Online Edition Vol. V, No. 4: June 1999
Every Knee Should Bow But When?
Uncertainty Surrounds the Postures of the People During the Liturgy of the Eucharist
by Helen Hull Hitchcock and Susan Benofy
Therefore…at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth. (Philippians 2:10)
If the name of Christ should be so honored, certainly His Real Presence in the Eucharist calls for no less. Catholics have for many centuries expressed their reverence for the Eucharist by kneeling at Mass, especially during those parts when the Body and Blood of Christ was present under the form of bread and wine on the altar.
At present there is much confusion about the rules, wide variation in practice among dioceses and parishes, and much misunderstanding, disagreement and disunity. But recently there has been a strong move to change this practice.
Controversy over posture during the liturgy came to the fore during the American bishops’ discussions of the proposed International Commission on English in the Liturgy (ICEL) revision of the Sacramentary. Though many liturgists had urged a change of posture to standing throughout the Liturgy of the Eucharist, including the Eucharistic Prayer, surveys of bishops showed that there was little support for such a change.
Frustrated in their attempts to effect this change in customary Catholic practice, liturgists have discovered that standing is the preferred posture for all public prayer in the General Instruction for the Roman Missal (GIRM) § 21. There is a concerted effort to enforce this change in posture. An article in Modern Liturgy in November 1994 illustrates this point. Its author, Carmen Vinella, is identified as director of the office of worship for the diocese of Oakland.
Vinella notes that there was a discussion of posture during the Eucharistic Prayer during the 1992 Federation of Diocesan Liturgical Commissions (FDLC) National Meeting. Father Ronald Krisman, then director of the secretariat of the Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy (BCL), "suggested that the question of the posture during the eucharistic prayer be left to those working on the revision of the Roman Missal. He further suggested that the diocesan worship offices focus on fostering the posture of standing during the communion rite." The worship office of the Los Angeles archdiocese decided to implement Father Krisman’s idea by including articles on standing in its own newsletter and encouraging parishes to establish this posture for the Communion Rite.
Article Provoked Strong Reaction
Vinella’s article provoked a strong reaction, according to ML’s editor, Nick Wagner. In the August 1995 issue Wagner discussed the criticism, indicating that many people had "lambasted Vinella and me for promoting a standing posture during the eucharistic prayer". (Most people tend to see the question of posture in both the Eucharistic Prayer and the Communion Rite as a single issue, advocating either kneeling or standing for both.)
Did the bishops, in fact, specify changing from kneeling to standing and/or ask for different postures for these two parts of the Mass? It may be useful to review the practice of kneeling during the Eucharistic Prayer and during the Communion rite (after the Agnus Dei and following reception of Holy Communion) before Vatican II, and through the various stages of the postconciliar reform.
Before the Council
For more than a thousand years, Catholic people have knelt during public worship. For many centuries they knelt through most of the Mass, especially at the "low Mass", which was recited, not sung.
As early as the late nineteenth century some liturgical scholars were convinced, based on the sketchy evidence from the first centuries of the Church, that it was not originally the custom for people to kneel during any part the liturgy. Their research indicated that kneeling at Mass, though apparently not unknown, did not become a general practice until the early Middle Ages when doctrine about the nature of the Eucharist was more fully developed.
There was no attempt to change people’s customary posture during Mass until the late 1950s. Most pre-conciliar writers on liturgical theology and practice, however, were concerned that most Catholics who attended ("assisted at") Mass were not appropriately engaged spiritually, intellectually or even physically, in the most central and significant action of the Church: the celebration of Mass. Catholics who recall the standard celebration of Mass before the Council, especially the "low Mass", recall that they knelt throughout the Mass, with few exceptions. Since they did not hear the priest’s words, did not make the responses (which were usually made by the altar boy), did not even participate in the chants at a sung Mass (singing was done by the choir), nor participate directly in any part of the Mass except to receive Communion, it is not surprising that they knelt throughout the Mass. Catholics usually said private prayers as they knelt during the Mass. Furthermore, the rubrics in the Roman Missal applied to priests and clergy, not the laity. People apparently learned largely by imitation when they were supposed to stand, sit or kneel during Mass.
