When our daughter Alexandra was a toddler, we attended the Methodist church with my parents one Sunday morning. She preceded us down the aisle and genuflected deeply and crossed herself before entering the pew, as she did every Sunday at church — eliciting amused smiles from the grownups. (Later her father quipped that she was reverencing the “Real Absence”.) But, of course, it had never occurred to her not to genuflect before entering the pew. It was a habit she learned early, even if she did not understand the reason for her gesture of reverence.
On another occasion, a cousin was visiting us with her two little girls, and we were all kneeling in our pew before Mass began, praying the Rosary. The two-year-old knelt with us, and suddenly began to cry. I had a hunch what was the matter — so I handed her a Rosary. She was instantly calm, and began to finger the beads, her head bowed reverently. Though she was far too young to know what the Rosary was, or the reason we were kneeling in prayer before Mass, she did understand that it was important, and she wanted to be a part of it.
These tiny children did not and could not understand fully the symbolism of what they did, of course. Nevertheless, their desire to express reverence as they had seen others do was beyond question. If inchoate, their acts of worship were no less powerfully expressive.
Ritual Signs and Gestures
In Sacramentum Caritatis, Pope Benedict stressed the need for formation and instruction about the Sacred Mysteries of the Eucharist (“mystagogical catechesis”), so that Catholic people will more fully understand and be able to unite themselves interiorly with the action of the Eucharist. The Holy Father specifically mentions signs and gestures.
“The Church’s great liturgical tradition teaches us that fruitful participation in the liturgy requires that one be personally conformed to the mystery being celebrated, offering one’s life to God in unity with the sacrifice of Christ for the salvation of the whole world. For this reason, the Synod of Bishops asked that the faithful be helped to make their interior dispositions correspond to their gestures and words. Otherwise, however carefully planned and executed our liturgies may be, they would risk falling into a certain ritualism. Hence the need to provide an education in eucharistic faith capable of enabling the faithful to live personally what they celebrate….” (§64)
Part of this instruction about the mystery of the Eucharist, the pope writes, involves the meaning of ritual gestures:
“A mystagogical catechesis must also be concerned with presenting the meaning of the signs contained in the rites. This is particularly important in a highly technological age like our own, which risks losing the ability to appreciate signs and symbols. More than simply conveying information, a mystagogical catechesis should be capable of making the faithful more sensitive to the language of signs and gestures which, together with the word, make up the rite.” (§64, b. Original emphasis.)
One of the mistakes in implementing the liturgical changes following the Second Vatican Council was downplaying, often eliminating, traditional gestures of Catholic ritual — physical actions that express our faith. Exactly why this happened is not easy to explain, but one reason was a kind of super-rational approach to worship that prevailed in the years following the Council. Some thought that such ritual gestures as kneeling, genuflecting, bowing, making the sign of the cross, and striking the breast were mindless habits without real meaning, empty gestures possibly tainted with superstition. Many liturgists (and priests and catechists) stressed understanding the “why” of everything we do in worship — which is a good idea in itself, but when overemphasized it can (and often did) lead to rejecting anything one does not completely understand: if I don’t get it, I won’t do it. According to this view, the rational always trumps the ritual.
Some liturgists viewed the bodily actions that had traditionally accompanied Catholic worship as examples of the “vain repetition” that Protestants criticized (another example is the Rosary, with its repeated prayers), so eliminating the “meaningless” bodily actions of Catholic worship was considered a nod toward ecumenism.
A misguided view of “updating” Catholic worship also led to the elimination of these distinctive symbolic actions, which were no longer seen as an integration of body and soul in authentic worship. Lost in all this was the idea that these bodily actions express both a personal and communal response to the Mystery of Faith and to the sacramental world the Liturgy represents — and that these actions are a means of uniting all believers with the sacramental life of the Church. Instead, they were thought to be prompted only by subjective piety and an overly sentimental sense of devotion. Many liturgists had come to regard these ritual gestures as liturgical debris accumulated over the centuries — debris that obscured the pure form of Christian worship and that needed to be removed. The result gives a new meaning to “ritual cleansing”.
Another contributing factor was that before the Council some gestures — such as striking the breast during the Confiteor (“mea culpa” -“through my fault”) or at the “Domine non sum dignus” (“Lord, I am not worthy”) just before Communion — were not made by the congregation. These prayers were said inaudibly by clergy and altar servers only, and only they made these gestures. After the Council, when the vernacular translation changed these prayers and eliminated the triple repetitions, the accompanying gestures were simply discontinued, even those explicitly indicated in the rubrics. Thus, lacking the example of the priests and servers, the people in the congregation never took up this practice.
