During the Mass, the priest will at times assume the Orans prayer posture—hands raised, elbows at his sides. In recent decades, many in the congregation have taken to using this posture during the Our Father, and inquirers to Catholic Answers often want to know if it is licit for them to do so. The answer goes beyond quoting liturgical rules and gets to the heart of the meaning of postures during Mass.
A few years back, the Vatican released news of newly restored frescoes in the Catacombs of Priscilla in Rome. At least one of the frescoes depicted what appears to be the image of a woman praying with arms outstretched. A British tabloid immediately framed the story with the headline, “Do these images prove that early Christianity had female priests?”
Although Vatican spokesmen dismissed such an interpretation as “fairy tales,” we might still wonder if they nonetheless give historical justification for the use of the Orans by the congregation. Indeed, the Catholic Encyclopedia, first published in the early twentieth century, states matter of factly that the Orans images from the catacombs depict “a female figure with extended arms.” The Church, then, has long acknowledged that these figures are feminine but does not consider such depictions to be at odds with its theology of the sacramental priesthood.
Why then were the Orans figures in the catacombs represented as female? The most important thing to remember about the catacombs is that these were among the Church’s earliest burial grounds. Although the etymology of the Latin word catacombae is obscure, one theory is that it derives from the Latin phrase cata tumbas, which means “among the tombs.”
Naturally, this means that the artwork in the catacombs centered on veneration for the deceased and hope for the resurrection of the dead at the end of time. Many of the scenes depicted in the catacombs were images of Christ, whose resurrection, after all, is the basis for our hope in the resurrection of the dead (1 Cor. 15:20).
According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, the Orans is symbolic of the soul of the deceased, now in heaven and interceding for those on Earth. Even when the deceased in question was a man, the soul was symbolically represented as feminine. For example, an ancient medal of the martyr St. Lawrence depicts his departing soul as a feminine Orans.
Why would a deceased man’s soul be symbolized by a feminine figure? Perhaps it is for much the same reason that the Church is symbolized by feminine imagery, particularly bridal imagery (Eph. 5:25–27). The human soul, whether that of a male or female, is receptive to grace from God, and in Christian art, this quality of receptivity has long been symbolized as feminine.
And so the Orans is not intended to be an image of an alter Christus, one who represents Christ before God as does a priest during the celebration of the sacraments. Rather, the Orans is an image of a fully sanctified Christian soul admitted to the beatific vision and no longer in need of the sacraments, distributing the graces it receives from God to all those who pray for the deceased Christian’s intercession.
Should we pray the Our Father using the Orans posture? The General Instruction of the Roman Missal states:
After the eucharistic prayer is concluded, the priest, with hands joined, says alone the introduction to the Lord’s Prayer, and then with hands extended, he pronounces the prayer together with the people (GIRM 152).
Although there is no provision for the congregation to assume the Orans posture themselves, neither is it forbidden. That said, there is repeated admonition in the liturgical documents of the Church that gestures ought not to be introduced into the liturgy without appropriate authorization from the Church and that the respective roles of clergy and laity ought not to be obscured. Examples of this admonition may be found in the Second Vatican Council’s Sacrosanctum Concilium (2-3), the Vatican document Redemptionis Sacramentum (45), and the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (43).
It may well be fitting, then, that only the priest assumes the Orans posture, so as not to obscure the necessary distinction between the role of the priest and the role of the laity. The congregation prays the liturgy in its own way as baptized members of the body of Christ. Its members do not mimic the priest, who represents Christ to the congregation and the congregation to God. There can be a danger of clericalism when the lay role in the liturgy is undervalued, and the priestly role is seen as a better or truer expression of the Faith.
Moreover, when the priest adopts this posture during the liturgy, he, like the Orans figures in the catacombs, makes himself receptive to God’s grace as a representative of the congregation. In this act of supplication, the priest opens himself to God on behalf of the people and then offers to the assembly that which he has received from the Father.
What is the bottom line? The Orans is an ancient symbol of a soul in union with God interceding on behalf of mankind. The sanctified soul is a pure receptacle of God’s grace, which is why it is traditionally symbolized by feminine imagery, and passes on to us only that which it receives from God. This supplicant posture is most commonly seen today in the Mass, where the priest pleads to God on behalf of the people. The Church has not forbidden the congregation the use of the Orans posture during the Our Father but has many times cautioned against inserting unauthorized gestures into the Mass.
Oh, and as for those catacomb images implying a female priesthood in the early Church? Ancient Christian art can give us a window into how the first Christians prayed and what they believed. But that art should be interpreted according to the entire tradition of the Church as it has been developed over 2,000 years.