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3 Reasons Why The Pharisees' Scrupulosity Is Misunderstood

All The Small Things

The other day I received a question from somebody with regard to holding hands during the Lord's Prayer at Mass, and using the Orans posture in lieu of that. Both practices are incredibly common in the Novus Ordo Mass, but what's really the correct way to pray during the Mass?

When discussing this topic, somebody inevitably insists that God will probably not send us to hell for holding hands during the Lord's Prayer, and that following the "mundane" rules isn't a matter of faith and morals, therefore they are flexible. I argue that nothing could be further from the truth.

But, as I was addressing the issue, somebody mentioned the Pharisees and the fact that Christ criticizes them for focusing "too much" on the Law, or the rules. Then the argument then becomes, "If Christ said the Pharisees were too worried about the silly rules, then I shouldn't worry about the little things, like holding hands during the Lord's Prayer at Mass." I've heard plenty of people use the Pharisees argument, directly because of the hand-holding thing. So I'll address them together because they are definitely related... and I think there's a reasonable answer.

I am by no means the Catholic authority on the matter, but after doing some digging, I've learned some interesting things about the difference between what Christ meant and what some of us think he meant, and how it relates to some of the ostensibly harmless rules we sometimes don't want to follow.

The Pharisees

The question of the "self-righteous" Pharisees is not understood by the Catholic Church to mean that we shouldn't observe and obey the laws she gives us. If that were the case, I can't see why we'd do anything the Church asked us to do... Jesus mentions the acts of the Pharisees, I think, for a number of reasons: 1. The Pharisees were not obeying the law of Moses for love of God, but rather to glorify themselves. Hence, Christ did not appreciate the fact that they made a show of their faith... They were insincere in their practice. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus recalls Isaiah's allusion to the Pharisees when he said, "This people honoureth me with their lips: but their heart is far from me. And in vain do they worship me, teaching doctrines and commandments of men" (Matthew 15:8-9, emphasis added). 2. Christ is referring to a certain type (or group) of Pharisees, not every one of them. Some of them were literally out to get him because they were afraid he'd threaten them and their power (and they were right). CCC 575 cites a number of times that the Pharisees and Christ get along, agree, or share meals with each other. Certainly, Christ isn't condemning all of them for adhering to the faith. 3. Christ's claims against the Pharisees is meant to show us that they, just as any human, aren't perfect. There's no question that some of the Pharisees had let their power go to their head, they had a complex. CCC 2285 reminds us that Jesus even refers to some of them as "wolves in sheep's clothing" and John the Baptist even calls them a "brood of vipers," but they aren't talking about all of them, as mentioned in CCC 575. So, really, it seems that they're merely calling out the hypocrisy of some of them, not the office of all of them. Jesus never said, and never would have said, that following all of the rules of the Church as exactly as possible is a bad thing... at all. He simply desires that we follow the rules with a genuine love for him, and a desire to do what is right. In addition to that, it looks like Jesus want's us to bend to his authority as God rather than to invented laws of men with no authority. This, of course, is precisely why he left the Catholic Church in charge. A single authority extended to us by God himself.

Holding Hands (Can you hear Kumbaya playing in the background?)

So having said that, with regard to holding hands during the Our Father, or any other practice for that matter, it isn't a matter of going to hell. It's a matter of practicing the Catholic faith as genuinely as possible. Once you start separating actions into "hell" and "not hell" categories, you'll find yourself with a lot of gray area-type issues that require discernment and prayer (and a genuine desire to follow the faith accurately). With the hand-holding thing, you've gotta look at the facts, and history. There is nothing in the rubrics (GIRM - General Instruction for the Roman Missal) that mentions holding hands during the Our Father. But, it certainly mentions every other gesture that the faithful is to perform (and every response). So, the idea is that we really shouldn't be doing something "extra" that isn't mentioned in the GIRM. Another reason to consider is the fact that hand-holding during the Lord's Prayer didn't even come into play until long after Vatican II (sometime in the 70's). Protestant churches were already doing it, and it caught on in some Catholic churches... now it's everywhere, but that doesn't make it correct. If the Catholic Church didn't start it, it probably doesn't belong in a Catholic Church. I bet you couldn't find a Traditional Latin Mass (or an Eastern Catholic Mass) where they hold hands... Simply because it isn't a Catholic tradition to hold hands during the prayer (and you know how we feel about tradition!).

Holding *Out* Our Hands

The Oran's Posture shouldn't be done in place of holding hands (which is why many Catholics do it) either. The point is, as mentioned in the Code of Canon Law, we aren't supposed to make any of the Gestures OR say any of the words that the Celebrant (the Priest or Bishop) does or says. "In the celebration of the Eucharist, deacons and lay persons are not permitted to say the prayers, especially the Eucharistic prayer, nor to perform the actions which are proper to the celebrating priest" (Code of Canon Law 907, emphasis added). This is expressly because we aren't ordained to act in the person of Christ... The Priest, on the other hand, is. Therefore, it isn't appropriate or respectful to make gestures or say words reserved to the Celebrant.

Now, the USCCB (United States Conference of Catholic Bishops) does indeed appear to address the question here, but there are some important things to note.

The question is presented as such: "Some people hold hands during the Lord's Prayer, while others hold their hands out like the priest. Is there a prescribed posture for the Our Father?"

The answer is equally duplicitous. Their answer is, "No position is prescribed in the Roman Missal for an assembly gesture during the Lord's Prayer."

The USCCB, while giving a partly correct answer, appears to be obfuscating the whole truth. You see, while it is definitely true that the GIRM never mentions proper gestures for the Lord's Prayer, we do know that we shouldn't be making gestures "like the priest," as mentioned in Canon Law 907. The reality is that nobody should be "adding" gestures that don't exist in the GIRM, and nobody should be making gestures that the priest makes.

So... What Now?

Perhaps the big question is, "how can we start making the change?" and the simple answer is... by making the change for yourself. No doubt most Catholics are now holding hands and mimicking the priest --sometimes on accident I'm sure -- and have no clue that it isn't the correct way to do it. When I first learned about this for myself, I simply put it into practice. You don't need to swat people's hands away to start making more reverent, correct, and traditional choices during the Mass.

Usually, I simply fold my hands, close my eyes, and say the prayer. If your eyes are closed, nobody's gonna be made when you look at their extended hand and still reject it! More than that, if a child or someone a little more foreward than most grabs my hand, I just roll with it. It's a discipline, not a doctrine. There's no need to be rude or ill-spirited toward people who don't understand... you can always explain it outside of Mass anyway.

So, in pursuing a more accurate and more reverent Catholic way, life, and faith, we should all make it our jobs to be as genuine and "real" as possible about every aspect of our faith, not just the "Hell" or "no Hell" issues, but with every bit of what make us Catholic, no matter how insignificant is seems to us. If we truly believe that the Church has our best interests at heart, then we ought to observe every request she makes of us.

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