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Hands Up!

Peregrinus Goes Abroad

Part 1: See America First; Chapter 16


“As I was about to remark, when you so rudely interrupted me—” said the Liturgiologist, when, lunch eaten and pipes smoked under the wayside cottonwood tree, the Swerve resumed its leisurely way toward the Yellowstone—” what about the positions of the Celebrant’s hands during the offering of Holy Mass?”


“Why,” answered Fr. Maduro, “I never gave the matter much thought. He holds them joined before the breast, extends and elevates them, rests them on the altar, or on the corporal after the Consecration, keeps his fingers joined to avoid dropping particles that may have adhered to them, smites his breast, gives the blessing and so forth and son on. What’s the fuss?”


“You’ve mentioned eight positions of the hands, prescribed by the rubrics,” laughed the Liturgiologist, “and at that you’ve left out several. Did you ever hear the definition of a gentleman as one who knows what to do with his hands? Not a complete or profound definition, to be sure, but not so bad after all. And it might serve as a good description of the skillful and graceful Celebrant. Also, to revert to our pre-luncheon discussion, it is one of the matters in which we all of us get careless. When I read the rubrics of the missal during the annual retreat, I always catch myself in more errors in the use and positions of the hands than any other ceremonial actions. I’m prone to fold my hands upon my tummy rather than join them properly before the breast. Even with the rubrics right in the text, I often forget to join my hands at the places indicated. The Antiquary never keeps his fingers together, but, when his hands are joined, makes a double fan of them as if he were a judicial lawyer counting up indictments! The Pastor at home places his whole hand on the altar when he bows down at certain places in the ceremonies, though he knows perfectly well that the ring fingers should rest on the upper surface of the mensa (as Kuenzel and others remark) while the little fingers should be below it and touching its front edge. If you should mention the matter to him (which of course, nobody dares to do) he’d swear he makes this gesture according to the direction of the Ritus celebrandi IV ad 1. The error is, like most such mistakes, quite unconscious.”


“Your Pastor is a godly and admirable priest,” said Fr. Maduro, “and will doubtless be a bishop some day (God help him!) but he knocks his breast not less than five nor more than ten times during the Confiteor! Now you, my dear Father, have confessed that one, at least, of your manual errors is not unconscious. I’ll tell you one that probably is; not only in your case but in that of the proverbial nine out of ten. You don’t hold up your hands far enough when you have them ‘extended before the breast’ (if that’s the proper term).”


“It, is,” grunted the Liturgiologist, “and I know I don’t do it right. The hands should be raised to the height, and separated to the width, of the shoulders, the elbows touching, though not necessarily pressing, the side of the body. It is the characteristic gesture of the Celebrant, and, as you say, it is almost never properly done. Either too high or too low, too close together, or extended too widely, after the manner of the Domciscan oblation.[1] The fatter the priest, the lower the hands. If he’s skinny like you, up go the hands above the shoulders. Maybe it’s a matter of physical conformation since there’s certainly little liturgical conformity.”


“The altitude must be affecting you, Pere!” said Fr. Maduro. “You’re trying to make jokes. I know that’s a mountain ahead of us.”


“This time I believe you’re right—about the mountain, I mean,” assented the old Priest. “It certainly is a mountain, and by the same token we’ve been in Colorado for quite a while. But to return to our manual gestures: a word ought to be said about the way the Celebrant is to make the Sign of the Cross, when blessing the people, or at the Indulgentiam in giving Holy Communion. Most of us make too large a cross, for the ‘Approved Authors’ direct that the lines traced in the air should not exceed the stature of the Celebrant. And, be it noted, it is a Greek and not a  Latin cross that is thus traced over persons and things. A point often neglected is that, in blessing himself, after the Consecration and before the Ablution, the Celebrant should avoid touching his forehead or the vestment with his thumb and index finger. At other times he ‘crosses himself’ just as we teach the school children to do. But while his thumb and index finger are joined he merely traces the sacred sign in the air, close to himself, but without touching, and his left hand, resting upon his breast during the action, is carefully turned upward so that its thumb and index finger do not come in contact with the vestment. The same rule, for the left hand, applies when he smites his breast at the Agnus Dei and Domine non sum dignus.”


“A perfectly reasonable rule, more honored in the breach than in the observance,” agreed Fr. Maduro. “Now, I’d like to ask about the crosses made by the Celebrant over the Oblata, etc.”


“They are crosses, not circles,” interrupted the Liturgiologist. “And they are small crosses at that. The rule is always that the lines of the cross should not exceed the width of the object to be blessed. Also these crosses are horizontal, both lines on the same level. One notices Celebrants lowering the hand when making the sign over the Sacred Host, but this is a mistake.”


“Well, Pere, I think you make altogether too much fuss over these small matters, as I may have remarked before,” said Fr. Maduro, pleasantly enough but obviously in earnest.


“Perhaps I do, perhaps I do,” assented the old Liturgiologist. “But our Holy Mother the Church makes considerable fuss about them, too. At least you can’t accuse me of being more Catholic than she is! There’s the rubrics, the decrees of the Congregation of Sacred Rites, the many books of the ‘Approved Authors’ and an increasing number of old fogeys like myself making a fuss over these things. If they were merely matters of some lodge ceremony they wouldn’t matter. But they are directly and intimately concerned with the worship of God Almighty, with the performance of the august Sacrifice of the Mass, with the Consecration of the Body and Blood of our Divine Redeemer. Do you know, Pere, what started me on my wild career as a potterer about liturgical matters? It was a remark of a high church Anglican parson, who said to me once, ‘You Romanists can’t really believe in the Real Presence, else you wouldn’t dare be so sloppy in your ceremonies.’ That set me thinking. Of course there was a logical fallacy there, and perhaps a little malice, but I think there was a lesson too for us to learn.”


“It is a mountain, not a cloud, nor a molehill,” said Fr. Maduro.



1 A humorous reference to the celebrant extending his arms like a cross in the Dominican Rite of Mass.

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