The scholars and theologians of the pre-conciliar liturgical movement, convinced that Catholic people should be more deeply involved in the sacred action at Mass, urged that the people be encouraged to follow the Mass in printed missals, to make the responses to the prayers, and to participate with the choir in singing chants and hymns. One dimension of the people’s genuine engagement in the celebration of the Eucharist was their posture during the different parts of the Mass.
The liturgical movement before the Council thus advocated standing during parts of the Mass where this was seen as expressing more fully the congregation’s deeper engagement in the sacred action. In the opinion of many leaders of the pre-conciliar liturgical reform, the most appropriate posture for public liturgical prayer was standing; although before the Second Vatican Council no one suggested that kneeling should be discontinued.
Kneeling was recognized as a bodily expression not only of penitence and supplication, but also of reverence and adoration. And these two attitudes are so closely related as to be inseparable. An attitude of reverence presupposes an acute awareness of one’s humility or unworthiness relative to the object of worship. True reverence and adoration are thus intrinsically hierarchically ordered. In our secular, egalitarian culture which rejects both hierarchy and the concept of personal sin while virtually deifying the Self, people may find it very difficult to experience either true humility or true reverence.
Kneeling Universal Before Council
Some liturgical experimentation before the Council likely focused on posture, especially in Europe, where the liturgical movement originated and flourished. Nevertheless, kneeling during most of the Mass, from the beginning of Mass to the Gospel and during the entire Canon of the Mass and Communion rite, was virtually universal among Catholics until after Second Vatican Council.
Although it was said that the posture of the faithful should be the same as the "clergy in choir" (that is, clergy who were not the celebrant), there were few if any official rules for the posture of the faithful. (The clergy in choir also knelt during the Communion of the Faithful).
Some minor changes in the rubrics in 1955 were reflected in a 1957 edition of the Saint Joseph Missal, which instructed people to kneel at the ringing of the bell at the end of the Sanctus until the end of the distribution of Communion. This missal instructs people to sit after the priest’s prayer after purification of vessels, to kneel again for the final blessing and to stand for the Last Gospel.
More changes were initiated in 1960. The popular 1961 Maryknoll Missal, "revised in strict conformity with the General Decree of the Sacred Congregation of Rites, dated July 26, 1960", included rubrics for the clergy with the Latin text, and for the people in the English text on the facing page. Minor variations between the "high" and "low" Mass celebrations were indicated. Now, people knelt from the beginning of Mass, stood for the Gloria, sat during the reading of the Epistle and stood at the Gospel; they sat for the sermon, stood for the Creed, sat for the Offertory, and stood for the Preface. At the Sanctus bell, the congregation knelt throughout the Canon of the Mass, and remained kneeling through the Lord’s Prayer, the Peace, the Agnus Dei, after reception of Communion until the Last Gospel, when they stood.
According to the Handbook for the New Rubrics by then-Father Frederick McManus, published on the issuance of the new rubrics,
"No mention is made of the positions to be taken by the congregation during solemn and high Mass. Since this was not referred to in the old rubrics, it is not surprising that nothing was added. The faithful may take the same position as the clergy in choir, since these are considered appropriate to the meaning of the several parts of holy Mass". [p 191 Handbook for the New Rubrics, 1961. Baltimore: Helicon Press.]
Father McManus, who provided the nihil obstat for the 1961 Maryknoll Missal, was a member of the canon law faculty at Catholic University. He was appointed a member of the Preparatory Commission for the Second Vatican Council in 1961, was a peritus at the Council, and in 1965 he became director of the secretariat of Bishops Commission on the Liturgical Apostolate when it was first officially constituted by the bishops’ conference. He remained in this position for ten years, and is still a consultor to the BCL.
