This past World Youth Day, I had a group of approximately 50 young people with me in Madrid. We walked in late on Tuesday morning to catch catechesis and Mass with Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadephia. The archbishop did a wonderful job with his presentation and answering questions from the English speaking pilgrims in attendance. As the Archbishop retreated to the back of the stage to prepare for Mass, the worship band led us in some praise and worship music to prepare our hearts.
The music started, “I’m trading my sorrows, I’m trading my sickness…. Yes, Lord. Yes, Lord, Yes, Yes Lord.” If you have been working in youth ministry for a while this song is not unfamiliar to you. It is usually accompanied by a series of hand motions using your fingers and thumbs. Teens all over the stadium began doing the hand motions that the worship leaders taught. I threw up in my mouth a little bit . . .
Hand Motion Sickness
I have hand motion sickness and I don’t think I am the only one. When the praise and worship song starts, I have tried to follow. I’ve moved my fingers, flapped my arms, waved my hands over my head, clapped in the shape of the cross and I once did the hokey pokey. Putting hand motions to songs is nothing new in youth ministry and it can be a worthwhile tool to teach youth to engage and participate.
However, I quickly noticed something about hand motions during praise and worship music – it’s not prayer. Because it is not prayer, I have stopped doing hand motions and no longer encourage my teens to participate. In fact, the sight of hand motions makes me just a little bit sick.
I know there are many youth ministers who would strongly disagree – but the challenge of these blogs is to go deeper, and to go deeper means we need to evaluate if what we are teaching is working. Prayer is supposed to bring us into intimate relationship with God. It is supposed to bring us to encounter Him and through the practice of prayer, our heart converts.
Praise and Worship
What is praise? What is its intention? The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that the prayer of praise, “is a form of prayer which recognizes most immediately that God is God. It lauds God for his own sake and gives him glory, quite beyond what He does, but simply because HE IS.” (CCC 2639).
I believe – and the Tradition of the Church would teach us – that the prayer of praise is one of the most foundational prayers to learn when growing in deeper relationship with Christ. It teaches us humility by teaching us to give God the glory. St. Ignatius Loyola – in his “First Principle and Foundation”- goes so far as to say that man, “is created for the praise, reverence and service of God and by this means to save his soul.”
Praise is so important, that he says that man is created for it and he obtains the salvation of his soul from it. When St. John had a vision of Heaven, he saw choirs of angels never ceasing to praise God by singing, “holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty.” (Revelation 4:8).
We could go on and on with examples of the prayer of praise in the Scriptures and Tradition – whether it is Job in his tragedy, Mary’s Magnificat, Zechariah’s Canticle, etc. All of these prayers were not written, but rather expressed out of the heart with humility. Teaching teens to praise is as important as teaching any other form of prayer, because it is what we were created by God to do.
Praying With Our Body
Don’t get me wrong, Catholics pray with their body. We lie prostrate, we kneel, we sit, and we fold our hands in a posture of prayer. Sometimes we even extend our hands over our head in an open posture of worship.
All of these postures, even the hands over the head, are rooted in Scripture and the Tradition of the Church. They reflect the interior disposition of the soul and it’s receptivity to Christ. So what about hand motions? Why do I say it is not prayer?
When I was doing hand motions, the first thing I noticed is that my attention was not on Christ and giving Him glory, but rather on myself – what I was doing and what the group was collectively doing. I wouldn’t criticize hand motions if I thought they were generally benign, however it would seem that hand motions completes the opposite objective that praise is supposed to accomplish.
While there are many youth leaders that would disagree, some Catholic worship leaders have been calling attention to this for years. I remember one instance in particular where popular Catholic worship leader – Matt Maher – caused a minor twitter war in 2009 when he declared war on the “cross clap” following NCYC.
The criticism remained the same. He questioned whether we understand why we are doing it, whether it serves any purpose in prayer and he basically said that it can distract us from union with Christ. People focus on their motions rather than entering into a song and declaring, perhaps for the first time in their life, “God, your grace is enough for me.” If we wish to take teens into deeper relationships with Christ, learning to pray is vital for ongoing conversion and we need to look deeper and be more intentional about what we model and what we teach.
My final blog of the series will address the how we catechize and purify the youth. As youth ministers, Christ provided us the best model for training youth and preparing them for the mission of the Church. More and more, I believe that the Catholic youth ministry is moving to discipleship – intentionally focusing on individual youth and their private journey with Christ.