Only a few ritual gestures by the people remain in general practice today. Among these few are making the sign of the cross with holy water when entering or leaving the church, genuflecting before entering or leaving the pew, and kneeling briefly in prayer before Mass begins.
Some gestures of the people were explicitly included in the revised liturgical books: striking the breast during the Confiteor (at “through my fault”), bowing or genuflecting during the Creed at the Incarnatus (“and was made man”) and making a gesture of reverence before receiving Communion while standing. But these rubrics were generally ignored, and none of these gestures were commonly observed in Catholic parishes. Even the gesture of reverence before receiving Communion, though this is specifically mentioned in the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, is by no means universally observed — not even after the emphasis the US bishops gave this in 2002, by deciding that “a simple bow of the head” fulfills this requirement.
The origin of most of these symbolic gestures that are integral to Catholic worship — a wordless liturgical language — is, in many cases, lost in history. A basic vocabulary would include genuflecting toward tabernacle, bowing the head at the name of Jesus and when the names of the Trinity are pronounced (the Doxology, or “Glory be…”), along with bowing toward the crucifix, striking the breast and making the sign of the cross. They do have meaning and significance as powerful signs of worship even if the way this happens is only dimly understood.
The vocabulary of ritual gestures Catholics make during worship is by now, quite clearly, endangered — as has happened with other unwritten languages. As there are relatively few explicit rules (and even these are often not followed), little uniformity of practice, and considerable confusion, it seems worthwhile to compile a sort of “dictionary” of ritual gestures, their meaning and grammar, in order to relearn our historic language of ritual worship.
Bowing at the Name of Jesus
The origin of bowing the head at the mention of the Holy Name of Jesus is scriptural, found in Philippians 2:10: “That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth”. This bow was mandated at the Second Ecumenical Council of Lyons convened by Pope Gregory X in 1274:
“Those who assemble in church should extol with an act of special reverence that Name which is above every Name, than which no other under Heaven has been given to people, in which believers must be saved, the Name, that is, of Jesus Christ, Who will save His people from their sins. Each should fulfill in himself that which is written for all, that at the Name of Jesus every knee should bow; whenever that glorious Name is recalled, especially during the sacred Mysteries of the Mass, everyone should bow the knees of his heart, which he can do even by a bow of his head.” (Constitutions §25)
The Sign of the Cross
One of the principal gestures of Christian worship is the sign of the cross — tracing the cross on our body by touching our head, abdomen, left and right shoulder signifies our salvation through Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, a reminder of our baptism, and of our commitment to Christ. It is also a sign of our worship of the triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. (In the Orthodox churches, the sign of the cross is made with the thumb and first two fingers together, symbolic of the Trinity, and the right shoulder is touched before the left shoulder.)
For this reason, we make the sign of the cross whenever the sacred name of God (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) is invoked, either in acclamation or blessing or absolution. We make the sign of the cross following the confession of sins, because the absolution is made in the name of the Trinity and because it is the cross of Christ that makes possible our forgiveness. Making the sign of the cross before and after we receive Communion signifies that in the sacrament of the Eucharist, we recognize Christ crucified, risen, and present with us. We make the sign of the cross at the blessing at the very end of the liturgy because the blessing is made in the name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Father Romano Guardini’s little book Sacred Signs described some of these gestures in detail: kneeling, folding the hands, striking the breast, standing, even walking.
The sign of the cross, Father Guardini explains, is the “Sign of the universe and the sign of our redemption”.
“On the cross Christ redeemed mankind. By the cross He sanctifies man to the last shred and fiber of his being. We make the sign of the cross before we pray to collect and compose ourselves and to fix our minds and hearts and wills upon God. We make it when we finish praying in order that we may hold fast the gift we have received from God. In temptations we sign ourselves to be strengthened; in dangers, to be protected. The cross is signed upon us in blessings in order that the fullness of God’s life may flow into the soul and fructify and sanctify us wholly.
Think of these things when you make the sign of the cross. It is the holiest of all signs. Make a large cross, taking time, thinking what you do. Let it take in your whole being — body, soul, mind, will, thoughts, feelings, your doing and not-doing — and by signing it with the cross strengthen and consecrate the whole in the strength of Christ, in the name of the triune God.”
