Can regular people lay hands on the clergy?

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priest and laity
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Question: I was recently speaking with a charismatic leader, and we had a disagreement. We are both laymen. He thinks it is OK for him to lay hands on an ordained while praying for the ordained. I consider that inappropriate.

Andy Lucas, MSN, RN, CSPHA

Answer: There are few norms that regard the posture of the laity, especially in gatherings outside of formal liturgy. Hence, we are left with a question, not of law, but of fittingness. It is generally the role of the clergy to lay hands on the faithful. This is a sign both of blessing and authority. From this perspective, for the laity to lay hands on a priest, especially upon his head, blurs distinctions and is less fitting.

However, it is not strictly forbidden, and context may also matter. A private moment or small group where a priest asks someone to pray for him (priests need prayers too) might cause little or no confusion. Such gestures are more common in charismatic settings where there is a special acknowledgment that many, including the laity, have special gifts of healing. There are, in fact, certain charismatic and nonsacramental gifts that the nonordained may have (cf. 1 Cor 12). Charismatic prayer services often celebrate and employ these gifts in healing services and the laying on of hands is more common there, laity to laity. Some still express concerns that laity should not use “priestly gestures” even in these contexts, citing confusion. In such settings, without strict rules, we are left to accept that prudential judgments may sometimes differ.

At larger gatherings, the concern for misunderstanding or a blurring of distinctions may be more pronounced. Certainly, within the Mass or other formal liturgies, it is most problematic that such gestures occur, since it is the priest who presides and bestows blessings and sacraments. Also to be avoided, particularly in formal liturgies, is the tendency in some places for the laity to adopt priestly gestures such as extending their hands during the Eucharistic prayer. Another example is that clergy, in formal settings, sometimes ask the laity to extend their hands while those clergy bless an individual or group for some purpose (birthday blessings, departing pilgrims, etc). It is more appropriate that the laity bow their heads while the clergy extend their hands in the priestly blessing. Here too, there are not strict rules governing all these examples, so we are left to reason from what seems best, fitting and reflective of Catholic teaching on the special role of the clergy.

So, while an absolute answer based on law is not possible here, it generally seems less than fitting for the laity to “lay hands” on clergy in all but the most private settings. Caution should also be observed in the laity laying hands on other laity depending more on context.

Msgr. Charles Pope

Msgr. Charles Pope is the pastor of Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian in Washington, D.C., and writes for the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C. at blog.adw.org. Send questions to msgrpope@osv.com.