The Eighth Sacrament

There comes a moment in every Catholic convert’s life—a watershed, a fork in the road, a Rubicon, if you will. It can be premeditated and long considered; it can just crop up out of nowhere and surprise us. But it comes, it seems, to all of us sooner or later.

It’s this: Do I hold hands with my neighbors during the Our Father? Or do I keep my hands clasped, close my eyes, and pretend to be heedless of the angry glares and raised eyebrows.

I mean, who would refuse to hold hands during the Lord’s Prayer? Am I a bigot? A selfish prig intent on snubbing my fellow worshipers? Don’t I know what the Our Father is all about?!

Here I stand, to borrow from Martin Luther: No hand holding for me.

When I was first attending Mass as a restless Evangelical—looking for something, I wasn’t sure what, but knowing that I wasn’t finding it in the Protestant churches I attended—the liturgy swept me up in its solemnity and beauty. The movement (standing, sitting, kneeling), the sounds (bells, organ, Scripture, prayer), the smells (incense mainly, but candle wax and wine as well), and the sights (icons, statuary, vestmhandsents, altar furnishings, even the architecture) all directed my attention outside of myself—outside of this world, really, outside of the temporal plane altogether.

I loved the sameness of the Mass regardless of the parish or priest or congregation, so I took full advantage of Chicago’s pervasive Catholic culture and visited many different churches for weekday and Sunday liturgies. At some point during that period—I can’t remember the date or the circumstances, although I might’ve had I known what it foretold—I had a rude awakening when some well-meaning congregant grabbed my hand at the beginning of the Our Father and wouldn’t let go until the priest intoned, “Let us offer each other the sign of peace.” I’ve been awkwardly fending off hand-holders ever since.

Not that I’m against it in principle, mind you. I grew up in the ‘60s and ‘70s, so I knew hand-holding as a staple of youth groups, campfires, and plenty of other venues. And I love to hold hands with my wife and kids—in fact, I insist on it when the younger ones are crossing streets or following me in crowds. I hold hands, I hug, I even kiss my family in public.

But during the Our Father at Mass? I fold my hands and pray, and I urge my children to do the same.


For one thing, there’s nothing about hand-holding in the rubrics. Not one word. Nada. I already mentioned the 60s and 70s, and I suspect that the hand-holding experience of all those youth groupers and youth campers was simply adopted wholesale after the Council. Many liturgical abuses have been addressed since then—the English translation of the Missal most recently, but music and other issues as well—but hand-holding isn’t going anywhere.

So, what’s the big deal then? Here’s my second objection: It’s a major distraction.

The hand-holding takes place at a key moment in the Mass—after the Consecration, with our Eucharistic Lord present on the altar, but before Holy Communion, when we are privileged to receive Him—as we recite the prayer Our Lord Himself taught His disciples. The mood, liturgically, is intense, almost somber, as we call to mind all that occurred the night of the first Mass and all that followed, and we are directed to focus on God Himself by enunciating His very words.

Then, out of nowhere, my hand is grasped by a total stranger—a brother or sister in Christ, no doubt, and likely a disciple further along the path of sanctity than me. But, still, when I’m trying to pray? and focus on the Lord?

Instead, here is what really happens more often than not—see if it doesn’t resonate with your experience.

The unsought hand may be big or delicate, dry or damp, warm or cool—all characteristics that our brains automatically note, categorize, and assess, taking us well into the second clause of the prayer. Then, if the person on the opposite side hadn’t already taken your other hand, you have to decide whether a hand grasp of your own is in order, to sort of balance things out.

If both hands are engaged, the challenge is to focus on the rest of the prayer as you anticipate the conclusion and the possibility that your hand-holding neighbors are “arm-lifters”—the uncomfortably common practice of lifting entire pew-lines of attached hands and arms at the words, “For the kingdom, the power, and the glory are yours, now and forever. Amen.”

So, you unclasp your hands, maybe after getting a little squeeze or two, and of course, now it’s time to offer the sign of peace. This you do gladly, but wouldn’t that have been enough to demonstrate your love of neighbor? Must we also feel compelled to be in bodily contact with each other throughout a prayer that’s meant to direct our attention to the Father Himself?

HandsFolded-PrayerI say no. Cranky? Maybe, but why not give it a go? Next time you’re at Mass, stand apart a bit, and avoid holding hands during the Our Father. It might take a couple times to get used to it, but I trust you’ll find that you’ll really start praying that prayer in a more deeply personal way.

And next time you see me at Mass? I hope you won’t avoid sitting near me. I’ll smile and nod and give you a warm handshake at the Sign of Peace. But don’t hold your breath waiting for my hand at the Our Father. Hopefully, I’ll be busy praying.

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