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The Struggle for Uniformity in the Liturgy

One of the latest liturgical disputes since Vatican Council II mandated a comprehensive reform of the Church’s liturgy involves the question of whether we should be kneeling or standing at Mass and Communion. Such disputes are unfortunate, but the complexity of reforming the entire liturgy of the Catholic Church was bound to result in missteps and even conflicting instructions.

No one knew in advance how to implement liturgical reforms or how they were going to work out. Sometimes the reforms themselves were not decreed in response to any specific mandate of the Council or perceived need of the faithful; too often they seem to have been put in place following various theories of contemporary professional “liturgists.”

Perhaps this should not surprise us. We live in an age of professional expertise, and it would have been unusual if the Catholic bishops had not tended to rely on professional experts. The trouble came when apparently Church leaders continued to rely uncritically on the experts, even after it became clear that the experts were departing significantly—not only from the spirit but even from the letter—of Vatican II’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (Sacrosanctum Concilium) as well as, sometimes, from the canons of common sense.

We might have hoped for an occasional salutary pause in the pace of reform, and perhaps even a reconsideration of what was being put in place, when it turned out that the faithful, or even just some of them, were reacting negatively to what was being done to their cherished habits and practices. This rarely proved to be the case, and the result has been the series of never-ending liturgical disputes, some of which continue to the present day.

Here is a common pattern: Rome issues an instruction containing new liturgical regulations that seemed both reasonable and well-intentioned but which do not evince an understanding either of how the new regulations would impact upon the faithful or how the faithful would understand them. Meanwhile, the local Church authorities responsible for the implementation of the reforms sometimes has an understanding different from that of Rome about what the new regulations entail or are supposed to accomplish. Indeed, they sometimes have a different agenda for liturgical reform than that laid out in the Church’s official documents.

The question of kneeling versus standing at Mass and when receiving Communion was one of the disputed questions reopened when Pope John Paul II promulgated a new, revised edition of the General Instruction on the Roman Missal (GIRM). Many liturgists today believe that kneeling is alien to modern culture and is an unsuitable posture for modern “democratic” man, even when worshiping. Standing, they say, is the “Resurrection posture.” Hence many liturgists have long aimed at getting the faithful to stand, whether during the canon of the Mass, or for the reception of Communion. The idea was to establish the “custom” of standing, following which the practice could then be enshrined in the actual Church regulations governing liturgy.

Persistent liturgist influence succeeded in establishing standing as the “normal” way to receive Communion in the United States. This posture was codified in the new, revised GIRM promulgated by Pope John Paul II during the Jubilee Year 2000 (but not actually issued until March 18, 2001). Among the approved “American adaptations” to this new revised GIRM is one that specifies “the norm for reception of Holy Communion is standing” (GIRM 162:3). The text goes on immediately to say, “Communicants should not be denied Holy Communion because they kneel.”

Still, the now official new rule for the reception of Communion in the United States is to receive Communion standing. The liturgists can be said to have won this particular round; their idea on the reception of Communion has now been enacted into Church law for this country.

When Is Kneeling Still the Norm?

Liturgists were not so successful in getting kneeling abolished during the celebration of Mass. The new revised GIRM specifies that in the United States “people should kneel beginning after the singing or recitation of the Sanctus (‘Holy, Holy, Holy’) until after the Amen of the Eucharistic Prayer. The faithful [also] kneel at the Ecce Agnus Dei (‘Lamb of God’) unless the diocesan bishop decides otherwise” (GIRM 43:3). The fact that the bishop is given discretion in the case of the Agnus Dei means that he does not have discretion to change any of the other GIRM rules (e.g., to allow standing throughout the Mass).

After the introduction of the new order of the Mass following Vatican II, U.S. Catholics kept on following their—authentic!—custom of kneeling at the Sanctus, again at the Agnus Dei, and again following the reception of Communion. The new GIRM rules codify this longstanding custom.

