture when adopted by the laity during the celebration of the Mass.  The orans posture is ancient and holy; it is natural to the Christian, but it has its place in the Christian’s private worship.

In the holy sacrifice of the Mass when the priest addresses a prayer to God on behalf of the people present at the Mass he is directed by the rubrics to extend his hands in the orans posture.  When he does so he is acting as the intermediatry with God for the people.  He alone, during the oral praying of that prayer, should adopt the orans posture.  If a layperson does it at the same time in the congregation it is not a mortal sin, it is not a sin at all.  It is just not the proper thing to do, and doing it can be disruptive of the spiritual recollection of the persons nearby who do not do it.  If only out of concern for one’s neighbor one ought not to do it.

Similarly, thrusting of one’s hand out to a neighbor in the pew expecting the neighbor to grasp one’s hand can be intrusive on the interior spiritual state of the neighbor.  There would be nothing wrong holding the hand of a wife or a husband or another member of immediate family, if that is the family custom, but one ought not to expect strangers to engage in that kind of personal interaction during the celebration of the Liturgy.

Let’s keep things in proper perspective.



Orans Posture (“Praying” Hands Extended)

The following explains the origin of the Orans position, in which the priest intercedes during the liturgy on behalf of all. In the last couple decades this posture of praying with hands extended and lifted upwards has become a popular prayer posture for many laity, especially in the Charismatic Renewal.The Orans position (Latin for “praying”) or some variation of it, was common to almost all ancient religions as an outward sign of supplicating God (or if a pagan religion, the gods). Consider what we do when we plead with someone. We might put our arms out in front of us as if reaching for the person and say “I beg you, help me.” This seems to be a natural human gesture coming from deep within us – like kneeling to adore or to express sorrow. Now, turn that reach heavenwards and you have the Orans position.The ancient monuments of Christianity, such as the tombs in the catecombs, often show someone in the Orans position supplicating God, to show that the prayers of the Church accompany the person in death.The liturgical use of this position by the priest is spelled out in the rubrics (the laws governing how the Mass is said). It indicates his praying on BEHALF of us, acting as alter Christus as pastor of the flock, head of the body. It used to be minutely defined in the rubrics, which now say only, “extends his hands” or “with hands extended.” Priests understand what is meant (from observation and training), and although there is some variability between priests basically the same gesture is obtained from all of them by these words.In the rubrics the Orans gesture is asked principally of the Main Celebrant, but on those occasions where either a priestly action is done (Eucharistic Prayer) or prayer in common (Our Father) all the concelebrants do it.

It is never done by the Deacon, who does not represent the People before God but assists him who does.

Among the laity this practice began with the charismatic renewal. Used in private prayer it has worked its way into the Liturgy. It is a legitimate gesture to use when praying, as history shows, however, it is a private gesture when used in the Mass and in some cases conflicts with the system of signs which the rubrics are intended to protect. The Mass is not a private or merely human ceremony. The symbology of the actions, including such gestures, is definite and precise, and reflects the sacramental character of the Church’s prayer. As the Holy See has recently pointed out, confusion has entered the Church about the hierarchical nature of her worship, and this gesture certainly contributes to that confusion when it conflicts with the ordered sign language of the Mass.

Lets take each case.

Our Father. The intention for lay people using the Orans position at this time is, I suppose, that we pray Our Father, and the unity of people and priest together is expressed by this common gesture of prayer. Although this gesture is not called for in the rubrics, it does at least seem, on the surface, to not be in conflict with the sacramental sign system at the point when we pray Our Father. I say on the surface, however, since while lay people are doing this the deacon, whose postures are governed by the rubrics, may not do it. So, we have the awkward disunity created by the priest making an appropriate liturgical gesture in accordance with the rubrics, the deacon not making the same gesture in accordance with the rubrics, some laity making the same gesture as the priest not in accordance with the rubrics, and other laity not making the gesture (for various reasons, including knowing it is not part of their liturgical role). In the end, the desire of the Church for liturgical unity is defeated.