In his 1961 Handbook, Father McManus said that the low Mass norm that those assisting (including the congregation) should kneel through the entire Mass was not official:
It is therefore legitimate and desirable that at low Masses which are celebrated with active congregational participation some adaptation of the norms for chanted Masses should be introduced.
In many places this has already been done at dialogue Masses which follow the basic rules of posture given above, with a somewhat longer period of kneeling at the Consecration, usually until the Canon is completed with the Amen. There is the greatest liberty in this, although the tradition of standing for the solemn prayer of the Collect and for the preface and Pater noster should be maintained.
Clearly, kneeling during the entire Communion rite is a deeply ingrained practice of Catholics. But just as clearly, even before the Council there was an attempt to "correct" the posture of the people. Pre-conciliar changes, however, were aimed at making the posture of prayer express more appropriately the distinct parts of the Mass. There was no hint, then, that people should not be on their knees during the Canon (Eucharistic Prayer) and Communion rite; nor was it claimed at first that the Council had fundamentally and radically changed the theology of the Eucharist. That would follow, though, soon after the Council ended. The main problem before the Council seemed to be that although there was general agreement among liturgical scholars that there should be some changes in posture by the people during Mass, there was not a uniform view of precisely what should be changed or why.
1963-1969: Time of Transition
The period between the 1963 vote on the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, and the promulgation of the New Order of Mass in 1969 was a time of transition and confusion.
The vernacular languages were introduced into more and more parts of the Mass, and the rites were modified and simplified. The American bishops twice published norms for the postures of the people at Mass during these years.
In November 1964, the Bishops’ Commission on the Liturgical Apostolate (later the Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy) published a booklet, The Use of the Vernacular at Mass which gave directions on the manner of reading and praying, the use of readers, the melodies to be used if prayers were sung, and a list of which parts of the Mass were to be said in Latin and which might be said in English.
Echoing Father McManus’ 1961 Handbook, the Commission’s directives contained a section on "Positions of the Faithful at Holy Mass". It instructed that for a high Mass the faithful were to "follow the same postures as the clergy, as these are listed in the Roman Missal in the new code of rubrics ". For the low Mass, the Commission said, the situation was more complicated. The Roman Missal had given the direction "that those present should kneel throughout, except for the Gospel". The Commission decided that, in view of the 1960 change, "now it is appropriate to adapt the postures of the sung Mass to congregational use" also for participation at low Mass. The Commission’s directive also said,
The problem has been somewhat complicated in the practical order by some liturgists, who with every good intention and quite properly stress standing as the posture most expressive of the spirit of public prayer. [The Use of the Vernacular at Mass, p. 11.]
Though the Commission directives maintained that standing was the proper posture when the people prayed or sang aloud, they also noted that there would be practical problems with long periods of standing. Therefore, the directives recommended a set of postures which were printed as a table specifying the posture for each section of the Mass. For the liturgy of the Eucharist the table read as follows:
Preparation of the Gifts
(up to the Preface)
Offertory Prayers. . . . . . . SIT
Prayer over the Gifts . . . . STAND
Eucharistic Prayer (CANON)
Preface and Sanctus . . . . STAND
After Sanctus through
the great "Amen"
concluding the Canon . . . KNEEL
Eucharistic Banquet (COMMUNION)
The Lord’s Prayer . . . . . . STAND
After Agnus Dei . . . . . . . KNEEL
and dismissal . . . . . . . . . STAND
Blessing . . . . . . . . . . . . . KNEEL
Recessional . . . . . . . . . . STAND
The Commission’s directives also specified additional kneeling for Requiem Masses and certain penitential weekdays including those of Advent and Lent. Furthermore, they said that whether Communion is received kneeling or standing depended on local custom and could be decided for a diocese by the Ordinary.
This table of postures during Mass was reprinted in the BCL Newsletter in March 1966 as a "response to various inquiries" (Monsignor McManus was then director of the BCL secretariat). Here the table is presented in two columns — for both high and low Masses. The postures specified for low Mass are identical with those given in 1964, and those for high Mass differ only in two short intervals.
