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Standing Up for Kneeling

by David Curtin


A defense of kneeling during the Consecration of the Mass organized along three lines — historical, liturgical, and doctrinal — corresponding to the most common and significant arguments against the tradition.

Larger Work

Catholic Insight

Publisher & Date

Catholic Insight, December 1997

"Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father" (Philippians 2:9-11).

Early in 1996, in St. Paul, Alberta, a most remarkable scene was played out at Mass in a convent chapel. Just before the Consecration, the chaplain interrupted himself, and, citing the authority of the local bishop, angrily ordered the sisters to conform to a certain liturgical regulation.

What could merit such extraordinary disciplinary action? Were the sisters using feminist language for God during the Preface dialogue? Were they entering the sanctuary and standing next to the priest at the altar? Were they dancing? All these abuses have been documented elsewhere in Canada; yet as serious as they are, there is no record of any priest or bishop having objected to them. What were the sisters up to?

In fact, they were kneeling.

The sisters in question were Missionaries of Charity – Mother Teresa’s sisters. Not known for resisting authority, in this case they were amply justified: kneeling during the Consecration is traditional in Canada; it was demanded by Mother Teresa herself; and it is actually required by universal liturgical law.

In St. Paul diocese, however, it is apparently a gravely subversive act. The reason? Raymond Roy, the recently retired bishop of St. Paul, decreed that his flock must stand throughout the Eucharistic Prayer.

Yes; it’s a mad, mad world.

The Diocese of St. Paul, unfortunately, is not alone. It is only one of a number of Canadian jurisdictions – including Victoria, Calgary, and Regina – in which kneeling during the Consecration has been abolished or made optional, in favour of standing.

There is virtually no popular demand for the change; and in fact there is considerable resistance to it in the pews. In recent years, however, professional liturgists in Canada have been calling for it persistently. In 1986, the Western Liturgical Conference (a group of diocesan liturgy directors from the Western provinces) published a paper called "Reconsideration of Postures of the Laity at the Eucharist," in which a number of arguments against the established practice were made. In 1991, an anonymous article against kneeling appeared in the March issue of the National Bulletin on Liturgy, a publication of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops.

This call for change has not gone unchallenged in scholarly circles. In February, 1989, and December, 1991, Fr. Stephen Somerville, then director of the Toronto Pastoral Centre for Liturgy, published articles defending the tradition in the newsletter Fragments. In the latter article, the Western Liturgical Conference paper was thoroughly refuted; yet the push for change has continued unabated. Priests across the country are still telling their people to stand; and this year, an anti-kneeling feature appeared in the Western Catholic Reporter, and was reprinted in The Catholic Register (May 5 and June 9, respectively). Both papers are diocesan publications.

A fresh defence of kneeling during the Consecration is therefore in order. This defence could be organized along three lines – historical, liturgical, and doctrinal – corresponding to the most common and significant arguments against the tradition. For the purposes of this article, arguments against the tradition will be taken from the National Bulletin on Liturgy (NBL) article. That article sums up the key anti-kneeling arguments quite well; and, of the articles cited above, it appeared in the most "authoritative" context.

1. Historical arguments

The NBL article claims that standing reflects "the ancient practice of the Church that Catholics do not kneel on the Day of the Resurrection, but stand as a sign of our faith that Jesus the Lord has risen from the dead and we too have been raised up out of our sins." This argument is substantiated by a reference to canon 20 of the First Council of Nicea (A.D. 325), which forbade kneeling on Sundays and on the days of Pentecost.

In an article in Homiletic and Pastoral Review (August-September, 1994), Fr. Regis Scanlon shows that this argument is irrelevant to whether kneeling during the Consecration should be abolished today. Nicea I, he argues, forbade kneeling as penitence, not kneeling as adoration; and it is kneeling as adoration which is currently at issue.

In fact, the NBL article seems to take it for granted that the Nicean prohibition concerned kneeling as penitence, where it says that in the early Church, standing signified that "we have been raised up out of our sins." Why, then, is Nicea I being used to argue against kneeling as adoration?