Striking the Breast
The gesture of striking the breast expresses sorrow, unworthiness, extreme humility. For Christians, this ritual gesture expresses our contrition, our sense of sinfulness and unworthiness before God.
Father Guardini also sees in this gesture an interior meaning that calls us to repentance: “To strike the breast is to beat against the gates of our inner world in order to shatter them”, he writes. “The blow also is to wake us up. It is to shake the soul awake into the consciousness that God is calling…. She reflects, repents and is contrite”.
Kneeling is an almost universal ritual gesture of homage, honor, reverence and worship. There are many, many biblical references to kneeling in both the Old and New Testaments, and these passages reveal that the gesture of kneeling is a very ancient, multivalent sign that expresses worship, respect, willing obedience, prayer, reverence, petition, supplication and homage. Kneeling has from time immemorial been a customary ritual posture in both public and private worship. (For a list of biblical citations, see “Why don’t they want us to kneel at Mass?” AB, April 2002.)
As Bishop Thomas Olmsted observed in his article “Knees to Love Christ” (AB, May 2005), “What we do with our knees gives evidence of what we believe in our hearts.”
“When we kneel down beside the bed of a dying person, when we stand up for the dignity of the unborn child, when we genuflect before Christ in the Blessed Sacrament, we say louder than any rhetoric what matters most in our lives. Knees express what we believe and make clear what we will live and die for.
Not surprisingly, then, knees play an important role in the Church’s Sacred Liturgy, especially during the season of Lent. What we do with our knees during worship is anything but trivial. It rivals in importance what we do with our voices and our ears, what we do with our hands and our hearts.”
Although kneeling, especially during the Consecration and just before receiving Communion, has been customary practice in most parishes in the United States, this gesture has also been the source of some confusion and misunderstanding, as surfaced in extensive discussions in the US bishops’ conferences in the late 1990s. Before the Council people generally knelt throughout the entire Low Mass.
In his chapter “The Body and the Liturgy” from The Spirit of the Liturgy, then-Cardinal Ratzinger describes in some detail the various forms of kneeling, their biblical origins and meanings. He also observed:
“Kneeling does not come from any culture — it comes from the Bible and its knowledge of God. The central importance of kneeling in the Bible can be seen in a very concrete way. The word proskynein alone occurs fifty-nine times in the New Testament, twenty-four of which are in the Apocalypse, the book of the heavenly Liturgy, which is presented to the Church as the standard for her own Liturgy.[…]
It may well be that kneeling is alien to modern culture — insofar as it is a culture, for this culture has turned away from the faith and no longer knows the One before whom kneeling is the right, indeed the intrinsically necessary gesture. The man who learns to believe learns also to kneel, and a faith or a liturgy no longer familiar with kneeling would be sick at the core. Where it has been lost, kneeling must be rediscovered, so that, in our prayer, we remain in fellowship with the apostles and martyrs, in fellowship with the whole cosmos, indeed in union with Jesus Christ Himself.”
Relearning Ritual Language
Though ritual gestures are intrinsically acts by which all people physically express worship (an external and visible sign of an internal and spiritual reality), the ritual gestures that appear in the Roman Missal directives, with a few exceptions, apply to clergy. Even in the current revised liturgical books there are very few indications of ritual gestures for the people — although this may seem ironic in light of the strong emphasis placed on “active participation” of the people at Mass in the liturgical reform both before and after the Council.
In the years preceding the Council, personal Missals were produced for people to use during Mass. These Missals reflect the efforts of the Liturgical Movement to advance the laity’s understanding of the Church’s liturgy, and to intensify their experience of the sacred action. The Missals included texts in both Latin and in English translation, in order to enhance worshippers’ understanding of the Mass. They often included at least some specific gestures for the laity, which were usually the same as those made by the clergy or altar servers.
In the popular 1961 Maryknoll Missal, for example, some indications are given for the congregation’s gestures, especially during a “dialogue” Mass, in which the people made responses and said the Creed, the Sanctus, Pater Noster, Agnus Dei, etc. But there was no uniformity among the different editions of these Missals.
Considering the variations, and that custom had been the only “rule” governing ritual actions of the laity at Mass, perhaps it is not surprising that inserting “rubrics for the people” that would have specified their gestures of reverence during the Mass was almost entirely neglected in the new liturgical books following the Council. This remains so today.
Yet the Council’s Constitution on the Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, had explicitly stressed the importance of this aspect of the liturgical reform.