The effort to correct, clarify and simplify the rubrics seemed to be adding another layer of complexity and confusion. Perhaps the apparent need to simplify the ritual was partly the motive for abolishing the "high" and "low" Masses with their separate sets of rules. But simplifying is not always simple, as experience after the Council would show.
The 1969 New Order of Mass and the GIRM
On April 3, 1969 the revised text for the Mass was promulgated by Pope Paul VI in the Apostolic Constitution Missale Romanum, along with a General Instruction for the Roman Missal [GIRM] giving detailed instructions for celebration of Mass, including directives concerning the role of the priest and various ministers, vessels and church furnishings, etc. Among its provisions was §21 on the postures of the people. The wording of this directive is complex. Instead of going through the Mass chronologically specifying the posture for each section, it first lists all the parts of the Mass during which the people should stand, then lists the parts during which they should be seated. Kneeling is specified as an exception to standing only during the Consecration.
§21 …[The faithful] should in all forms of Mass stand from the moment when the priest enters or reaches the altar until the end of Collect; also at the Alleluia before the Gospel; during the Gospel itself, the Creed and the Prayer of the Faithful; in addition from the Prayer over the Gifts until the end of Mass except where indicated below.
They should sit during the readings which precede the Gospel and during the Responsorial Psalm; for the homily, and during the Preparation of the Gifts; also, when it seems fitting, during the silence which follows the distribution of Communion. But, unless impeded by lack of space, density of the crowd or other reasonable cause, they should kneel down for the Consecration.
However, it is for the Bishops’ Conference to adapt the gestures and postures here described as suitable for the Roman Mass, so that they accord with the sensibilities of their own people…
The American Adaptation to GIRM 21 was passed by the NCCB at its November 1969 meeting. The April-May 1970 BCL Newsletter says that the bishops conference
voted that in general the directives of the Roman Missal concerning the posture of the congregation at Mass should be left unchanged, but that no. 21 of the General Instruction should be so adapted that the people kneel beginning after the singing or recitation of the Sanctus until after the Amen of the eucharistic prayer, that is, before the Lord’s Prayer.
When the provisions of GIRM 21 and this adaptation are put in a chronological table like that the bishops published in 1964, the posture of the congregation in the two tables correspond until the Agnus Dei. While GIRM does not specify kneeling from this point on to the end of the Mass, the 1964 directives show two additional periods of kneeling, the major one being from the Agnus Dei through the distribution of Communion.
The GIRM’s omission of reference to kneeling except during the Consecration, and the American Adaptation’s similar omission concerning posture after the Eucharistic Prayer may or may not have been an oversight. In any case it went unnoticed.
For thirty years, American Catholics have nearly universally retained the posture of kneeling from the end of the Agnus Dei until they go to receive Communion, and after reception of Communion until they stand for the final prayer and blessing. Exceptions to this practice have been primarily confined to situations where kneeling is difficult, such as at Masses celebrated in auditoriums, or outdoors, or in some recently built or renovated churches where the kneeling benches have been deliberately removed and where a pastor has instructed people to stand.
Proposed amendment provoked debate
During the US bishops’ 1995 discussions of the proposed revision of the ICEL Sacramentary, controversy arose over the posture during the Eucharistic Prayer. At the June 1995 NCCB meeting, the proposed American Adaptations to the Sacramentary were presented for debate and vote.
An energetic debate arose over a proposed amendment to GIRM 21 submitted by the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago. The Bernardin amendment would have changed the American Adaptation to permit standing during the Eucharistic Prayer as an optional alternative to kneeling, to be decided by parishes.
The BCL accepted the Bernardin amendment, but said that bishops, not parishes, should make the decision. After an extensive discussion, during which several bishops vigorously supported the immemorial custom of kneeling, the BCL abruptly withdrew its proposal, thus leaving the American Adaptation of GIRM §21 in the proposed Sacramentary revision exactly as it is now and has been since November 1969.
