Letting Go

Author: Andrew Santella

When my wife and I moved to Chicago’s suburbs last year, we had to launch a search for all the essentials in our new neighborhood: dry cleaning, auto repair, some decent Chinese takeout.

Much more difficult was finding a Catholic church we could stomach.

The problem with my new parish church was that everyone there wanted to hold my hand. At 9 o’clock Mass each Sunday, when the time came to say the Lord’s Prayer , our pastor would instruct all of us in the pews to join hands. On cue, all around the church, grinning strangers would stretch across aisles and reach over seat backs to take hold of each other, as if the world record for hand-holding was at stake. When the gymnastics were complete and the celebrant could be assured that no hand was not encased in someone else’s, the praying could begin.

This was new to me. I had come from a dying parish in an old Polish neighborhood on Chicago’s northwest side. Churchgoers there were so few, and the interior of the church so capacious, that we couldn’t have held hands if we wanted to. Each family and each solitary worshipper was an island in that vast space, protected by a buffer zone of empty pews. People kept to themselves. Overmatched parents had their hands full just trying to manage their kids. Old women in black bent over their rosaries, mumbling. I’m pretty sure that if I had tried to go across the aisle and hold hands with one of my fellow churchgoers, the proceedings would have ground to a halt until I returned to my seat.

So I was unprepared for the scene at my new church. It wasn’t just the hand-holding that surprised me, either. The sheer size of the crowds was a shock. The church, a mushroom-shaped mistake built in the 1970s, was designed for a pre-suburban-sprawl reality. The hordes of newly arrived families, the stunning number of their offspring and the size of their monstrous vehicles all seemed to have overwhelmed the church infrastructure. SUVs parked haphazardly on any available patch of grass. Families packed into pews or looked for bits of standing-room space to claim as their own. Florid-faced ushers hustled to herd the overflow into TV rooms.

By any objective measure, the bustling scene at my new church would have to be considered healthier, more robust than the one I left behind in the city. So why couldn’t I make myself feel at home there? Why, in fact, did attending Mass there invariably leave me feeling irritable and out of sorts?

I kept coming back to the hand-holding. There was no way to get around it, I just didn’t want to hold hands with strangers at 9:30 on a Sunday morning. I tried to make myself play along. After all, what kind of antisocial crank can’t show a little sense of community, reach out to his neighbor? But it just wouldn’t work. Something about the practice reminded me of the mushy blandness of preschool sing-alongs—and that kind of thing bugged me even in preschool. For a while, I assumed I was the only Catholic who hadn’t gotten with this new program, adapted to the new style. I was wrong.

A little research revealed that plenty of Catholics felt as I did. In fact, informal polling indicated a nearly even split between those who want to hold hands during the Our Father and those who want to be left alone. I also found, however, that the hands-to-yourself camp is much better at complaining. In Internet chat rooms, we rail against the “distraction” of “groping for hands.” We disdain hand-holding as “forced affection.” Jean Torkelson, a religion writer for the Rocky Mountain News, derided the practice as “sentimental and meaningless.” An article in the San Francisco Chronicle quoted one bishop who called such hand-holding “inappropriate touching.” A few hands-to-yourselfers even offered convincing-sounding reasons why holding hands is not liturgically sound, though I suspect that most are just covering for their own curmudgeonly crankiness.

I also came across a lot of queries from hands-to-yourselfers wanting to know how to channel their dissent. One advice columnist urged a kind of passive resistance, suggesting that churchgoers who want to keep their hands to themselves simply refuse to offer their hands and instead give their neighbors “a regretful little shake of the head, accompanied by a friendly look, to indicate that it is nothing personal.”

I decided to take a more active approach. I decided to look for a church where hand-holding was not the prevailing practice. It turned out to be a lengthy and mostly futile search. Sunday mornings found me trying out a succession of Catholic churches near my new home, and almost always I ended up holding hands with my fellow churchgoers.

Although hand-holding during the Lord’s Prayer is not officially sanctioned, I knew from my research that the practice has spread quickly across congregations in recent years, driven mostly by lay Catholics seeking to create a greater sense of community in their church. The official liturgical documents, it seems, say nothing on the matter, and the bishops have declined to weigh in. As it stands now, some churches hold hands, some don’t.

The growth of the phenomenon seems nearly viral. In certain areas, like my new neighborhood, the practice is overwhelmingly dominant. In others, the hands-off approach holds out. Finding a church that meets your preferences is mostly a matter of chance. And it occurred to me, as I continued my Sunday-morning tour of the diocese, that I was shopping around for a church that fit me, in just the way I had looked for an auto repairman or a dry cleaner in my new neighborhood.

I can’t say this made me feel proud. There was a time when I never would have thought of churchgoing as something like a consumer choice. For most of my life, I loyally attended my parish church, no questions asked. Maybe what has changed is the diversity of experiences to be found in a Catholic church on any Sunday morning. More than ever, churchgoers can act like consumers, weighing the choices available to them, trying the options out, making an informed choice. Is music important to you? Choose from electric folk ensemble, kids’ choir or 150-year-old pipe organ. Are you an architecture buff? Select Gothic, Romanesque or poured concrete. Maybe for you the choice hinges on the celebrant’s homiletic style: inspirational, kiddie-friendly or old-school judgmental. Or maybe you’re like me, and hand-holding will send you running to another parish.

Of course, consumer choice depends on the free flow and ready availability of information. As it is now, most churches release no more information about their worship services than a list of Mass times. Maybe what’s needed is a consumer’s guide for Catholics. My modest proposal: a directory that would help us choose between one parish’s 9:30 Mass (hand-holding, seating in the round, music by a Celtic folk five-piece) and another’s 10:15 (hands-to-yourself, an ear-piercing soprano cantor and Father Conklin delivering his homily while prowling the room like a stand-up comic).

Meanwhile, if some Sunday during the Lord’s Prayer you should find yourself next to the only guy in church who won’t hold hands, be kind. It might be me.

Andrew Santella writes for The New York Times Book Review, GQ and other publications.