Debate: Teach & Enforce Liturgical Rubrics Or No?

Debate: Teach & Enforce Liturgical Rubrics Or No? July 15, 2019

This lively debate with several people took place on my Facebook page (see the complete, unabridged discussion) underneath a posting on the topic of the widespread “orans” posture during the Our Father at Mass. As usual, a “firestorm” ensued and (mostly) the same points that are always raised were made in opposition. I responded to them. Readers may make up their own minds, having seen both general “sides” of the dispute. That’s the beauty of dialogue, why I love it so much, and why I will continue hosting dialogues on my site with more than one opinion fully presented. I already have probably 900-1000 of ’em posted. Enjoy!

Color codes:

Fr. Angel Sotelo: blue

Jennifer Brown: green

Kristina Johnson: purple

Patrick Roos: brown


This is one issue where I tell people to “just give it up.” Not because I like holding hands during the Our Father, or am a fan of the orans position, but simply because such a wide swatch of priests disagree and teach the opposite.

It is akin to the issue of female altar servers and washing the feet of women. When enough parishes, throughout the world, begin to abide by a different practice, and that practice then becomes custom, and custom lasts for decades–well, you know the rest.

What was once law or rubric, gives way to custom, and what was once custom, eventually becomes enshrined in law or rubrics. Or, the practice is tolerated enough, so that the rubric disappears and the law remains silent.

Hi Father,

I’ve always wondered: “why is it so hard for priests to simply explain what the rubrics teach?” I think congregants would listen if they did that. But they don’t. I find it odd and puzzling. I do it as an apologist and catch hell for it, and then I wonder again why priests don’t teach about this.

If we allowed laypeople to determine everything liturgical, obviously it would become chaotic.

Remember, just because parishioners flout our rules, does not mean we did not teach and explain them. Do kids always obey what their parents have taught and explained to them? When they don’t, people blame the parents, but it is not always the case that the parents didn’t do their job.

So you did explain it and they ignored it? That surprises me. I assumed they would obey if it was explained. I’ve only seen one priest in my 29 years as a Catholic (which is at least 1500 Masses), explain the rubrics and what to do and not do.

The interesting question is also why “a wide swatch of priests disagree and teach the opposite.” Do they not care at all about what the rubrics teach? What is their rationale?

I always said no to female servers, until JPII said yes. I always said no to washing the feet of women. Francis changed that. I still discourage hand holding and orans, but my parishioners visit other places where the priest told them I was wrong. So, while a lot of my parishioners don’t hold hands, some do, and I don’t make a big deal of it.

So it’s a case where you weren’t listened to. Therefore, you have to decide if it’s worth further pursuing or not, in your parish. I understand and accept that.


I managed to educate my wife and our kids why we don’t hold hands during the Our Father, but having been a RCIA catechist who gets a little Southern Baptist-y at times (fired up, excited and animated when evangelizing) when teaching the Faith geared toward evangelizing, I have gained an appreciation for the Herculean task priests have to pass on the Faith and inspire people’s faith (fides quae and fides qua) during a short homily (remember, Pope Francis says no more than 10 minute homilies). 

With limited time, he has to decide what his time will be more fruitfully spent on, and getting people to a point where they want to develop a relationship with Christ, or hear the why behind the Church’s what that could pull them back from walking down the road to perdition will feature more prominently in his mind. Teaching that holding hands and the orans posture are a no-no is pretty far down the list. Not unimportant, but farther down the hierarchy of urgency. That will come later, when people are asking “how can I worship the God whom I love better at Mass?” Sadly, the majority of pew-warming cultural Catholics who were poorly catechized and not evangelized aren’t at that point. That’s why you don’t hear priests preach about it.

They can easily write an article in the bulletin, then, and if it raises a fuss, have a class about it on a weekday night.

A class which no one but the usual few will come to because they aren’t evangelized and haven’t been witnessed to. As an apologist, you are a teacher of sorts, but there has to be that relationship built first, then evangelizing, then teaching.

“Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses.” ~Pope Paul VI, Evangelium Nuntiandi, 41

The witness and evangelizing comes first, then they will be open to hearing why they shouldn’t be engaging in some Protestantesque kumbaya during the Our Father. Your article on why is good, Dave, but it’s putting the cart before the horse for the vast majority of parishioners.

