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.” www.usccb.org/liturgy/q&a/mass/orans.shtml]
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 –http://www.usccb.org/liturgy/current/revmissalisromanien.shtml
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.