All this time many liturgists kept saying that standing, not kneeling, was the practice in the early Church; that kneeling only came about in medieval times in imitation of the vassals kneeling before their feudal lords; and that standing more readily allowed the “full, conscious, and active participation” in the sacred liturgy called for by Sacrosanctum Concilium (14). Standing in no way implied irreverence or disrespect to God, the argument goes. We already stand to hear the Gospel, to pray the Our Father, and to profess the Creed and the Prayers of the Faithful.

Those who make these arguments are correct that standing implies no disrespect for the divine Majesty. But their assertion that kneeling was not practiced in the early Church seems false in the face of such Scripture passages as Luke 22:41 describing the action of Jesus himself in the Garden of Gethsemane: “And he withdrew from them about a stone’s throw, and knelt down and prayed.”

Acts 20:36 similarly describes kneeling as the common practice in the early Church: “And when he [Paul] had spoken thus, he knelt down and prayed with them all.” Paul even specifies in Philippians 2:10 that “at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth.”

Many other similar passages could be cited from Scripture. Kneeling is frequently mentioned in connection with the worship of God in both the Old and the New Testaments. Psalm 95:6-7 expressly says: “O come, let us worship and bow down, let us kneel before the Lord, our Maker! For he is our God, and we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand.”

The argument that kneeling goes back only to the practice of kneeling before one’s feudal lord in medieval times, besides not being accurate, also ignores the fact that legitimate Church customs and traditions may arise in any age. The early Church is not the only model for the Church today. The medieval Church can and should serve as a valid model for certain traditions—the Middle Ages were an age of great faith, after all. In any case, as Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger has pointed out in his excellent book, The Spirit of the Liturgy, kneeling is an appropriate posture and fits with Christian worship:

“Kneeling at Mass—which probably did become solidified in medieval times, especially as a result of the adoration of the reserved Blessed Sacrament—constitutes true worship and corresponds to a genuine need for adoration on the part of the faithful. The notion that it should now just be abolished in conformity with the theories of some modern liturgists is an exceedingly shallow notion—as is the other idea of some liturgists that the faithful are somehow not fully, consciously, and actively “participating” in the liturgy when they are kneeling.”

Fortunately, Church authority has now made the sensible decision to continue in the United States the practice of kneeling during those parts of the Mass that remained customary here following Vatican II. But kneeling to receive Communion, still desired by many of the faithful, did not fare as well in the new rules for the celebration of Mass, as we have noted.

One of the reasons for this is that standing and processing in a line to receive Communion already has become pretty much established as the standard practice in the United States in the post-Vatican-II era. There likely would have been a major disruption at this point if the Church had attempted to mandate kneeling. This is the way the rule for the United States now reads in full in the new revised GIRM:

“The norm for reception of Holy Communion in the dioceses of the United States is standing. Communicants should not be denied Holy Communion because they kneel. Rather, such instances should be addressed pastorally, by providing the faithful with proper catechesis on the reasons for the norm” (GIRM 160:2, emphasis added).

What this rule does, then, is to codify what the custom for receiving Communion has become in the United States in the post-conciliar years. This particular norm amounted to a change from pre-Vatican-II days, though, when the more prevalent custom was to receive Communion kneeling (and on the tongue). The preference to receive kneeling was eliminated simply by removing the church altar rails. Nevertheless, there were also strong pressures in most parishes to conform to this particular usage.

Is It Okay to Genuflect before Receiving?

Even after accepting the practice of coming up in line and receiving Communion, many of the faithful still preferred to genuflect before receiving. This too became a bone of contention, just as kneeling had, since the recommended sign of reverence was now supposed to be a bow of the head. The new revised GIRM rule clearly now prescribes the latter:

“When receiving Holy Communion . . . the communicant bows his or her head before the sacrament as a gesture of reverence and receives the Body of the Lord from the minister. The consecrated host may be received either on the tongue or in the hand at the discretion of each communicant. When Holy Communion is received under both kinds, the sign of reverence is also made before receiving the Precious Blood (GIRM 160:2).

