Apr 15, 2002

"Why don’t they want us to kneel at Mass?"

Online Edition – Vol. VIII, No. 2: April 2002

"Why don’t they want us to kneel at Mass?"

by Helen Hull Hitchcock

One of the more "neuralgic" issues that surfaced during the several years that the US bishops were considering proposals to revise the Liturgy is the matter of appropriate postures for the people during various parts of the Mass.

It had been proposed, at one point, that the people might stand instead of kneeling throughout the Eucharistic prayer, although this idea was rejected by the vote of the bishops. Some liturgists have argued, vigorously, that standing is more appropriate at Mass during the Eucharistic prayer and before and after receiving Holy Communion.

The most frequent arguments advanced for changing the long-standing custom of kneeling by the people have been these:

1. Kneeling is a penitential and private posture, whereas the Eucharist is joyful and communal; therefore, a) kneeling during the penitential rite might be introduced as an option, but b) people should stand during the Eucharistic Prayer (Canon of the Mass) as well as pre- and post-Communion.

2. Kneeling during Mass is a medieval innovation, an outgrowth of the feudal practice of kneeling in obeisance before the overlord or prince, and was unknown in Catholic worship before feudal times.

3. The "early Church" and Eastern churches did not/do not kneel. (Neither do most Protestants.) Therefore, for historical and ecumenical reasons, Catholics should now stop the customary kneeling.

4. The Church’s liturgical instructions after Vatican II eliminated kneeling from public worship because the theology of the Eucharist was radically changed by the Second Vatican Council.

5. The US bishops, in amending the General Instruction of the Roman Missal in 1969, voted to restrict kneeling only to the Eucharistic Prayer, so all other kneeling must be eliminated.

6. Only the US Church retains the practice of kneeling during Mass, so Church unity requires the elimination of kneeling. Those who persist in kneeling offend against Church unity and obedience to the bishops, and reject the Council’s new eucharistic theology.

The opinion that the Church changed the theology of the Eucharist at the Second Vatican Council is plainly untenable. That Church authorities did not intend to eradicate the traditional posture of kneeling during the Communion rite, after the Agnus Dei and after receiving Communion is clear: 1) the custom of kneeling has persisted ever since the Council; 2) a list of norms including these traditional periods of kneelings was published by the bishops’ liturgy office in 1966 (BCL Newsletter 1966); 3) the new Institutio Generalis Missalis Romani §43 reaffirms that where it is the custom to kneel throughout the Eucharistic prayer this is "laudably retained".

Following the Council, in 1966, the Newsletter of the US bishops’ liturgy office re-printed an earlier (1964) chart on postures during Mass, including kneeling at the customary places. The traditional kneeling has been retained ever since — with few recent exceptions. (The confusing circumstances surrounding the bishops’ vote on the 1969 "adaptation" of GIRM 21 that is so often invoked in support of eliminating kneeling except during the Eucharistic Prayer were explored in "Every Knee Should Bow – But When?", AB June 1999.)

It is simply untrue that kneeling during Mass is unique to the US. In Scotland, for instance, people kneel almost throughout the entire Mass — including kneeling at the Communion rail to receive Holy Communion — as was the universal practice during a "low Mass" before the Council. Elsewhere in Europe, in this writer’s experience, people generally kneel at least during the Consecration — unless prevented by the cramped arrangement of seating — and often, as well, before and after Communion until the Blessed Sacrament is placed in the tabernacle, when they sit.

Is reverence divisive?

Recent efforts to prohibit kneeling has met with considerable resistance from the pews — and from many bishops as well. In places where people have been ordered to stand until after everyone has received Holy Communion, worshippers feel manipulated, and torn between their desire to be obedient to their priest or bishop and their desire to show reverence for Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament.

Although many Catholics were very encouraged to hear bishops publicly defending the practices of kneeling and of reverencing the Blessed Sacrament at the November 2001 bishops’ meeting, and were much relieved to learn that the bishops had explicitly voted to include kneeling after the Agnus Dei and after reception of Holy Communion in their proposed adaptation of IGMR 43, this action of the conference is being ignored by some priests and bishops.

With no sense of irony, the agents of "progressive" change call the people who wish to retain their custom of kneeling "divisive".

It has become apparent, in reviewing more than three decades of opinions of "progressive" liturgists, that the desire to suppress kneeling is closely related to a vigorous anti-hierarchical impulse. The goal is to eradicate the distinction between the priest (who re-presents the sacrifice of Christ and, indeed, personifies the One Priest in the celebration of Mass) and the congregation of worshippers who receive Christ in the Eucharist. (This goal is also visible in the radical re-orienting of the interiors of many renovated churches.)

Again, ironically, leaders who hold such views often employ coercive tactics to gain compliance — a method that would seem deeply inconsistent with their radically egalitarian theories about the nature of the Church. 

Coercion vs. "pastoral prudence"

In a recent column in Our Sunday Visitor, Monsignor Francis Mannion observed that a pastor who insists that people go to Communion starting from the back row to the front and who requires everyone to stand until after all have received Communion (he calls this a "liturgical fad"), "is clearly arbitrarily adjusting standard liturgical practices to his own particular tastes – and requiring the members of the congregation to indulge him. That he would resort to ‘insisting’ suggests a lapse in pastoral prudence and wisdom", Msgr. Mannion said ["Are we supposed to stand throughout Communion?", OSV February 24, 2002, p 16).

