The Blessing: with which hand?

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Is there a Catholic regulation or formality or a type of biblical reference that obligates priests to perform blessings with their right hand, or is it indistinct if they can perform it with both hands? Is the meaning the same?


The hand, which among the parts of the body expresses activity, work, and after the face, which is the part that most manifests the soul, always had the hand as a sign of power and strength in religious language. From here comes the biblical expressions manus Dei or Dextera Domini. In other words, “the right hand of the Lord” is a symbol of the Divine Power.

We have some elements in the Bible that can help guide us. For example, in the Old Testament, the blessing of Jacob given to his son Joseph and to his children tells us that the blessing can be done with both the right as well as with the left.  However, the one that was done with the right was more important: “Joseph took them both, Ephraim with his right hand, to the left of Israel, and Manasseh with his left hand toward Israel’s right, and brought them close to himself. Israel stretched out his right hand and laid it on the head of Ephraim, even though he was the younger, and his left hand over Manasseh’s head: that is to say he crossed his hands, although Manasseh was the firstborn; and he blessed Joseph saying, ‘The God before whom my fathers Abraham and Isaac walked…’When Joseph saw that his father laid his right hand on Ephraim’s head, it displeased him, and he grasped his father’s hand to remove it from Ephraim’s head to Manasseh’s head. Joseph said to his father, ‘Not so, my father, for this one is the firstborn. Place your right hand on his head.’ But his father refused and said, ‘I know, my son, I know; he also will become a people and he also will be great. However, his younger brother shall be greater than he, and his descendants shall become a multitude of nations.’” (Genesis 48:13-19). Mons. Straubinger comments on this passage in the Bible by saying, “it was considered that the right hand was the one that better transmitted the father’s blessing.” (Sagrada Biblia, 163, Mon. Juan Straubinger)

If good work is being done with both hands, the primacy is given to the right hand. This is why Jesus said, “when you give to the poor, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing” (Mt 6:3). In the New Testament we have one example, among many, of the blessing given through the imposition of the hands, which is still used today for the blessing of the faithful at the end of the Holy Mass. Our Lord blessed the disciples when He was going to ascend into heaven: “and He led them out as far as Bethany, and He lifted up His hands and blessed them” (Luke 24:50). The book of Revelation has a few references to the use of the extended right hand. For example, when the Son of Man (Christ) puts His right hand over John: “When I saw Him, I fell at his feet as dead. He put his right hand over me saying, ‘Do not fear, it is I, the First and the Last…’”(Rev 1:17).

In order to impart blessings, or to make the sign of the cross, there is no precise indication in the Roman Missal (2002), but it is assumed by liturgical and biblical tradition (including by the testimonies of sacred art), that the blessing is done with the right hand, or with both hands (imposition of hands, or hands extended outward).

The Roman Missal (1962) expressly commands in the Ordo Missae of the case of the signing of the Gospel before its proclamation: “pollice dexterae manum signat librum…” (an indication that is omitted in the MR 2002, but is included in the actual Caeremoniale Episcoporum, n. 141).  Likewise, in the respective Ritus Servandus in celebratione Missae (1962), it prescribes that the blessings be performed with the right hand, having the left hand on the chest or resting on the altar, as the case may be : “…producens manu dextera a fronte ad pectus signum crucis…” (RS, 4) and later the rubric establishes: “Seipsum benedicens, vertit se palmam manus dexterae… Si vero alios, vel rem aliquas benedicit…ac benedicendo totam manum dexteram extendit” (RS, 5). On the other hand, on the left forearm is seen the manipulum, which falls downward, which could hinder a blessing over the offerings, for example, with that hand. This rule on the position of the right and left hand during the blessing has been included by the Caeremoniale Episcoporum (n. 108).

The actual Book of Blessings of the Roman Ritual mentions the sign of the cross (and also the imposition of hands) as expressive of the blessings, but it does not give more details on what hand should be used (Cf. De Benedictionibus, Praenotanda, 26, b).

The Ordo Paenitentiae prescribes the priest to impart absolution of sins by extending both hands or the right hand over the penitent.

The Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments issued a Decree on the sign of the cross in blessings (published in Acta Apostolicae Sedis 94 (2002) 684), in which it says, “The custom having always been in effect, coming from habitual use, that in the rites of blessing the sign of the cross will be performed by the celebrant tracing it with the right hand over the people or the things for whom mercy is obtained.”

Therefore, in principle, the blessing should be given with the right hand unless there is some impediment. In that case, nothing prevents it being performed with the left hand. In any case, the precise significance of the sign of the cross has nothing to do with the hand with which it is performed, but rather with the prayer or rite that it accompanies. The majority of the time it will be to bless or to invoke the Holy Trinity, but it can also be done in an imprecatory formula of an exorcism.

Fr. Jon M. de Arza, IVE

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