The new requirement for bowing the head as a sign of reverence before receiving Communion seems to be a genuinely new one. It is a bit surprising to encounter it, since bowing in this fashion before receiving has never been a particularly widespread custom in the United States. Nor does there seem to have been any notable instructions or catechesis concerning this kind of bowing.

If the new rule is to be standing to receive, kneeling or genuflecting can impede the process of the faithful coming up in a line to receive (but then so can bowing to some extent). There can surely be no doubt that a bow is a sign of reverence. Moreover, the legitimate authority of the Church now assures us that a bow is indeed a suitable and adequate sign of reverence before the divine Majesty.

The exception in the new GIRM regulations providing that those who still wish to kneel—or genuflect—should not be refused Communion reflects a salutary pastoral recognition that some of the faithful continue to believe that they must kneel to receive. The very fact that these people who prefer to kneel are supposed to be “catechized” to accept the new rule confirms that it is the new rule that the Church intends to apply universally in the United States.

The Fallout of the New Rules

What has been the reaction to these new rules? It would seem that the rule providing for kneeling at the designated times during the celebration of the Mass is being widely observed. Standing to receive Communion also seems generally to be accepted, and has surely become the normal practice, as the new GIRM rule also specifies.

The same thing does not seem to be true of the required bow of the head. One has the impression—admittedly unscientific—that few people were bowing their heads in this fashion before the new GIRM rule came out. Although more people now seem to have started doing this as soon as they became aware of the new rule, the practice still seems far from universal. In this regard, priests ought to announce at Mass that the faithful coming up to Communion are expected to bow as a sign of reverence to the Blessed Sacrament.

Many if not most communicants make no sign at all when receiving Communion, while a fair number of people genuflect as they come forward in the line, and a few make the sign of the cross. Only a very few, it would seem, still insist on kneeling. There have been documented instances where priests have denied Communion to them. There have been other cases where priests have lectured or chastised them. Such behavior clearly constitutes a serious abuse on the part of the priests in question.

On the one hand, now that the new rule has been issued, some of those in authority think there is no longer any excuse for not doing as the rule provides. On the other hand, some of those who prefer kneeling believe they have a right to kneel. As things stand under the new rules, it is not entirely clear who is in the right about this or how to resolve this question.

The new Roman rules were first laid out for the United States in a letter dated April 25, 2002, from the Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments to Bishop Wilton Gregory, the president of the USCCB. The July 2002 issue of the Newsletter of the U.S. Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy (BCL) stated that kneeling “is not a licit posture for receiving Holy Communion in the dioceses of the United States unless the bishop of a particular diocese has derogated from this norm in an individual and extraordinary circumstance.”

Not licit? The new rules undeniably call for reception of Communion standing. However, they also include an exception for those who believe they must receive kneeling. While these latter may indeed be in need of catechesis regarding the new rules, they should not, meanwhile—as GIRM also plainly says—be denied Communion.

What is disturbing about the BCL statement is the attitude that any violation of the new GIRM rules—which many Catholics may not have even heard about—constitutes a breach serious enough to be illicit. The attitude evinced in the BCL newsletter may be all too common among some of those with responsibilities for the liturgy. Some bishops have spoken of “dissent” or even “disobedience” on the part of those who still insist on kneeling or genuflecting when receiving Communion.

The renewed controversy over kneeling amounts to a sad but typical example of how and why the Vatican II liturgical reforms have sometimes gone wrong in the post-conciliar era. The bishops, or even Roman authorities, put out a new rule that has never been explained to anybody, and then they are surprised when the result is liturgical confusion.