Do you accept the premise that the rubrics ought to be followed or not (and so ought to be taught if there are massive violations)?

That also comes first before we start discussing all these grand issues about what is more important, etc. I still say it’s not “either/or.” It’s the Protestants who pit things against each other and possess a “dichotomous” mindset, as Louis Bouyer wrote about at length in The Spirit and Forms of Protestantism.

I said “if it raises a fuss, have a class about it.” If there is a fuss, then folks would come (or so it seems to me).

I could take the same view as an apologist that priests who don’t wanna discuss this issue take: “people don’t give a damn about contraception or the in partu virginity of Mary or capital punishment or the proper rule of faith (over against sola Scriptura) or hell or why homosexual acts are intrinsically wrong or [insert 50 other topics no one cares about], and people give me hell about almost as many topics; therefore, I won’t write about them. Why bother?”

I obviously don’t do that. I write about everything and anything concerning the faith, and am quite willing to take all the slings and arrows for it. It’s a weekly occurrence, and has been going on since 1997 when I began my website.

I’m totally sympathetic to priests like Fr. Angel, who did teach his flock and they didn’t abide by it. I already conceded that point. That’s fine. At that point it’s not a hill to die on. My beef is with priests or catechists like you (if you have not taught this) who decide not to teach something simply because it will be controversial or unpopular.

Of course the rubrics ought to be followed (including facing ad orientam and following the rubric to turn toward the people at the appropriate times). That’s why I taught my family not to hold hands. 

My point is not an either/or argument, but a cart-before-the-horse argument. A foundation needs to be laid first upon which to build, and holding hands is one brick higher up in the wall, while the foundational bricks need to be laid first. Strategy needs to be employed in what gets addressed first: things that violate natural law and moral doctrine need to be addressed before changeable rubrics. The Church understands a hierarchy of truths, and the more basic truths and those that have far larger implications for a person’s soul need to be addressed earlier than rubrics at Mass. 

Yes, it needs to be addressed (never have liked it, even in my more fervent Charismatic days at Steubenville), but with finite time, I will address why a catechumen/parishioner needs to change their thinking on contraception first, and get to holding hands later. As a catechist I have more time to do this than a priest does, and personally I addressed it when we taught the parts of the Mass. Your average parish priest won’t have the time.

As for people coming to a class if they raise a fuss over something: you obviously have not worked in a parish. The people who make a fuss over it don’t come to classes. They gripe about it to any/everyone who will listen, complain to the bishop, and get the priest’s hand smacked by the bishop for being “divisive.”

This is a different argument. That is what Fr. Angel was saying too: priorities, emphases, prudential considerations . . .

But in the big dialogue I am having today with canonist Pete Vere and another canon law-trained person (which will be a separate posted dialogue for my blog), they are saying something very different: it’s no big deal, period, and customs can change and are permitted. You freely concede that these things are improper and against the rubrics. They do not.

My opinion is that we can walk and chew gum at the same time; that just because some things are more important than others (truism), it doesn’t follow that we therefore ignore the lesser things altogether, as of no import whatever, until the more important things are done. The more important things will never be fully accomplished at any given time, anyway.

But I fully grant that there are priorities, given finite time, as you say. I have to make those decisions all the time in my own work, too: a million topics could be addressed, so which to write about now? What’s relatively more important? But you did say, “personally I addressed it when we taught the parts of the Mass.” Good! That’s all I’m saying. Teach the thing . . .

In Fr. Angel’s case, he also taught it (he didn’t ignore it, whereas you said, “Your average parish priest won’t have the time”) and people disobeyed his instruction. He did his duty and it was unheeded; so did you, and so you can both shake the dust off of your “sandals” and move on, having done what you were charged to do. One can only do so much.

So I have been arguing with two different positions, and indeed a third, too, where I was ridiculously accused of not caring about evangelism, simply because I have written three articles on this, out of my 2400+, and dared to express an opinion. LOL [see the dialogue with the opponent’s words in green below]


Orans position; I don’t see how this is the same as holding hands.

It’s not. Both are against the rubrics.

