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Online Edition - Vol. IX, No. 1: March 2003

Questions & Answers on Changes in the Mass

Gestures and Postures I

Q. Our bishop announced that everyone is required to stand throughout Communion, until after the last person has received and the priest sits down. He wrote in the diocesan newspaper that we are to be united with the "universal church" in a spirit of communio, therefore: "As Archbishop, I need to promulgate those areas of practice that represent the universal practice of the church". Is kneeling after we receive Communion now prohibited by the universal Church?

A. No, it is not. The Institutio Generalis Missalis Romani (IGMR) for the universal Church specifies that people are to kneel during the consecration, and it also states that other places where kneeling is customary are "laudably retained". Keeling after one receives Communion, and after the Agnus Dei , has been a consistent practice in many places throughout the world -- including the United States -- for many generations.

This period of kneeling, consistent since 1969, was reaffirmed by the US bishops in their "adaptations" to the new Missal's regulations for the celebration of Mass, the IGMR, in effect since March 2002.

The IGMR states that "it is up to the Conference of Bishops to adapt the gestures and postures in the Order of Mass...".

This is what the US bishops did in the "American adaptations", that have been approved by the Holy See, and have been in effect since April 2002.

The rule on kneeling for the Church in the United States includes three periods where people kneel ( See IGMR § 43 ):

1. During the entire Eucharistic Prayer.

2. After the Agnus Dei (Lamb of God) is sung, before Communion "unless the bishop determines otherwise".

3. The people may choose to kneel or sit after they have received Communion.

4. Though the "normal" posture for receiving Communion in the United States is standing, the Holy See accepted this only "with the stipulation that communicants who choose to kneel may not be denied Holy Communion on these grounds" ( Notitiae , Nov-Dec 2002, Prot. no. 1322/02/L; see AB Dec 2002-Jan 2003, p 15) .

Q. I'm aware of the American Adaptations for the posture for receiving that permit kneeling for Communion, even though it is no longer considered the USA normative posture, but were there directives by the US conference that people are to remain standing in the pews until distribution of Communion is complete? It seems to me that there is a move afoot to eradicate any moment of reverence toward the Body and Blood of Our Lord.

A. There was no such directive by either the Holy See or the US bishops.

The IGMR does not say that people must stand until all have received, nor does it say that an individual priest or bishop can demand this. It is not in the American adaptations, nor was it understood in this way by the majority of bishops who voted in favor of the adaptations in November 2001. ( see transcript page 4. )

The bishops' adaptation to the IGMR 43.2 states explicitly that people may kneel or sit after they receive Communion. Standing during this part of the Mass is a recent innovation advocated by some liturgists who believe this posture promotes "community". Some argue that the "universal" IGMR implies that standing is the normal posture here; however, Catholics in many other countries customarily kneel (or sit) after they receive Communion.

Some liturgists who advocate standing throughout the Communion rite believe that the theology of the Church and of the Eucharist was radically changed at the Second Vatican Council. This is untrue. Nevertheless, such opinions have greatly influenced recent liturgical innovations.

Q. It has been the custom for many years in our parish for people to kneel at the altar rail to receive Holy Communion. Our diocese has now forbidden this practice; and we have been told that the universal Church requires that all must stand to receive. Kneeling has been called "an act of disobedience". I don't understand this. Is it legitimate for a priest or bishop to refuse Holy Communion to people if they are kneeling?

A. No. The US bishops' adaptation established standing as the "norm" for the Church in the United States; but it is not permissible to deny Communion to a person who kneels to receive. That would amount to virtual excommunication. The universal law permits either posture in IGMR 160:

The faithful may communicate either standing or kneeling, as established by the Conference of Bishops. However, when they communicate standing, it is recommended that they make an appropriate gesture of reverence, to be laid down in the same norms, before receiving the Sacrament.

In the United States, IGMR 160 now reads:

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 this norm.

When receiving Holy Communion standing, 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.

Before the US bishops' final vote on the American adaptations to the IGMR, the Congregation for Divine Worship had written to the Conference, noting that disturbing reports of people being denied Communion because they were kneeling had made this clarification necessary. The Holy See asked the bishops to make this explicit in their adaptation of IGMR §160.

Before the bishops voted on the proposed adaptation of §160, a bishop questioned the meaning of the term "norm". The chairman of the Bishops Committee on the Liturgy (Archbishop Oscar Lipscomb) said that "norm" is a descriptive term meaning the usual or standard practice, not a legal term. With this clarification, the bishops voted to accept the BCL's wording of the adaptation.

Since then, however, some bishops and liturgists are interpreting "norm" as implying that standing is legally obligatory. This is not the case. Some bishops -- in dioceses in the US and elsewhere -- permit kneeling to receive Communion. (Obviously, where the "Tridentine" or "indult" Mass is celebrated people always kneel to receive Communion.)

Many people find it hard to understand why any bishop would object so strongly to people kneeling.