But the common practice of kneeling after the Agnus Dei was questioned during the debate on the proposed amendment.
Monterey Bishop Sylvester Ryan raised the issue when he asked for a clarification. According to the "’69 discipline", Bishop Ryan said, "when the congregation stands for the Our Father, from then on they would continue standing throughout the entire celebration, including the time of Holy Communion", but, he noted, people are still kneeling here, in apparent disregard of the rules.
Archbishop Jerome Hanus of Dubuque, then chairman of the BCL task force that had conducted a survey of bishops on the liturgical proposals, confirmed Bishop Ryan’s understanding of the "69 discipline" (the US adaptation of girm 21); but added, "That issue didn’t come up in any of the surveys; it was not seriously considered by the task force. But we recognize the practice in our country of people kneeling before receiving Communion." Archbishop Hanus pointed out that this practice "is not according to the Editio Typica [the Latin "typical edition" of the Roman Missal] and neither according to our particular legislation".
Bishop Ryan said, "But if we’re going to be consistent no-win keeping to the ’69 determination, people stand at the Our Father. They should remain standing, then".
Archbishop Hanus again confirmed this: "That would be according to the Editio Typica and would be consistent with our other determinations", he said. "We heard no movement or desire from the bishops to add another particular legislation", he added, implying that new legislation would be necessary to permit kneeling during the Communion rite.
[From a transcript of Women for Faith & Family’s audio tapes of the June 1995 meeting.]
Kneeling: piety or "dissent"?
As the above exchange presaged, after the June 1995 meeting a determined effort was made by many liturgists to prohibit any kneeling except during the Eucharistic Prayer, and vigorous arguments were mounted to eradicate even this.
The prevailing opinion in the liturgical journals is that kneeling is solely a penitential posture (at the June 1995 meeting the BCL had even proposed an amendment to permit kneeling during the penitential rite); and that kneeling for the Communion rite is a kind of "dissent" from rules firmly established by the 1969 Roman Missal. At the same time, liturgists acknowledge that this "illegal" kneeling is still widespread despite strong and sometimes coercive efforts to discourage it.
Again, the 1969 American adaptation of GIRM 21 explicitly required kneeling only during the Eucharistic Prayer, and said nothing about the kneeling during the Communion rite, which had been a deeply ingrained expression of Catholic piety and reverence for the Eucharist for centuries.
The bishops who voted in 1969 made no distinction between these two major parts of the Liturgy of the Eucharist, and gave no rationale for retaining kneeling only for the first part. Was this an oversight?
What happened in 1969?
While the motives of those who drafted GIRM 21 or the American Adaptation as they did may never be known, the explanation of how the bishops came to vote as they did may be easier to understand provided we have the patience to penetrate the tangled web of the meeting at which it happened. If the following account seems confusing, it reflects the actual confusion at the meeting.
Bishop James Malone of Youngstown was elected chairman of the Liturgy Committee during the November 1969 meeting. (Monsignor McManus was still director of the BCL secretariat, a position he would hold until 1975.)
The day after the vote, Bishop Malone issued a press statement explaining that the bishops had "voted on specific changes in worship, on the proposed translations, and on the effective date for the use of the new services". He listed the changes and called them "minor". He did not mention any change in the customary kneeling at Mass. (His statement omitted other items that appeared in the December 1969 BCL Newsletter, including the suppression of veiling of statues in Passiontide.)
Bishop Malone’s press statement said that the bishops had discussed the need to prepare the people for the coming changes in worship. A change to standing after the Agnus Dei and after receiving Communion, since it was such a striking departure from the customary practice, would seem to require such preparation.
The silence of the shepherds
But a search through the BCL newsletters for the next several years reveals no explanation of such a change. There is no chart detailing the postures like those published in 1964 and 1966. There is no reference to receiving inquiries on posture, as there had been in 1966. No rationale was ever given, either, for separating the two main parts of the Liturgy of the Eucharist in terms of posture.
