Hands Across Catholic America

Should churchgoers hold hands during Mass?

Not long ago, I heard a Catholic churchgoer complaining about a wave of inappropriate touching that had spread across so many American parishes. He wasn’t talking about pederast priests and the sex-abuse scandal. What he had in mind was the way many Catholics have taken to holding hands in church while they recite the Lord’s Prayer.

Hand-holding is the sort of thing that wouldn’t draw a bit of notice in, say, an evangelical service. But we Catholics have a long history of arguing about the right ways to worship (Latin Mass or guitar Mass?). Certainly there are weightier issues facing Catholics: how to respond to the institutional failures revealed by the abuse scandal; who should be allowed to enter the priesthood. But nothing illuminates the divide between old-school Catholics and their more touchy-feely brethren quite like the postures and practices on display in church each week. 

The official liturgical documents of the church neither condone nor condemn hand-holding; they don’t speak to the topic at all. Nevertheless, the practice has spread, driven by the people in the pews and their parish priests. In many churches it has become standard practice for churchgoers to hold hands with their neighbors as they pray the Our Father, sometimes reaching across aisles and over pew-backs to do so. Hand-holders say the practice is all about community and fellowship and unity. (It’s called the Our Father, they like to say, not the My Father.) But to some old-school Catholics, hand-holding detracts from the solemnity of the Mass and the sober mysteries of Catholic tradition. It’s a step toward a more homogenized, less identifiably Catholic service—one that would fit in any suburban megachurch.

Old-schoolers and touchy-feelies clash over a whole range of questions that might be lumped together under the heading of worship etiquette: Is it all right to applaud church musicians during Mass? Should we stand or kneel after receiving Communion? And what’s with these kids showing up for Mass in their soccer uniforms? The divide over worship etiquette is clear enough that Catholics have their own version of the red state/blue state meme: They talk about whether the Mass should be a vertical or horizontal experience. Touchy-feelies go horizontal, making the Mass increasingly about community and fellowship within the congregation. They hold hands, then they shake hands, and often take time out at the start of Mass to introduce themselves to the person in the pew next to them. Old-schoolers want to restore the Mass’s vertical orientation—the focus on the transcendent and divine. They chant in Latin and pray solo over rosaries.

Hand-holding has established itself in many parishes. But the old-schoolers are striking back. The Catholic society Adoremus, for example, defends old-style notions of Catholic piety and aims to restore a more sober vibe to the Mass. The traditionalists are heartened by the arrival of Pope Benedict XVI, an acknowledged fan of Gregorian chant and other traditions mostly lost in the shuffle after Vatican II. One of Adoremus’ founders, Joseph Fessio, once studied under then-Professor Joseph Ratzinger (now Benedict XVI)  at the University of Regensburg in Germany and has been called by Garry Wills Benedict XVI’s “man in America.”

Of course, most Catholics are neither vehemently touch-feely nor vehemently traditional. I’m not a big fan of hand-holding and have even complained about it in print. To me, it smacks of enforced good cheer and saccharine singalongs. But the trouble with being against hand-holding is that it puts you in league with the church’s most ultra-orthodox flat-Earthers. It’s a dilemma: Hold hands and give up a bit of the traditional Catholic solemnity, or forsake your neighbor’s hand for a rosary and take refuge in the practices of the past. It’s a choice between retrenchment and assimilation.

That’s pretty much the choice facing Catholics on the weightier questions about the church’s future as well. Questions like whether priests can someday marry will be settled by the church’s hierarchy. But so far, the call on whether or not to hold hands has been left to the people in the pews. The choices we make about holding hands and other points of worship etiquette may not be as binding as a papal bull. But they help articulate the faithful’s vision of the church.