After Our Father. This liturgical disunity continues after the Our Father when some, though not all, who assumed the Orans position during the Our Father continue it through the balance of the prayers, until after “For thine is the kingdom etc.” The rubrics provide that priest-concelebrants lower their extended hands, so that the main celebrant alone continues praying with hands extended, since he represents all, including his brother priests. So, we have the very anomalous situation that no matter how many clergy are present only one of them is praying with hands extended, accompanied by numbers of the laity.

So, while we shouldn’t attribute bad will to those who honestly have felt that there was some virtue in doing this during the Mass, it is yet another case where good will can achieve the opposite of what it intends when not imbued with the truth, in this case the truth about the sacramental nature of the postures at Mass and their meaning.

Answered by Colin B. Donovan, STL

ApologeticsDoctrineCanon LawEastern ChurchesGeneralHistoryLiturgyMoral



Adoremus, Society for the Renewal of the Sacred Liturgy

Online Edition – Vol. IX, No. 8: November 2003

About that Orans Posture
What is it? What does the GIRM say? Can a bishop require it?

Many AB readers have been asking about the orans posture during the Our Father (orans means praying; here it refers to the gesture of praying with uplifted hands, as the priest does during various parts of the Mass).

In some dioceses in the United States, people are being told that they should adopt this gesture, though it is not a customary posture for prayer for Catholic laity. Sometimes people are told that their bishop mandates this change because the new General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM) requires it or at least encourages it.

Thus it may be helpful to review the actual regulations on the orans posture.

What does the GIRM say?

First of all, nowhere in the current (2002) General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM) does it say that the orans posture is recommended for the congregation during the Our Father.

In GIRM 43 and 160, the paragraphs dealing with the people’s posture during Mass, the only posture specified for the congregation at the Lord’s Prayer is standing. It says nothing at all about what people do with their hands. This is not a change from the past.

Background of present confusion

The history of the bishops’ debate on the orans question suggests the origin of the confusion that persists.

During the US bishops’ discussion in the 1990s of the proposed ICEL (International Commission on English in the Liturgy) revision of the “Sacramentary” (prayers for Mass), some liturgists were urging that this orans gesture, which by centuries of custom only the priest assumes, should now be mandated for the entire congregation as well.

In 1995, the Bishops Committee on the Liturgy (BCL), then chaired by Bishop Donald Trautman of Erie, proposed certain amendments to the proposed revision. Among these, the BCL recommended specifying the orans posture for the people during the Our Father. The rationale was that the orans gesture was used in the “early Church”, and that this posture should replace hand-holding during the Our Father, a practice that was becoming increasingly common.

Several bishops objected to adopting the orans for the people (by custom a priestly gesture), and strongly opposed making this a rule. But eventually the bishops compromised, at this 1995 session, and voted to make the orans a permissible option for the congregation during the Our Father.

It is important to note that the bishops’ debate and vote on the orans posture for the people involved the ICEL Sacramentary, not the new Roman Missal.

Source of continuing confusion

One source of continuing confusion is this. When the proposed ICEL Sacramentary was sent to the Holy See for approval (after the November 1999 meeting of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops), the BCL posted on its web site a description of the orans posture, saying that this posture would be permitted when the new Sacramentary was approved.

This 1999 BCL comment stated, in part:

No position is prescribed in the present Sacramentary for an assembly gesture during the Lord’s Prayer. While the recently approved revised Sacramentary does provide for the use of the orans gesture by members of the assembly during the Lord’s Prayer, the revised Sacramentary may not be used until it has been confirmed by the Holy See. I might also note that in the course of its discussion of … this question, the Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy expressed a strong preference for the orans gesture over the holding of hands since the focus of the Lord’s Prayer is a prayer to the Father and not primarily an expression of community and fellowship.

The Sacramentary revision, however, was not only replaced by the new Roman Missal, but it was officially and specifically rejected by the Holy See after the new Missal appeared.

Unfortunately, however, this outdated and misleading comment on the USCCB web site was never removed. It was still there as of October 28, 2003.