Indeed, although some maintain that kneeling is a posture of reverence to the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, so that people should kneel throughout the Eucharistic Prayer as well as during the later part of the Communion Rite (as has been the abiding custom), others argue that standing is the only appropriate posture for "participatory" prayer, therefore it is appropriate for all periods of prayer at Mass. Apparently no one who holds either opinion on the matter of kneeling regards the Canon as being entirely separate from the Communion rite.
Then why the disparity between GIRM 21 and the Adaptation? Did no one notice the inconsistency or the omission?
1969 meeting featured heavy agenda, disruptions
Available accounts of the November 1969 NCCB meeting (press was not permitted in official sessions of meetings) indicate that the bishops had an extremely demanding agenda and that there was much outside disturbance and confusion at this meeting.
Two stories in the November 19, 1969 National Catholic Reporter describe groups of demonstrators in the halls clamoring for the attention of the bishops, handing out a "people’s agenda", and issuing demands.
A committee of three bishops met with more than a dozen of these groups in sometimes contentious sessions. At one point a group tried to get into the room where a general session was in progress. According to the NCR, Archbishop Philip Hannan of New Orleans dialogued with the demonstrators outside one door of the conference room while the rest of the bishops slipped out another door. Six demonstrators were arrested at the bishops’ Mass at the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception.
Calm deliberation and careful attention to detail would have been extremely difficult under the conditions described.
In addition to these disturbances, the bishops had an unusually heavy workload before them. Besides decisions on liturgical items, the bishops at this meeting established an anti-poverty program (later known as the Campaign for Human Development) and issued several statements, including one objecting to US programs of population control, a new document on celibacy, a statement on prisoners of war in Vietnam, and a telegram concerning the strike against grape growers. Furthermore, they established a new committee for the nomination of bishops, and discussed new accounting procedures for dioceses.
The two NCR articles about the proceedings devote a total of two sentences to the liturgy. However, the liturgy agenda was by no means negligible. The list of liturgical items decided at this meeting takes up almost three pages in the December 1969 BCL Newsletter. These included approving the translation of the entire Order of Mass, the Rite for Baptism of children and the Rite of Marriage. All required consideration of changes and adaptations. There were also decisions to be made about the Lectionary readings, the use of ecumenical translations for certain prayers and the date for use of the new rites.
To compound matters further, the final texts of the Rites for Marriage and Baptism were not sent to the bishops until mid-October, and the Order of Mass had been delayed by ICEL and was not sent to the bishops until October 29. They had very little time to review these new texts before voting on them.
Given the turmoil surrounding the meeting and these delays, it seems likely that many bishops were not well prepared to deal with all the proposals they were expected to approve, and relied heavily on the advice of the conference committee staffs.
There is also some indication that the bishops were given misleading information on the provisions of the adaptation of GIRM 21 in a Preliminary Inquiry .
Did the bishops know what they had done?
Liturgists Nathan Mitchell and John Leonard discuss the bishops’ 1969 vote in some detail in their 1994 book, Postures of the Assembly During the Eucharistic Prayer (Chicago: Liturgy Training Publications), including the preparation for it.
A Preliminary Inquiry was sent to the bishops in August 1969, which apparently also asked for their views on certain questions, including postures at Mass. The bishops were asked to respond to two proposals in the Preliminary Inquiry .
The first read: "That the Directives of the Roman Missal concerning the posture of the congregation at Mass should be left unchanged". The second was the present adaptation of GIRM 21 (kneeling throughout the Eucharistic Prayer.)
According to Mitchell and Leonard, 140 bishops voted on these proposals, and both proposals received an overwhelming majority of positive votes. (Proposal 1: 93 affirmative; 47 negative. Proposal 2: 135 affirmative; 5 negative.) Since the two proposals are not compatible, the vote suggests that many of the bishops were confused. The authors interpret the votes as indicating that many bishops thought the first proposal referred, not to GIRM 21 in the new Roman Missal of 1969, but to the rubrics for a Tridentine low Mass.