This is going to sound completely Protestant but I actually think it makes sense to hold hands during the Our Father. We are the Royal priesthood; individually as well as officially. This is one prayer we all say together in that role. Catholics are visual. Seeing hands united in prayer and reciting the prayer all together as the Royal, priestly family of God is a visual representation of a greater reality. 

I obey Holy Mother Church. If I wasn’t willing to do so there would have been no reason to leave Protestantism. I was perfectly happy there.

Are you a convert? I did not know. I’m a cradle. My parents always held my hand during the Our Father, as do most of my parish. There are a few that are obedient. The rest of us, I suppose, are heathens. My heart hasn’t convicted me yet on this one. Like I said, it kinda makes a lot of sense to hold hands.

Yes, I’m a convert.

The question is whether you are willing to follow the rules of the Church or not. If we don’t follow simple rules, chances are we likely reject required Catholic doctrines and moral teachings as well. We see plenty of that. Contraception and cohabitation immediately come to mind.

Holy Mother Church is there precisely so we don’t have to rely on our “heart” and subjectivism. She won’t lead us astray.

Well, I don’t do either of those you mention so I haven’t been corrupted yet.

You don’t care about the rules in the rubrics. The question you and others who do this need to ask yourself is “why?”

Seems petty? When does the average Catholic even get exposed to the “rubrics”?

I agree there, which is why I think it is the fault of priests if they don’t teach their congregations. But right now, if you read my article or the one I linked to, you do know, so you are more culpable than you were before.

I don’t remember there being a rubrics class? I don’t remember it being touched on in my Catholic elementary? Or during RCIA when My then fiancé (now husband) converted? I didn’t even know it was supposedly “wrong” until I read an article about it (probably yours) two years ago. I’ve been Catholic for 39 years. If it was that important you’d think maybe I would have heard of it before? Or have been instructed about it at some point?

Yeah, I’ve been culpable for a few years then, but I still haven’t been convicted about it… yet.

So you need a personal revelation in order to follow a Church law that you have been informed about? I agreed that it wasn’t the fault of someone whose priest didn’t teach it. But that doesn’t prove that it is unimportant. What it proves is that many priests didn’t teach it, and many disagree with it (as Fr. Angel has stated in this thread).

I’m just trying to figure out what else I’ve missed. I must really be a heathen. 

You’re doing fine. It’s just a point you weren’t taught about — just as tens of millions were not — (not your fault) and now you have been . . .

It’s hard to break traditions, and feels almost antiCatholic to suggest it. 

This [article] brought up some good points too. 

Benedictine Fr. Anthony Ruff, a liturgist and theology professor at St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minnesota, told NCR that the practice is neither allowed nor forbidden.

“You could make a loose comparison to the common practice, at the announcement of the Gospel reading, of crossing ourselves on our forehead, lips and heart. For a long time that wasn’t in the official books either, but people just did it in imitation of the deacon’s (or priest’s) action. Then it became official. That’s oftentimes how liturgy evolves,” he emailed to NCR. (“Should we hold hands or not during the Our Father?”; Peter Feuerherd, National Catholic Reporter, Jun 29, 2017)

I cited Fr. Peter Stravinskas in my article: himself a renowned liturgist, scholar, and magazine editor, who has written books about the Mass. And Jimmy Akin, who has written several books about the Mass and the liturgy.

I wouldn’t make these claims without that back-up because liturgy isn’t particularly my “area” (though I still have written many articles about it, just like everything else).

But you notice that even those who are disputing with me about how relatively important it is to teach or enforce this (Fr. Angel, Patrick Roos), agree that it is the position of the rubrics).


I dunno. On the level of what is important and what should be focused on, how folks hold their hands at the Our Father doesn’t need to merit such a fuss. Maybe whether or not those in the pews understand Christ’s sacrifice for us and are applying the sacramental graces to their daily lives would be a better thing to worry about. 

That and the fact that most parishes have no idea how to be missionary. 

But I digress…

No one has said it’s the most important thing in the world [sarcasm]. That is your assumption. It doesn’t have to be either/or.

I teach about this (and practice it) because it is what the Church teaches us to do. Period. There is no other reason. As an apologist, it’s my duty to pass along the teachings of the Church — as an educator.