While clergy and liturgists tend to be aware of the context of liturgical changes—namely, in this case, that the GIRM was being revised after many years—the faithful generally do not follow such things. So when new rules are announced without any particular explanation, they seem to come out of the blue, and many of the faithful are baffled and disoriented. When the new rules are accompanied by episcopal strictures declaring anyone who continues to genuflect before receiving as “disobedient,” especially when so little instruction has been provided in the matter, there can be little wonder that Vatican II’s liturgical reform will be seen, once again, to have “failed” in the eyes of not a few of the faithful.

At the very time when the BCL newsletter was complaining that kneeling was no longer a “licit posture” for receiving Communion, the prefect for the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, Jorge A. Medina Cardinal Estevez, was writing a rather strong admonitory letter to a U.S. bishop in whose diocese members of the faithful had been refused Communion while kneeling.

In his letter, dated July 1, 2002, Cardinal Medina stated, “The Congregation . . . is concerned at the number of similar complaints that it has received in recent months from various places and considers any refusal of Holy Communion to a member of the faithful on the basis of his or her kneeling posture to be a grave violation of one of the most basic rights of the Christian faithful, namely that of being assisted by the pastors by means of the sacraments (Code of Canon Law, 213). In view of the law that ‘sacred ministers may not deny the sacraments to those who opportunely ask for them, are properly disposed, and are not prohibited by law from receiving them’ (canon 843:1), there should be no such refusal to any Catholic who presents himself for Holy Communion at Mass, except in cases presenting a danger of grave scandal to other believers arising out of the person’s unrepented public sin or obstinate heresy or schism, publicly professed or declared.

“Even where the Congregation has approved of legislation denoting standing as the posture for Holy Communion, in accordance with the adaptations permitted to the Conferences of Bishops by the Institutio Generalis Missalis Romani (GIRM 160:2), it has done so with the stipulation that communicants who choose to kneel are not to be denied Holy Communion on these grounds.” Cardinal Medina went on, “The practice of kneeling for Holy Communion has in its favor a centuries-old tradition, and it is a particularly expressive sign of adoration, completely appropriate in light of the true, real, and substantial presence of Our Lord Jesus Christ under the consecrated species.”

The faithful who are moved to kneel in the Real Presence of the Lord should thus certainly not be penalized. What is astounding is how kneeling for Communion could have become controversial and a matter of “disobedience,” especially when so many other kinds of disobedience go uncorrected, and even unremarked, in the Church today.

What We Should Do

So what should be our reaction to all of this? We should receive Communion standing, having reverently bowed our heads beforehand as a sign of reverence to the Body of Christ. This is now the established norm for the United States, formally approved both by our bishops and by the Roman authority in the matter, the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments.

But, some may protest, the new GIRM rule on the reception of Communion also provides that no one can be refused Communion who genuflects or kneels, nor should anyone be harassed or chastised for this. Both the prefect and the undersecretary of the Congregation for Divine Worship have made this unmistakably clear. Surely the faithful have every right to go on kneeling or genuflecting, if that is their preference.

Not quite. The pastoral exception that those who kneel are not to be refused Communion is precisely that—an exception. The rule remains in force that standing (with a preceding reverent bow) is now the proper way to receive Communion in the United States. The exception does not constitute a general permission for Catholics who know and understand what their bishops have decreed and what Rome has approved in the matter simply to disregard the rule. Declining to follow a rule that one knows is a rule, even if it is not exactly disobedience in this case because Church authority allows for an exception, nevertheless bespeaks a defective attitude toward legitimate Church authority. This is particularly true when it comes from those who have perhaps been critical of liturgical abuses by others.

Realistically, if even in the end not all are successfully brought to obey the rule, then the Congregation appears to believe that that is a residual problem and not all that serious. Rome probably understands that the numbers of those who insist on kneeling are small, and they generally do not disrupt the regular process of distributing Communion to all the faithful. Rather, the problem seems to arise when pastors or celebrants get uptight about them. In the view of the Congregation, the right of the faithful to receive outweighs to goal of a uniform liturgy.


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