Thus, if this conjecture is true, a large majority of bishops wanted no change at all in the posture of the people at Mass.
According to Mitchell and Leonard, the Preliminary Inquiry stated that "the common practice in the United States differs from the revision proposed in GIRM no. 21 precisely with regard to the Eucharistic Prayer".
But the BCL’s 1964 table of postures shows that "common practice" included two additional periods of kneeling after the Eucharistic Prayer and these periods are omitted in the Adaptation of GIRM 21. Could the bishops have been misled by the wording of the Preliminary Inquiry?
Probably few if any bishops in 1969 took the trouble to make a chart to clarify the exact provisions of GIRM 21 or its adaptation. If they relied on the statement in the Preliminary Inquiry , they would surely conclude that a vote for the proposed American adaptation of GIRM 21 was a vote for no change in the people’s posture at any point in the Mass.
There is good reason to believe that this is exactly what they thought they had done.
The silence of the bishops on this point is like the dog that didn’t bark. No new instructions were given that people were to stand during the Communion rite where it had been customary to kneel neither in 1969, nor for the nearly three decades following. Obviously, there would be no reason to give new directives if no change was intended. People have continued to kneel not only for the Eucharistic Prayer but after the Agnus Dei and following Communion until the final prayer and blessing.
Most bishops support kneeling
As the discussion of kneeling at their June 1995 meeting shows, most bishops favor kneeling. One bishop who made a strong argument for kneeling emphasized the unity among Catholics in this traditional sign of reverence for the unique Presence of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament. A few bishops noted that the removal of kneeling benches in some churches discourages people from kneeling.
But the discussion did not settle the controversy nor did it stop the efforts of those who press for change. In fact, as noted above, there has been a serious effort to force people to stand when they normally kneel. The usual rationale given that standing is a more appropriate posture for praise and "participatory" prayer is insufficient to justify the extremes to which the advocates of this change sometimes go.
Kneeling benches continue to be removed from churches or not installed in new ones. Reports that worshippers who kneel during the Eucharistic Prayer have been publicly insulted, ordered to stand or get out, even refused Communion, are, sadly, not infrequent. Many Catholics have been told that they are being disobedient to "the bishops" if they kneel during Mass.
It is probably not a coincidence that some of the most determined opponents of kneeling also question or resist fundamental doctrines of the Catholic faith such as the hierarchical structure of the Church, the nature of the priesthood, the authority of the pope, and the meaning of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist.
Custom and law
Some observers have suggested that one reason for the recent feverish urgency to mandate standing throughout the Liturgy of the Eucharist may be the fear that if the customary kneeling is allowed to persist for another few months (until November 1999), it will become a legal "custom", which could have the force of law.
The relevant part of Canon 26 states, "Unless it has been specifically approved by the competent legislator, a custom contrary to the current canon law or one which is apart from canon law obtains the force of law only when it has been legitimately observed for thirty continuous and complete years…" [Emphasis added.]
The second clause of Canon 26 speaks of the force of a "centenary or immemorial custom". It can hardly be denied that kneeling in reverence to the Blessed Sacrament is an immemorial custom.
What is the status of kneeling now?
Despite the pressure and controversy, more than a few bishops have recently made clear their support for kneeling during these parts of the Mass within their own dioceses in various ways, including public directives.
In some cases, kneelers have been re-installed in churches. That a growing number of bishops are restoring Eucharistic Adoration in their dioceses is further indication of their positive response to a crisis of belief in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, and their recognition of the need to encourage reverence.
The wealth of biblical references to kneeling in prayer and adoration, both in the Old and New Testaments, are undoubtedly well known to these bishops. They also know that kneeling during public worship is a profound a part of Catholic culture and has been for at least the past millennium.
These bishops, along with countless Catholic believers, may hope that the revised Sacramentary, now being reviewed by the Holy See, will clearly reaffirm the tradition of kneeling as an expression of reverence and adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, and restore unity to Catholic practice.