A: Holding hands is a nice symbol. Indeed, it’s a powerful symbol. The Order for Celebrating Matrimony employs the sign of joining hands when the man and woman have declared their “intention to enter the covenant of Holy Matrimony” (61).
The Church’s liturgy employs a rich grouping of symbols that are meant to be placed together in a beautiful mosaic where Christ unites his Church to himself through the Holy Spirit in offering to the Father. The problem is this: when we rearrange the tiles of the Church’s liturgical mosaic, we risk producing a different image. St. Irenaeus uses such an illustration with regard to interpreting the Scriptures:
“Suppose someone would take the beautiful image of a king, carefully made out of precious stones…, and change around and rearrange the jewels, and make the form of a dog, or of a fox, out of them…. In the same way these people patch together…words and sayings and parables from here and there and wish to adapt these words of God to their fables” (St. Irenaeus of Lyons: Against the Heresies, Book 1, ed. Walter J. Burghardt, John J. Dillon, and Thomas Comerford Lawler, trans. Dominic J. Unger, vol. I, 55th ed., Ancient Christian Writers (Mahwah, NJ; New York: The Newman Press, 1992), 41).
While there is rarely any ill will with regard to things imposed upon the liturgy, these impositions, however little they may be, can deconstruct the deeply intricate set of signs that the Church’s liturgy already has built into it. Indeed, “the visible signs used by the liturgy to signify invisible divine things have been chosen by Christ or the Church” (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 33). To use a different analogy, when we add our own symbolism, we rewire and sometimes short-circuit the liturgical symbolism inherent in the ritual.
The Communion Rite has its own inner logic and, beginning with the praying of the Our Father in common, proceeds toward increasingly more significant signs of communion: 1) Unity of voice in praying the “Our Father”—“formed by divine teaching.” 2) Exchanging a sign of peace—in the U.S. we shake hands—a further sign of communion. This physical sign of peace prepares us to be made one body with Christ in the reception Holy Communion. 3) Communion Procession—journeying together to one place, toward Christ, the altar. 4) Eucharistic Communion—full bodily communion, which, through Christ, gives us communion with the Father and the Holy Spirit.
All of these signs are moving us toward communion with the One to whom all the signs should point.
Holding hands is actually a more profound symbol of unity and peace than is shaking hands—have you ever held hands with a stranger? Because of that, holding hands tends to short-circuit the progressive nature of the other signs. Also, holding hands impacts the sign of the unity of voice: praying the words that Jesus gave us with one voice. What is being emphasized when we hold hands during the Our Father: our communion with each other or the unity of voice with Jesus?
The only real sources that directly address this question are the Roman Missal, which tells us what to do during Mass, and a question that was submitted to the Congregation for Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments (CDWDS) in 1975. We’ll first look at the Roman Missal.
The Roman Missal directs what we do during the celebration of Mass, but it does not mention hand-holding as an option. Indeed, the unity of people’s voices in being “formed by divine teaching” is emphasized by the priest extending his hands (see RM 124), by which he, as the one who stands in the person of Christ the head, gathers together the Church with himself in praying to the Father with one voice.
Many of the questions (or doubts, dubia) submitted to the CDWDS are published in the journal Notitiae with their responses. However, the questions posed are often very specific and the way in which the questions are answered can also be very specific—often in a way that does not allay all doubt on the wider subject. Here’s the text of the question and answer that was posed to the CDW from Notitiae: “Whether the practice can be admitted which occurs here and there in which those participating at Mass, instead of expressing peace to each other at the invitation of the deacon, hold hands while the Lord’s Prayer is sung?”
Answer: “Holding hands has for a long time been on its own a sign of communion rather than of peace. Moreover, it is a liturgical gesture introduced spontaneously, though on private initiative: It is not found in the rubrics. Nor can it be understood by what reason the gesture of peace at the invitation « let us offer each other the sign of peace » should be suppressed, which has such great significance, grace and Christian character, in order that another sign of lesser significance may be introduced at another time during the Mass. For this reason, if it is a matter of substitution, this must simply be rejected.”
As the CDWDS sees it, the introduction of the hand-holding symbol is understood as a sign of communion, as we saw in the Order of Celebrating Matrimony. In this way, hand-holding actually disrupts the subsequent sign of peace by anticipating it, as well as introducing a sign beyond the unity of voices being emphasized in the Our Father. While the CDWDS does not specifically address situations where both hand-holding and the sign of peace are included, at a minimum it indicates that the hand-holding practice is discouraged.
Indeed, by praying the rites as they’re given to us, “the faith of those taking part is nourished and their minds are raised to God, so that they may offer him their rational service and more abundantly receive his grace” (SC 33). While hand-holding continues in some places, it has abated enough from the parochial landscape to have receded into the background of the regular celebration of Holy Mass. It is hoped that the emphasis on praying the Our Father with one voice would form us further into the likeness of the One who said, “Not my will, but thine be done” (Luke 22:42).
—Answered by Jeremy Priest
Diocese of Lansing (MI)