Dr. Edward Peters


Updated 17 dec 2012


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The Orans Issue


Should the rubrics be changed for the Our Father?


Another Look at the Orans Issue

by Dr. Edward Peters

Orans is the Latin word for “praying.” In Mass today, the “orans position” describes the gesture whereby the priest, during certain of his audible, leadership prayers at
Mass, extends his arms out from his sides, with hands open and facing out. The orans position (sometimes called the orante), is easily distinguishable from when the priest folds or joins his hands, and which position is prescribed for the celebrant at several points in Mass: for example, during the Opening Prayer and most of the Eucharistic prayer. The “orans issue” is the recent practice of some lay persons in the congregation adopting, notably during the Our Father, the orans position as their own, introducing thereby, if nothing else, disunity in worship.


While the orans position as such has a rich tradition in Jewish and even ancient Christian prayer life, there is no precedent for Catholic laity assuming the orans position in Western liturgy for at least a millennium and a half; that point alone cautions against its introduction without careful thought. Moreover — and notwithstanding the fact that few liturgical gestures are univocal per se — lay use of the orans gesture in Mass today, besides injecting gestural disunity in liturgy, could further blur the differences between lay liturgical roles and those of priests just at a time when distinctions between the baptismal priesthood and the ordained priesthood are struggling for a healthy articulation.


Since at least the mid-1990s, bishops, liturgists, and other observers have discussed the orans issue and possible ways to resolve it, including expressly ratifying the gesture for lay use.


A priest in the orans position, normally used

when heoffers prayers aloud and alone

on behalf of a then-silent congregation


These discussions (summarized in Adoremus Bulletin, November 2003) have been interesting as far as they go, but they seem not to ask the fundamental question: Namely, in liturgy for today, what is the orans position for? From insight into its contemporary liturgical purpose, presumably, one could formulate rubrics for its best use. I want to consider specifically the possibility that the current rubric calling for the priest to assume the orans posture during the Our Father might itself be misplaced and causing confusion in the congregation.


Cdl. Arinze with hands joined, the position normally associated with silent priestly prayer or with prayers offered with the congregation

The first thing to notice here is that, with the problematic exception of the Our Father, the orans position is prescribed for the priest only when he is praying aloud and alone as, for example, during the Opening Prayer, the Prayer over the Gifts, and the Post-Communion Prayer. When, however, the priest is praying aloud and with the people, for example, during the Gloria or the Creed, his hands are joined. In other words, a priest praying aloud and on behalf of a then-silent congregation is clearly exercising a leadership role. The orans posture being used then cannot occasion congregational gestural imitation because the people are silent at that point in the Mass.


On the other hand, when prayers are being said aloud by the priest and people, the fact that the priest’s hands are joined during such prayers occasions — if anything by way of congregational imitation — the traditional gesture of joined or folded hands that is common among the laity at Mass in the West.


From all of this, it seems that the rubric calling for the priest to assume the orans position during the Our Father, in which prayer he joins the people instead of offering it on their behalf, is at least anomalous, and possibly inconsistent with the presidential symbolism suggested today by the orans position elsewhere in the Mass.
There remains to consider, though, how this apparent miscue appeared in the liturgy. I suggest that originally, the orans rubric for the priest during the Lord’s Prayer was not a mistake, but that it became one in the course of liturgical reforms undertaken by Pope Pius XII just prior to Vatican II. Let's back up a bit.
The Our Father (Pater) has been a part of the Mass for many centuries. Over that time, of course, language barriers occasioned and rubric evolution reinforced the assignment of various prayers to the priest. Eventually, the Pater became a prayer that was offered by the priest on behalf of the people, whose exterior participation in that prayer was, by the early 20th century, limited to a vicarious one via the server’s recitation of the closing line, Sed libera nos a malo (But deliver us from evil). A look at the pre-Conciliar rubrics in any Sacramentary regarding the Pater is consistent in showing that the priest’s hands are extended, that is, in an orans position, as one would expect for prayers the priest offers on behalf of the congregation.
But in 1958, as part of Pope Pius XII’s liturgical reforms, permission was granted for, among other things, the congregation to join the priest in praying the Pater, provided that they could pray it in Latin (See AAS 50: 643; Eng. trans., Canon Law Digest V: 587). Thus, for the first time in many centuries, a congregational recitation of the Lord’s Prayer was possible. Lay recitation of the Pater was not mandated, and there is no evidence that this very limited permission for congregational recitation of the Pater occasioned awareness that such permission, if it were ever widely acted upon, might necessitate a change in the rubrics. By the time such changes did come about, it seems, the orans posture and the Lord’s Prayer were associated, not with the manner in which the prayer was being offered, but with the prayer itself. From there, it seems, the  rubric calling for or the priest to continue using the orans position during the Our Father simply passed unnoticed into the new rite of
Today, of course, the priest is not praying the Our Father for the people the way he does during several others prayers in Mass, and in which prayers the people participate by silent interiorization concluded by a vocal “Amen”; rather, today the priest and people pray the Our Father together in Mass.


If the above analysis is correct and the orans position in Mass has come to symbolize priestly prayer on behalf of the congregation instead of prayer with it, then the rubrics should no longer call for the priest to extend his hands during the Our Father as if he is praying on behalf of the congregation. He should instead be directed to join his hands as he does for all other prayers said with the congregation. And if priests do not assume the orans position during the Our Father, laity will not imitate it. If the rubrics for Mass are changed to direct the priest to join his hands during the Our Father, priestly gestural symbolism will once again be consistent through the entire Mass, and the orans issue will probably resolve itself rather quickly.


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   An earlier version of this article appeared at The Catholic Exchange in June 2005. The opinions and research expressed in this article are mine, but some of the ideas behind my analysis arose from student questions in my Liturgy & Sacraments classes.


Question: If the orans position is correct for a priest during the Our Father, why not also during the Confiteor, the Gloria, or the Creed?

The orans position from the

the Catacombs of Priscilla,

circa 3rd century AD