Q. We have been told that a "simple bow of the head", amounting to a nod, is now the only gesture of reverence permitted before one receives Holy Communion. I am an extraordinary minister of Holy Communion, and I can attest that no one has ever bowed their head before receiving, although some may genuflect briefly or make the sign of the cross. I have two questions.

1) Does the IGMR directive really mean that the only permissible gesture before receiving Communion is a simple bow?

2) Since most Catholics don't have the habit of making any gesture of reverence at all before receiving, how do we persuade them to do so?

A. First a clarification: This requirement for a gesture of reverence before receiving Communion is not new. This dates from the 1967 Instruction on the Eucharist (Eucharisticum Mysterium §34), and was repeated in Inaestimabile donum (1980). However, this rule has been honored in the breach when people stand to receive, thus it was repeated in the new IGMR.

If one receives kneeling, this is already a sign of adoration (Eucharisticum Mysterium §34), so no other sign is needed. But since most people receive standing and make no sign of reverence at all, the IGMR specified that the bishops' conference decide on a gesture of reverence. So they decided on the bow, which would be simple enough that everyone could make it -- in order to make it clear that a real sign of reverence is required of all Catholics just before they receive the Blessed Sacrament.

Apparently, most bishops saw specifying the bow as restoring people's personal expression of reverence for the Sacrament they are about to receive, not to diminish it further.

A bow of the head is required; however, other traditional expressions of reverence (genuflection and sign of the cross) were not prohibited, and could be discreetly added. Indeed, the IGMR itself describes the meaning of various gestures (see sidebar page 5), and it prescribes that the priest is to genuflect before he receives Communion.

Genuflection -- brief kneeling on one knee -- is the traditional gesture of reverence to the Blessed Sacrament and also at the Incarnatus during the Creed, along with the sign of the cross. (Now we are to make a profound bow at the Incarnatus except on Christmas and the Annunciation, when we kneel.)

Generations of Catholics have genuflected and crossed themselves before entering and leaving their pews to reverence the Blessed Sacrament reserved in the tabernacle, and have made the sign of the Cross after receiving Communion. When people began receiving Communion standing in line rather than kneeling at the Communion rail, the gesture of reverence just before receiving was almost universally dropped.

Most bishops believe it is important that all Catholics express bodily their recognition of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. The minimal gesture (simple bow) is one that everyone can make and that would not impede the distribution of Communion.

The bishop is responsible for restoring a gesture of reverence before Communion within his diocese, for both clergy and laity, as a pastor is in his own parish. Parents and teachers in Catholic schools can see to it that this is explained to youngsters -- and all of us can teach by example.

Q. We recently moved to a diocese where the Mass is vastly different from our old diocese. For example, the bishop in our former diocese very recently said that the faithful are to kneel after the Agnus Dei and after receiving Communion (as we have always done). But the bishop here forbids all kneeling except during the Eucharistic Prayer, and has stated in the diocesan newspaper that the new liturgical rules for the "universal Church" mandate that everyone must stand after receiving Communion until all have received and the priest sits down. He also said the Holy Father commanded this. Can this be true? He said we are obliged to obey the bishop. Was the bishop of our former diocese wrong? How can we be obedient to both?

A. The bishop in your former diocese was correct. And it is most certainly not true that the Holy Father forbade kneeling.

The "universal" rule in IGMR 43 specifically states: "Where it is the custom that the people remain kneeling from the end of the Sanctus until the end of the Eucharistic Prayer, and before Communion when the priest says Ecce Agnus Dei, this is laudably retained".

The US bishops amended this, making these periods of kneeling part of their "adaptations", and this is incorporated in IGMR 43.3 (see sidebar page 4). Furthermore, the adaptation states that people may choose either to sit or to kneel after receiving Communion. The bishops did not vote that all should stand until everyone has received Communion, as their discussion of this item revealed.

A letter to the bishops from Cardinal Jorge Medina Estévez, prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship (October 25, 2001) stated:

In cases where the Conference of Bishops is to legislate, such legislation should be truly specific, and the law intends precisely that any particular episcopal legislation on these matters be enacted in common by the Bishops of the Conference rather than being left to be determined variously in different dioceses.

An added chapter in the current IGMR spelled out clearly what variations were within the competence of individual bishops and of conferences of bishops to make (IGMR Chapter 9, see sidebar page 3).

A few bishops favored eliminating most kneeling at Mass; but several bishops strongly expressed the hope that all would agree on the same postures and gestures for the people, precisely to avoid the problem of dramatic variation of practice among the dioceses, and they voted overwhelmingly to approve these adaptations on posture. (There were only 7 dissenting votes on the revised US adaptations when the vote was taken in November 2001.)

Though a bishop is responsible for the liturgy in his own diocese, it does not belong to him; he does not have authority to do anything he desires. He, too, must submit to higher authority - the Apostolic See. IGMR 397 makes this clear:

The principle shall be respected that each particular Church must be in accord with the Church universal....

***

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