You’re my Facebook friend, so you know that in my 2400+ articles on my blog and in 50 books I am teaching lots and lots of things. 99.9% of them are different topics than this. I have exactly three blog articles about it.

But there must also be a reason why one of my articles on this is my most popular of all (stats from Google Analytics). People must feel that they learned something valuable that they didn’t know. Articles don’t become that popular if everyone hates them.

Dave, that you feel the need to point it out at all is the issue. It’s like talking about where to put the furniture when the house is burning down. Plus it only encourages people to focus on the maintenance minutia instead of the mission changes that have to take place.

That articles on this topic are popular tells me we focus people on the wrong thing.

Just because it is a relatively minor thing in the scheme of things, it doesn’t follow that it means nothing. I’m passing it along. If you don’t like it, get mad at Holy Mother Church. I’m just the messenger. It’s like people getting mad at weather reporters for a bad forecast . . .

It’s not opinion as much as the mission of the Church.

Dave, I’m not going to let you off that easy. You have a voice, a big voice. So much needs to change for our parishes to fulfill the mission of the Church. When we focus on insider minutia, we don’t teach people:

1. To know Christ personally
2. To share what he has done and is doing in our lives and
3. Preach the Gospel 

When we are failing at our mission at such a massive level, we who can need to help parishioners do the above. The Church exists to evangelize. No this doesn’t mean we don’t also attend to having good Liturgy, but a fruitful Liturgy doesn’t come from obeying the rules. It comes from disciples who know, love and are loved by Christ and fervently live the Sacramental life. Which then sends us out on mission, “ite missa est”.

You have a platform. From one working for the Church, to do precisely the above (and have for many years) let’s not focus on insider navel gazing but in empowering people to be missionary disciples.

Again, it’s not an either/or scenario. Doing one thing doesn’t nullify doing the other. I’ve been an apologist and evangelist for almost 29 years as a Catholic, and 38, including my Protestant years.

Obviously, then, I’m the last person to ever want to minimize that. But I don’t see how a simple statement that the rubrics teach us about bodily posture during the Our Father somehow is counter to, or pitted against how committed we ought to be to mission and evangelism. It’s apples and oranges.

If you want to see how much I write about salvation and evangelization (compared to three posts about this stuff), see my Salvation & Justification web page.

Just read your readers’ reactions! You’d think we were headed to hell for holding hands! Even within what is important in the Mass this is such a small matter. If you’d have posted about, say, a priest using the wrong words at consecration, spouting heresy during his homily or including nuns or any other but a priest or deacon at the consecration, yes, that’s an issue.

But your readers treat it as though it’s the worst thing. It’s. Just. Not. I’d like to ask them how they are making disciples? Are they taking daily prayer and listening to the Holy Spirit about their lives? Seeking the ways God wants them to be missionary today? This week? This month? Have they shared the Gospel with anyone this past week or month? Have they discerned their spiritual gifts so that they know how to help build the Kingdom? Are they tithing well and regularly? 

Whether you hold hands or not during Mass doesn’t make disciples.

It’s you who have made it one against the other by bringing it up as a “problem” and letting folks get bothered by it. 

I love a debate, and I am responding. But a true dialogue has mutual interaction, not mutual monologue. You keep saying the same thing with the same fallacy, which I have replied to over and over. That doesn’t strengthen your argument. It only shows that it’s weak, because you don’t interact with my replies.

Evangelize and do all these other things and respect the liturgical rubrics. Pitting them against each other is the Protestant mindset, not a Catholic one. We don’t grade things in importance and discard those we think are “secondary.” That’s the mentality that caused Luther to ditch five of the seven sacraments.

I’m bothered by how few laborers there are in the field. How about writing about that and help people learn how to be missionary disciples? That might be a better use of your time and the readers’ education.

Totally agree as I already said. Looks like you haven’t visited my Salvation & Justification web page. Word-search “THE GOSPEL, FAITH, AND “PERSONAL RELATIONSHIP WITH JESUS” and see the 29 articles I have posted there.


I also had a related exchange on Facebook with Deacon Steven D. Greydanus.


Related Reading:


Photo credit: The Virgin in Prayer (bet. 1640 and 1650), by Giovanni Battista Salvi da Sassoferrato (1609-1685) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]
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