[Update: The response about “orans” on the USCCB web site was later changed, and simply reads: “No position is prescribed in the present Sacramentary for an assembly gesture during the Lord’s Prayer.”]

At their November 2001 meeting, the bishops discussed “adaptations” to the new Institutio Generalis Missalis Romani (or GIRM) of the new Missal (reported in AB February 2002). The proposal to introduce the orans posture for the people was not included even as an option in the US’ “adaptations” to the GIRM.

Furthermore, the bishops did not forbid hand-holding, either, even though the BCL originally suggested this in 1995. The reason? A bishop said that hand-holding was a common practice in African-American groups and to forbid it would be considered insensitive.

Thus, in the end, all reference to any posture of the hands during the Our Father was omitted in the US-adapted GIRM. The orans posture is not only not required by the new GIRM, it is not even mentioned.

The approved US edition of the GIRM was issued in April 2003, and is accessible on the USCCB web site –

Not on the list

The posture of the people during prayer at Mass is not one of the items in the GIRM list that bishop may change on his own authority (see GIRM 387). Thus it is not legitimate for a bishop to require people to assume the orans posture during the Our Father.

The GIRM does say that a bishop has the “responsibility above all for fostering the spirit of the Sacred Liturgy in the priests, deacons, and faithful”. He has the authority to see that practices in his diocese conform to the norms liturgical law, and, mindful of this, a bishop is to “regulate” these things:

1) “the discipline of concelebration”;

2) “the establishing of norms regarding the function of serving the priest at the altar”;

3) “the distribution of Holy Communion under both kinds”;

4) “the construction and ordering of churches”.

The posture of the people at prayer is not on this list.

About abyssum

I am a retired Roman Catholic Bishop, Bishop Emeritus of Corpus Christi, Texas
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  1. glmcreations says:

    You need to make the point explicitly that those who want to destroy the ministerial priesthood-those who see many problems in today’s church as an effect of a dominating hierarchical partriarchical priestly class-do everything they can in the Mass to extinguish any difference between what an ordained priest does and what the laity do; e.g. priest stands during consecration, so in many dissenting parishes the laity stand; priest says the words “per ipsum et in ipso . . ” at end of Canon, so in many liberal parishes, laity join in; in many dissent parishes, the priest sits while mostly female “eucharistic ministers” serve supper; and priest is supposed to “wash the dishes” after communion, so in many liberaldissent parishes laity walk off altar with chalices and ciboria and take them to the sacristy and clean up. I guarantee if somehow laity assuming the orans posture demonstrated the difference between the ordained ministerial priesthood and the priesthood of the laity, it would have been condemned by the USCCB long ago. You want to test this out-doing something not permitted by the rubrics-just take a little bell to Mass at most liberaldissent parishes from which bells at the consecration were abolished long ago [why? because again that draws attention to something the domineering priest alone oes], ring that bell during the consecration and see if 1. soon many other parishioners are bringing their own little bells or 2. the pastor or the ruling “pastoral associate” Sister NotInCommuity advises you to either stop or find a new parish. Note-If you ask them WHY and if they respond, the reasons they state will apply equally to the unauthorized orans posture by the laity. Better yet have your cell phone ring tone go off three times at the consecration of the body and three times for the consecration of the blood. Another option, do cartwheels up to communion and see how many other of the laity do that the following week, The laity-God BlessThem Everyone-simply do not know that the hirelings have taken over the flock and there are fewer fewer true shepherds. Guy Mcclung, San Antonio

  2. charliej373 says:

    Thank you, Your Excellency. Small errors, given time and distance, become huge abuses. There is a loss of the sense of what is happening at the Mass at various points. I usually close my eyes with my hands folded in front of me during the Lord’s prayer – mainly so I can avoid noticing anyone who tries to grab my hand. If they persist, I don’t resist, but it has troubled me that at one of the most solemn moments people adopt a certain chumminess that seems unseemly. People mean well, but it would be a grace to get a greater sense of the Sacred at Mass.

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