As we read in the first chapter of Sacrosanctum Concilium, active participation expressly includes “actions, gestures, and bodily attitudes”. Moreover, rubrics are to be provided for the people’s parts.
30. To promote active participation, the people should be encouraged to take part by means of acclamations, responses, psalmody, antiphons, and songs, as well as by actions, gestures, and bodily attitudes. And at the proper times all should observe a reverent silence.
31. The revision of the liturgical books must carefully attend to the provision of rubrics also for the people’s parts. (In libris liturgicis recognoscendis, sedulo attendatur ut rubricae etiam partes fidelium praevideant.)
Though the revised liturgical books largely neglected rubrics for the congregation’s gestures during Mass, their principal postures (standing, sitting, kneeling) are specified in the General Instruction of the Roman Missal:
“§43. The faithful should stand from the beginning of the Entrance chant, or while the priest approaches the altar, until the end of the Collect; for the Alleluia chant before the Gospel; while the Gospel itself is proclaimed; during the Profession of Faith and the Prayer of the Faithful; from the invitation, Orate, fratres (Pray, brethren), before the prayer over the offerings until the end of Mass, except at the places indicated below.”
“They should, however, sit while the readings before the Gospel and the responsorial Psalm are proclaimed and for the homily and while the Preparation of the Gifts at the Offertory is taking place; and, as circumstances allow, they may sit or kneel while the period of sacred silence after Communion is observed.”
“In the dioceses of the United States of America, they should kneel beginning after the singing or recitation of the Sanctus until after the Amen of the Eucharistic Prayer, except when prevented on occasion by reasons of health, lack of space, the large number of people present, or some other good reason. Those who do not kneel ought to make a profound bow when the priest genuflects after the consecration. The faithful kneel after the Agnus Dei unless the Diocesan Bishop determines otherwise.”
The GIRM also directs:
“When the Entrance chant is concluded, the priest stands at the chair and, together with the whole gathering, makes the Sign of the Cross.” (§50)
Concerning the gesture of reverence to be made by each person before receiving Holy Communion: though this directive was included in the earlier GIRM, it was neither widely nor uniformly observed. Some people made the sign of the cross and/or genuflected before they received. Most did nothing. For most people, this was a new idea. When standing to receive Communion became the norm, rather than kneeling, there was no effort to explain to the people that making a sign of reverence as we are about to receive the Body of Christ should be retained — even though this sign would no longer be kneeling.
In the current GIRM there is an “American adaptation” to §160 that is more specific:
“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.”
There has been an encouraging increase in people’s practice of making a gesture of reverence before receiving Communion since this was emphasized by the bishops when the new version of the GIRM came into effect. However, nearly seven years later, it is by no means universally observed. So there is more teaching and learning to be done. The list of gestures and postures that accompanies this article is intended to provide a useful review.
The ritual gestures we make during worship are, as Father Guardini observed, “a form of speech by which the plain realities of the body say to God what its soul means and intends.”
By our ritual gestures — this “body language” — we unite the physical and mental/spiritual aspects of our worship of the Lord, and express our unity with Him with our entire being. Recalling this may help remind each of us to make the effort to restore this ineffable and powerful “form of speech” in our own acts of worship. With our bodies and our minds united, we express our love for Christ and witness to others His love for all.
Bibliography and Resources
Father Romano Guardini, Sacred Signs. English translation. St. Louis: Pio Decimo Press, 1956. Accessible online in the EWTN document library.
Father Cassian Folsom, OSB, “Sacred Signs and Active Participation at Mass”, AB May 1998, Father Folsom’s article makes use of Father Guardini’s monograph.
Helen Hull Hitchcock and Susan Benofy, “Every Knee should bow — but when?” AB June 1999.
Helen Hull Hitchcock, “Why don’t they want us to kneel at Mass?”, AB April 2002. (Contains citations from Old and New Testaments on kneeling.)
Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, “The Theology of Kneeling”, from The Spirit of the Liturgy (Ignatius Press, 2000), AB November 2002.
Bishop Thomas Olmsted, “Knees to Love Christ”, AB May 2005.
Congregation for Divine Worship: Responses on kneeling to receive Communion, AB December 2002-January 2003.
See also Adoremus web section on Gesture and Posture.
Helen Hull Hitchcock (1939-2014) was editor of the Adoremus Bulletin, 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 The Politics of Prayer: Feminist Language and the Worship of God (Ignatius Press 1992), a collection of essays on issues involved in translation. She contributed essays to several books, including Spiritual Journeys, 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.
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