Questions about the intentions of the Holy See’s General Instruction (§43), which permits standing in certain circumstances, have been answered by a letter from the Congregation for Divine Worship in response to an American bishop’s question. The letter expressly said that the Holy See did not intend that the people’s kneeling should be eliminated. (See letter from the Congregation for Divine Worship published in AB Dec/Jan 2001 issue.)

This is hardly surprising. The Holy See is generally very hesitant to impose rules that might restrict authentic expressions of any culture. And kneeling as an act of reverence and worship of God is very deeply imbedded in the culture of both the Old and the New Covenants.

What does the Bible say?

The following citations from the Bible show that kneeling did not originate in feudal times as an expression of servility of serfs to their master (as some liturgists still contend, although it could just as well be argued that the practice of kneeling before a feudal Lord originated with kneeling before God); and that this posture is by no means merely penitential.

As these biblical passages reveal, the gesture of kneeling is a very ancient, multivalent sign which expresses worship, respect, willing obedience, prayer, reverence, petition, supplication and homage. Kneeling has from time immemorial been a customary posture in both public and private worship.

Kneeling in the Old and New Testaments

Genesis 41:43 – …and he [Pharaoah] made him [Joseph] to ride in his second chariot; and they cried before him, "Bow the knee"! Thus he set him over all the land of Egypt. [respect, obedience to a ruler]

I Kings 8:54 – Now as Solomon finished offering all this prayer and supplication to the LORD, he arose from before the altar of the LORD, where he had knelt with hands outstretched toward heaven [prayer, supplication]

I Kings 19:18 – Yet I will leave seven thousand in Israel, all the knees which have not bowed down to Baal, and every mouth that has not kissed him. [worship, reverence]

II Kings 1:13 – And the third captain of fifty went up, and fell on his knees before Elijah and entreated him, "O man of God, I pray you…" [supplication]

II Chronicles 6:13 – Solomon had made a bronze platform five cubits long, five cubits wide, and three cubits high, and had set it in the court; and he stood upon it. Then he knelt upon his knees in the presence of all the assembly of Israel, and spread forth his hands toward heaven [public worship, invocation, reverence to God]

Ezra 9:5 – And at the evening sacrifice I rose from my fasting, with my garments and my mantle rent, and fell upon my knees, and spread out my hands to the Lord my God. [penitence, supplication]

Daniel 6:10 – When Daniel knew that the document [condemning him to the den of lions] had been signed, he went to his house where he had windows in his upper chamber open toward Jerusalem; and he knelt on his knees three times a day and prayed and gave thanks before his God as he had done previously. [petition, worship]

Isaiah 45:23 – By myself I have sworn, from my mouth has gone forth in righteousness a word that shall not return: ‘To me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear.’ [public worship, reverence to God]

Psalm 95:6 – O come, let us worship and bow down, let us kneel before the LORD, our Maker! [public worship, reverence to and humility before God]

Matthew 8:2 – …and behold, a leper came to him and knelt before him, saying, "Lord, if you will, you can make me clean". [prayer, supplication]

Matthew 9:18 – While he was thus speaking to them, behold, a ruler came in and knelt before him, saying, "My daughter has just died; but come and lay your hand on her, and she will live". [prayer, petition]

Matthew 15:25 – But she came and knelt before him, saying, "Lord, help me". [prayer, petition, supplication]

Matthew 17:14, 15 – And when they came to the crowd, a man came up to him [Jesus] and kneeling before him said "Lord, have mercy on my son, for he is an epileptic…" [homage, supplication]

Mark 10:17 – And as he [Jesus] was setting out on his journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, "Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life"? [homage, humility]

Mark 15:19 – And they struck his head with a reed, and spat upon him, and they knelt down in homage to him. [mock worship]

Luke 22:41 – And he [Jesus] withdrew from them [his disciples] about a stone’s throw, and knelt down and prayed [worship, supplication]

Acts 7:60 – And he [Stephen] knelt down and cried with a loud voice, "Lord, do not hold this sin against them". And when he had said this, he fell asleep. [petition]

Acts 9:40 – But Peter put them all outside and knelt down and prayed; then turning to the body he said, "Tabitha, rise". And she opened her eyes, and when she saw Peter she sat up. [prayer, invocation, petition]

Acts 20:36 – And when he [Paul] had spoken thus, he knelt down and prayed with them all. [public worship]

Romans 11:4 – But what is God’s reply to him? "I have kept for myself seven thousand men who have not bowed the knee to Baal". [worship, reverence]

Romans 14:11 – for it is written, "As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall give praise to God". [reverence, public worship]

Ephesians 3:14, 15 – For this reason I [Paul] bow my knee unto the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you …" [reverence, petition]

Philippians 2:10 – that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth [reverence, worship, homage]

[Revised Standard Version-Catholic Edition]

What does kneeling really mean? Why do people want to kneel during Mass?



Helen Hull Hitchcock

Helen Hull Hitchcock (1939-2014) was editor of the <em>Adoremus Bulletin</em>, which she co-founded. She was also the founding director of Women for Faith & Family and editor of its quarterly journal, Voices. She published many articles and essays in a wide range of Catholic journals, and authored and edited <em>The Politics of Prayer: Feminist Language and the Worship of God</em> (Ignatius Press 1992), a collection of essays on issues involved in translation. She contributed essays to several books, including <em>Spiritual Journeys</em>, a book of “conversion stories” (Daughters of St. Paul). Helen lectured in the US and abroad, and appeared frequently on radio and television, representing Catholic teaching on issues affecting Catholic women, families, and Catholic faith and worship.