Q. In church we are told to raise our arms during the Our Father. I am still struggling with why this is done only at Mass. Nowadays some raise their hands, others don’t. Which is right?
A. This is a good and practical question; many share your confusion. In some churches, everyone holds hands during the Lord’s Prayer; sometimes the congregation raises both hands at the doxology at the end of the prayer; and in some churches, no one does either. So what’s correct?
Let’s start with the value of holding hands while praying and even raising hands during prayer. From there, we can look at doing this within the Liturgy itself.
It’s worth noting that the priest raises his hands in prayer as part of the liturgical rite. The raising of one’s hands in prayer is spoken of in the Psalms and is a very holy act. There is nothing wrong with it, and in fact, there is something very holy about this external posture when it is expressing an interior intention. The interior intention that raised hands represents is that of worship and openness to God. It’s a sign of abandonment to God and surrender to His holy will. So raise your hands high when you pray, especially when alone.
As for holding hands during prayer, there are certainly very appropriate times to do so. This is an external sign indicating that you are united with those with whom you are praying. Oneness comes primarily through our joint union with God, but oneness is also expressed externally at times by the joining of hands or the raising of hands together. This is especially the case among family members and close friends.
But now to the point of the question. What about doing these practices within the Liturgy? Is this good? The problem we face with this question has to do with the importance of uniformity within the Liturgy. Liturgical prayer is intended to unite us on a spiritual level. But the external unity is also important. Therefore, it’s important that we strive to pray in union with what we call the rubrics of the Mass.
As for the rubrics at the time of the Lord’s Prayer, there is no instruction given to the congregation to hold hands or to lift them at that time. It’s not that it is a bad idea, it’s just that it’s not in the rubrics. Therefore, it seems best to refrain from this act if it is a distraction or imposition on others. For example, to grab a stranger’s hand next to you during the Lord’s Prayer might be well-intentioned, but is not part of the Mass rubrics, so it should be avoided.
One suggestion is that if this is a local custom and is expected, feel free to just go with the direction the priest gives. If he asks you to hold hands or to raise them, then it’s fine to do so. The priest should offer some guidance on this but if he doesn’t, try to keep it discreet among family members if this is your family practice. Ideally, the universal Church will eventually offer some direction on this so that all confusion is avoided.