Part One: Changing Body Language in the Church
My parents were of northern European stock, and in our 1950s parish the only postures seen at mass were limited to standing/sitting/kneeling and folded hands. It would never have occurred to us to express our prayer bodily in any other way; in fact, I doubt whether we even thought of these positions as “expressing” anything. We went to mass, fulfilling our duty under the Third Commandment. The priest said mass according to the Missal. We were quiet and tried to be respectful. When everybody knelt, we knelt.
Two life-changing events changed these patterns in my life. First, although not in chronology, I married a Sicilian. Culture shock. Where dinner conversations at my house had always been orderly and cerebral, dinner with Dom’s family was uproarious—spaghetti flipping about, everybody talking at once, hands in the air. Driving with a Sicilian was nightmarish, as his hands spent as much time off the steering wheel as on. Greeting meant hugs and big kisses.
Learning the gestures went right along with picking up on snatches of Sicilian cuss words and, later, learning Italian. My hands now had a language.
Secondly, Pope John XXIII called the Second Vatican Council. During my college and young adult years, I experienced great changes in the mass that had meant so much to me. It was as if the great vessel, the Church, had left its moorings and begun to move on a great voyage of faith.
Mass was now in the vernacular. That meant, in those years, masses in Italian, English, French. The mass came alive.
Don’t get me wrong. I had taken 4 years of Latin to be on top of this liturgy, fully committed to the whole proposition. But when I heard the mass in English, the prayers began to speak to me. Watching the action on the altar took my eyes there instead of the pages of a prayer book. My ears were taking in the readings in a way just reading them as the priest read them in Latin at the altar never had. Now they were proclaimed; now we recognized them as God’s word to us.
As we all—bishops, priests, people—grappled with the call to be fully involved , fully active in the liturgy, one means of doing that was the use of gesture. We would express our participation, not only with verbal responses, but with body language. And why not? As our worship was jumping off the page to be something real and active, wouldn’t we also do what real people do? Shake hands, wave, salute, bow. (Don’t forget that even pre-Vatican II, we beat our breasts).
Lately, on TV news, we see footage of Catholics raising hands and voices in prayer for various causes. Those of us who joined the Charismatic Movement in the 1970s saw other Christians raising hands, moving about, singing, and even dancing in worship. We read in the Old Testament that God asked the people to praise him with a joyful shout. “Clap your hands, all you peoples; shout unto God with a voice of triumph,” one psalm tells us.
In this process of rediscovering how to authentically participate in the Eucharistic liturgy, gesture seemed appropriate; but the Church wisely sought to keep it orderly, restrained, a sign of our unity. Bishops recommended simple gestures, such as extending the hands at the response to “The Lord be with you.” At the Preface Dialog we would also raise our hands at the words, “Lift up your hearts. We lift them up to the Lord.” Later, following the Great Amen, we were urged to lift our hands in the orans posture , reflecting the attitude of the presider, as we stood to pray the Our Father.
As the sense of community grew in parishes, people began to hold hands as well. This was a popular move, not instigated by anyone in authority; and it caught on. I remember watching it in our little small-town church, as couples, families, and then whole rows began to hold hands, lifting them up, and then giving an extra lift at the words, “For the kingdom, the power and the glory are yours, now and forever.” This was full, conscious awareness of the meaning of those words, of the solidarity we had in Christ. What better way to demonstrate the truth we celebrated?
This is how we got to this point.
Some bishops were less enthused about encouraging body movement at mass, and never pushed for these gestures, but many did. It was in the interest of helping us to go from a stiff, cerebral appreciation of the mass to participating fully, consciously, actively, as the nature of the liturgy demands. (Sacrosanctum Concilium 14)
In a second installment, I will go into the early history of posture and gesture, exploring whether we should be reversing course here, or whether what we now do makes sense in the liturgy.
I do know that it’s very hard to lose our body language. I’m stuck with Sicilian hand gestures, and I think the ones at mass are second nature too. But let us consider.