Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and dean of theology at the Regina Apostolorum university.
Q: One local priest at Mass extends his hands almost to the fullest extent possible, elbows well out from the body; most others keep their elbows close to the body. Are there any official guidelines regarding this gesture? — O.K., Dallas, Texas
A: Unlike the rubrics of the extraordinary form of the Roman rite, the current rubrics do not give detailed specifications regarding what is meant by “hands extended.” This does not mean that they are arbitrary but presume that a priest, through his formation and observation, knows what this expression means and how to apply it in accordance with liturgical tradition and his own physical makeup.
The extraordinary form is much more specific. As one popular ceremonies book describes the gesture at the collect: “While [the priest] says ‘oremus’ he extends the hands and joins them again, and he bows his head to the missal. Then he reads the collect, holding the hands uplifted — but not exceeding the height or width of the shoulders — and extended, the fingers held close together and bowing towards the missal should the name of the saint in whose honor the Mass is celebrated occur. When he says ‘Per Dominum nostrum’ etc., he joins his hands.”
While a priest celebrating the ordinary form may not be strictly bound to these exact norms, I would say that they do provide a good rule of thumb as to what the Church understands when it asks priests to pray with hands extended. These rules were not invented by some obscure 16th-century curial official but are rather the codification of an already existing custom that had developed over several centuries.
A priest could follow the above rule. However, since the post-conciliar liturgy deliberately left out a strict specification of the gesture, it is also legitimate to extend the hands a little further if he considers it appropriate. For example, some modern vestments tend to require a somewhat more ample gesture than the traditional Roman chasuble. The above rule, however, does caution against exaggerated gestures that tend to draw attention toward the celebrant himself and not the prayer he is reciting.
The gesture of extending and raising the hands in prayer is found in some form in almost all religions. In the Bible we have the example of Moses during the battle against Amalek (Exodus 17:11-12), as well as references in the Psalms and prophets. Thus Isaiah declares to Israel: “When you spread out your hands, I will close my eyes to you; / Though you pray the more, I will not listen. Your hands are full of blood!” (1:15).
These gestures are also found in the New Testament and the early Christians who prayed with uplifted hands, although here there is the added meaning of being united to Christ who extended his hands on the cross. At the beginning it would appear that the practice was to stretch out both arms and hands to resemble the form of a cross. Thus the early Christian writer Tertullian writes, “But we not only lift them [the hands] up, but even spread them out, modeling them after the Lord’s Passion, and, while we pray, we confess Christ” (De Oratione, 14). However, he also warns against exaggerated gestures in this respect: “In praying with modesty and humility, we shall the rather commend our prayers to God, not even our hands being lifted up too high, but being lifted up with moderation and seemliness, not even our face being raised upward with boldness” (De Oratione, 17).
There are also many images in the catacombs and other places showing how early Christians made this gesture. These sometimes represent biblical figures such as Daniel or Susanna or a female figure whom some scholars believe represents the souls of those buried in the catacombs interceding for the living.
Although it is not certain, it is probable that early Christians used this posture for both private and public prayer. As time progressed, however, it gradually became an exclusively priestly gesture, at least within the context of the liturgy. It might have died out due to practical considerations, as the number of Christians expanded, churches became more crowded and there was less space to carry out this gesture.
The gesture of the priest stretching out the arms crosswise in certain parts of the Mass also diminished over time, although it continued in some religious orders such as the Carmelites and Dominicans. In general during the Middle Ages the gesture became similar to current practice: thus the “Micrologus,” written in the 11th century says: “We extend our arms at the Collects and during the whole of the Canon but only the breadth of the chest, in such wise that the palms of the hands face each other. The fingers are joined together, and their tips must not reach higher than the shoulders nor exceed their breadth, and this must be observed whenever the hands are to be spread ante pectus. In taking up this attitude the priest shows forth in his person Our Lord upon the Cross.”
St. Thomas Aquinas also says that “the actions performed by the priest in Mass are not ridiculous gestures, since they are done so as to represent something else. The priest in extending his arms signifies the outstretching of Christ’s arms upon the Cross. He also lifts up his hands as he prays, to point out that his prayer is directed to God for the people, according to Lamentations [3:41]: ‘Let us lift up our hearts with our hands to the Lord in the heavens” (III, q. 83, a. 5).
We can thus see that from relatively early the gesture became reserved to the priest, at least in the context of the liturgy, and became the fairly austere gesture we know today. This remains the overall spirit of how this gesture should be carried out in the liturgical context.
The faithful may use this gesture outside the liturgy for private prayer, in prayer groups, and, in those countries where it has been approved, during the recitation of the Our Father during Mass.
Some liturgists believe that this practice is an anomaly. It represents the only occasion when a priest prays with hands extended together with the people. In all other occasions in which he extends his hands, he prays alone in representation of the people. Indeed when the Our Father is recited during the Divine Office the priest has his hands joined and not extended. These experts believe that having the priest extending his hands during Mass was a rubrical oversight from 1958 when Pope Pius XII allowed the Our Father to be recited by the people, in Latin, and not just by the priest as had been the practice hitherto. It was logical for the priest to extend his hands before this change but not afterward. They recommend a change of rubric so that the priest, and people, pray with hands joined.
Others sustain that the Our Father, being the Lord’s Prayer, is a special case. For the moment this remains a technical debate; the rubrics specify that the priest and concelebrants pray with hands extended.
Finally, for some of the historical data mentioned in this article, I wish to acknowledge my debt to an article written in 1926 by Joseph F. Wagner for the Homiletic & Pastoral Review and made available online by CatholicCulture.org.
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