I can’t remember my exact age when it started, but sometime in my post-Vatican II childhood, a few things changed within the context of Mass and church practices.
I remember, for instance, when Confession transitioned into the face-to-face method. Well, at least that option was newly presented, though “behind the curtain” was still considered OK, too.
But at some point early on, maybe even before this time, we started holding hands during the Our Father prayer.
I don’t recall being put off by the practice, necessarily. Everyone else was doing it. Other changes were happening, too, so I guess I figured it was just the way things were now.
What I do recall is being shy as a little girl, and even the sign of peace that we extended to others after the Our Father made me a little uncomfortable. I felt especially uncomfortable shaking hands with our priest, despite the fact that he was a wonderful man. I started hiding or ducking his outstretched hand whenever we were close enough for him to reach us during this time in the Mass. Thankfully we didn’t sit in the front row often.
I mention this because it may help explain how I feel about the practice of holding hands at Mass now. Let me get this out of the way. I’m not a fan. I won’t say I hate it, because there have been times it seemed right, but more often than not, and more and more lately, I have become very uncomfortable with it. It seems to be growing more complex in my mind, and more off-putting, as time goes on.
Lest you think I’m a total curmudgeon, let me explain. I think it started, really, when our children were small. Until that I point I don’t recall feeling any consternation over it. It’s what I’d known. But as they grew a little, and started being a distraction in church — and sometimes “fighting” with each other in public — I started to really dislike that part of Mass. In fact, I began to dread it.
Every Mass, as the Lord’s Prayer drew near, the kids would begin causing a bit of a scene in an effort to avoid the “cooties” generated by their siblings. So, rather than focusing on the words to the prayer as we were meant to do during that time, I would be distracted by this little game of my kids being annoying with each other, and my rising stress at keeping them from being ridiculous.
Finally, one day, I just said, that’s it, and I quit the practice of reaching for my loved ones’ hands during the Our Father. And to be honest, I have come to really appreciate the change. I like the calm and the focus that happens when I am not having to deal with the distraction. I like not having to look around and see if someone is within reach or not during smaller Masses, for instance. I like the feeling of communing with God, even while my church community is surrounding me.
Over time, has more sense. Not only is the distraction gone, but the sign of peace comes soon thereafter, so we still have the opportunity to reach out and show love to our neighbor and demonstrate communion in this way. It’s just that the Our Father gives us a chance to really quiet ourselves in another beautiful and important way.
Just because I’ve gotten that settled within myself does not mean the stress has vanished. The bit of anxiety I feel now at this time at Mass happens due to the fact that some people hold hands and others do not. Especially since I have let go (literally) of the practice, I am reminded that others prefer it. Sometimes when there are large groups of people holding hands, and others not, it feels like the group of hand-holders is exclusive somehow, and the others “on the outside.” I feel in a way that we are, even if not purposefully, judging each other. I wonder if the hand-holders are thinking that I’m stuck up or too serious or not reaching out enough? I hope those who are not holding hands are not thinking ill of the others.
Someone recently challenged me on this, saying I shouldn’t care what others think, and just do what’s right. It’s not that I’m worried about doing what I believe to be right, but that we’re not all in sync, and I think unity in such things is important.
You see, even the pause that occurs in my wondering about this, by virtue of the fact that not everyone is in sync, seems problematic. The Church has not formally expressed whether hand-holding is wrong. You won’t go to hell if you hold someone’s hand during the Our Father. If this is something you grew up with and appreciate, you are not suddenly a horrible person. Nor are you horrible if you refrain from hand-holding.
But can we just choose one way and go with it all the way?
The process I went through happened over time, and there was nothing snobbish about my decision. It was a practical matter. I didn’t want the sibling silliness to continue, and once we stopped doing it, things did calm down and I loved the change. More and more, the words of the prayer began to be what my focus was, and the difference has enriched my soul.
But I still feel some tension over it, especially when, for example, I attend Mass with people who appreciate hand-holding. I know holding hands with my dad during the Our Father was very special to my mother, for example, especially since he’d been away from the church for over 35 years before his return, which was a miracle. I am sure it felt wonderful to her to hold his hand after his return, knowing what it meant for him to finally be with her in worship, after his long absence. So when I’ve kept my hands folded during the Our Father and she’s near, I do feel badly, wonder if she thinks perhaps that I am not being loving, or maybe it’s a reminder to her of how much she misses my dad. And then I feel badly.
But this is where my comfort level remains. I will hug my dear ones during the sign of peace. I’m not a cold soul. But during the Our Father, I really relish that chance to just focus on God, even as I am surrounded by loved ones and fellow sisters and brothers in Christ. Refraining from holding hands at this time doesn’t make me feel alone, at all. I feel very connected to others, wherever my hands happen to be.
I do wish, however, that we would come to a place of agreement on this practice, so that the lingering awkwardness that I, and others, have articulated and feel would disappear. I suspect the Church doesn’t want to cause discord, but I think the discord is already there. Just like with any family, there are ways of being that can be enhanced when we are moving in the same direction for the most part.
All of this came to the fore again this week while listening to our local Catholic radio station, and hearing a priest from our area discuss hand-holding during the Our Father, along with an article he wrote back in 2009 that received a lot of attention, both praise and scrutiny.
It’s a topic that touches more than the hands. It touches the heart, too. I don’t think either practice — holding hands or not — is wrong. But I do hope that someday we can decide on one way or another, so we can truly feel the union with God and one another that the Our Father was meant to foster.
When I broached the topic on Facebook recently, the opinions poured in, from old and new Catholics, and even some Protestants, which I appreciated. It showed the diversity of thought, and that we really care about how we live out our faith. It matters.
We are all siblings in the Body of Christ, working things out together, offering our thoughts and experiences, in the hopes of one day finding ourselves together in Heaven, side by side, maybe holding hands, or wings, or not. But together nonetheless.
Question: What is your opinion on hand-holding during the Our Father? Why?
Copyright 2017 Roxane Salonen