|ROME, 10 JUNE 2008 (ZENIT)
Answered by Legionary of Christ Father
Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum
Q: What is the reason behind the kissing of the hands of a newly
ordained priest? Is it true that one may gain an indulgence by kissing
the hands of a newly ordained priest?
F.M., Manila, Philippines
A: The practice of kissing the hands of a newly ordained priest is a
long-established custom in some countries.
In the liturgy, as in other aspects of human life, the gestures and
position of the hands have a specific meaning or implication.
The gesture of kissing a person or object is an ancient liturgical
tradition and symbolizes veneration of the said persons or things during
public worship. In cultures where kissing is outré the bishops’
conference may propose a substitutive gesture.
Kissing the hand or an object as a sign of reverence is more common in
the extraordinary form of the Roman rite. In the ordinary form it has
been reduced to the kissing of the altar and of the Gospel.
It is still common, however, outside of the liturgy as a sign of
veneration toward persons such as bishops and newly ordained priests.
During ordination a new priest’s hands are anointed with chrism as a
sign of consecration and of the change that has been effected in his
The custom of kissing his hands stems from a recognition of the
fundamental change that has occurred and of the particular importance of
the sign of the hands in priestly ministry.
After ordination the priest uses his hands to hold the Eucharistic
species during the consecration, to make the sign of the cross while
absolving sins, to anoint the sick and dying, and on occasion to impart
the sacrament of confirmation.
A bishop, whose hands are also anointed at ordination, uses his hands to
impart the sacrament of holy orders.
A priest also uses his hands in other moments such as blessing, praying,
baptizing, etc., but these are uses that he shares with deacons and
sometimes with lay faithful.
Although the hands are an important sign, they are not absolutely
essential. A priest who for some reason loses the use of his hands would
still be able to carry out most of his ministries.
The present Enchiridion of Indulgences foresees a plenary indulgence for
all those who attend the first solemn public Mass of a newly ordained
There is no specific indulgence foreseen in the present enchiridion for
kissing the hands of a new priest. It might have existed in earlier
times, but I have been unable to verify it.
The custom of the whole assembly coming forward to kiss a priest’s hands
at the end of his first Mass is not as common as before but is still
practiced in some places. This custom might have led to the indulgence
for the first Mass becoming associated with that of kissing the hands of
the newly ordained.
* * *
Follow-up: Kissing the Hands of a New
The theme of kissing of hands of a new priest (see June 10) brought to
the fore another question regarding the use of hands.
A New Orleans reader asked: “Should there be silence (i.e., no music)
during the imposition of hands at an ordination? I believe that the
Pontifical says something like, 'Saying nothing' the bishop and then the
other priests present impose hands. The force of the Latin, if I recall
it correctly, seems to be simply that the priests say nothing (no
prayer, no "God bless," no "You made it, Bill") while imposing hands. My
question is this: Which is more fitting during this liturgical action,
sacred silence similar to the elevation of the sacred species after the
words of institution, or some fitting piece of music like, say, 'Veni,
The Pontifical, which our reader remembers well, says: “One by one, the
candidates go to the bishop and kneel before him. The bishop wearing the
miter lays his hands on the head of each, in silence.
“Next all the concelebrating presbyters and all other presbyters
present, provided they are vested with a stole worn over an alb or over
a cassock and surplice, lay their hands on each of the candidates, in
silence. After the laying on of hands, the presbyters remain on either
side of the bishop until the prayer of consecration is completed.”
From this we adduce that the priests imposing hands should say nothing
and that any prayer for the ordinand should be purely mental.
The silence of this moment of the rite of ordination is of great
importance and in a way it is a rite in itself. Thus during the rite of
imposition of hands there should be no music or singing whatsoever.
However, even though there is nothing in the rubrics to support it, when
the imposition of hands is likely to be protracted due to the number of
priests or due to the number of candidates, liturgical practice seems to
tolerate singing some invocation to the Holy Spirit. If and when this is
done, the bishop usually imposes hands in silence and the hymn is
intoned shortly after the priests have begun to impose hands.
In order to maintain the climate of silence the rubrics foresee the
possibility of a smaller number of the priests present imposing hands.
This is sometimes done, and is to be preferred to interrupting the
silence, but it is not always easy to carry out without someone feeling
The second, much rarer, situation of prolonged silence is when the
number of candidates is very numerous. After 10 minutes of absolute
silence during a rite, even fervent people can get nervous and lose
concentration on the mystery that is being celebrated. Thus the silence
itself can become an obstacle to the concentration it seeks to promote.
In such cases some invocations such as the Veni Creator Spiritus can be
This was the case in my own ordination in which I was blessed to form
part of a group of 60 priests ordained by Pope John Paul II in St.
Peter’s Basilica. The rite of imposition of hands alone lasted about
half an hour and thus several hymns invoking the Holy Spirit were sung
during its course.