May 15, 2001

To kneel or not to kneel

Online Edition – Vol. VII, No. 3: May 2001

To kneel or not to kneel

Should there be "An uprising in the pews"? This was the title of a front page story in USA Today on Easter Monday. The story, by Rick Hampson, briefly surveys the kneeling question.

Catholics, he notes, are divided on the matter: "Some decide to stand up for what they believe", Hampson puns. "Others conclude that kneeling expresses a humble piety". He observes that even as some Catholics have given up kneeling, and some Catholic churches have "gotten rid" of kneelers, some Protestant groups, mostly evangelicals, have taken up the practice.

The story quotes a Catholic woman from West Chester, Ohio, president of her parish council, who says she "never liked" kneeling and is "more comfortable" standing. There have been no kneelers in her parish church since the 1980s, and parishioners stand during the Eucharistic Prayer. "In our country you stand for the national anthem, for important things", she said.

Is kneeling supposed to be comfortable? Is respect for the flag that symbolizes our government equal to the reverence we give to God Himself truly (not symbolically) present in the Blessed Sacrament in every Catholic church and at every Catholic Mass? (Years ago, a liturgist seriously proposed that the Catholic liturgy should be like a presidential inauguration a really relevant ritual!)

USA Today quotes Gordon Lathrop, a Lutheran, who quipped, "they’re still on their knees in Lake Wobegone". Lathrop, who teaches at Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, is an editorial consultant for and frequent contributor to Worship, the Catholic liturgical journal published at Saint John’s in Collegeville, Minnesota.

USA Today’s history of kneeling consists of several prevalent myths: 1) "early Christians" did not kneel; 2) kneeling for worship originated in the Middle Ages; 3) kneeling signifies only penitence, "unworthiness, sinfulness"; 4) Catholics in Europe do not kneel because they follow the rules of the universal church, and most European churches "have nothing to kneel on but a hard floor". (We’ll save de-mythologizing these chestnuts for another time. )

Mr. Hampson is correct when he says that kneeling "has been a badge of identity" for Roman Catholics. This is precisely because it expresses what Catholics believe about the Eucharist.

It is perplexing to people outside the Church that any Catholic would willingly abandon either the expression or the belief.

–hhh

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