Moreover, even if standing best expressed faith in the Resurrection at the time of the First Council of Nicea, one could argue that kneeling is best suited to that purpose today. Fr. Scanlon points out that, inasmuch as kneeling has come to signify faith in the Real Presence, it must also signify faith in the Resurrection: "If our Eucharistic Lord is really and truly the Word in the flesh, then the Word must have risen from the dead in the flesh and...he will come again to raise us up in the flesh."

In his great encyclical letter on the liturgy, Mediator Dei, Pope Pius XII affirmed that Catholic worship has developed in the course of history, in the light of an ever-deepening understanding of the deposit of faith. He also warned against liturgical "archaism," an excessive deference to the practice of the early Church, which fails to take this development into account. (See numbers 61-63.) It seems the historical arguments against kneeling during the Consecration are partly borne of such archaism: they are based on an inadequate understanding of how the significance of kneeling has unfolded over time.

2. Liturgical arguments

(a) Kneeling as a sign of adoration

There is no doubt that kneeling during the Consecration is a posture of adoration, not penitence. In number 11 of Inaestimabile donum, the 1980 document of the Sacred Congregation for the Sacraments and Divine Worship, we are told that "when the faithful communicate kneeling, no other sign of reverence toward the Blessed Sacrament is required, since kneeling is itself a sign of adoration [my emphasis]." This is affirmed in number 1378 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

The NBL article actually admits that kneeling signifies adoration; however, it implies that this is inappropriate at Mass! "Kneeling is usually an act of adoration and individual piety," it says, "but the Eucharistic Prayer is the action of the Church offering the prayer and sacrifice of praise to God."

The Eucharistic Prayer is indeed a sacrifice of praise, as it says in the Roman Canon; but surely this does not exclude the act of adoration! Catholics ought to know this by their sensus fidei, or "sense of the faith." If anyone is uncertain, however, he should note that the Council of Trent actually anathematized those who say "that Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, is not to be adored in the holy sacrament of the Eucharist with the worship of latria, including external worship..." (DS 1656).

While it seems the Council might have been thinking of those who repudiate Eucharistic devotions outside of Mass, it is clear from the teaching of Pope Paul VI that the Council’s definition would apply to adoration at Mass as well. In his 1965 encyclical letter on the Holy Eucharist, Mysterium fidei (number 56), he wrote that "the Catholic Church has always offered and still offers to the sacrament of the Eucharist the cult of adoration, not only during Mass, but also outside it [my emphasis]."

(b) Kneeling and the unity of the Eucharistic Prayer

The NBL article argues that we should stand during the Consecration in order "to preserve the unity of and to respect the whole Eucharistic Prayer, from the preface dialogue to the Great Amen." This implies that kneeling somehow detracts from the unity of the Eucharistic Prayer, and shows inordinate "respect" for one part of the prayer over another.

1. First, it is difficult to see how kneeling during the Consecration detracts from the unity of the Eucharistic Prayer. For example, the Liturgy of the Word is a "unit"; yet we sit for the Readings and Psalm, and stand for the Gospel.

Certainly the Eucharistic Prayer is a smaller "unit" than the entire Liturgy of the Word; yet still it is rich in variety, which is deserving of recognition. (In fact, number 55 of the General Instruction on the Roman Missal says that the Eucharistic Prayer has eight "constituent parts.") "Progressive" liturgists will justify almost any departure from liturgical norms by saying that "unity is not uniformity." How ironic that they should argue against a "diversity" of postures at Mass!

2. Second, a review of anti-kneeling literature indicates that the resistance to showing special "respect" for one part of the Eucharistic Prayer is based on a dubious sacramental theology. For example, Fr. Bill Marrevee, S.C.J., lecturer in liturgy, sacramental theology, and ecumenism at St. Paul University in Ottawa, has said that in order to preserve the "integrity" of the Eucharistic Prayer, "it is important not to single out one moment or part (such as the moment or words of consecration), as more important than the rest." He has also argued that in emphasizing the importance of the Consecration – and, by extension, the Real Presence – the Church has forgotten the other ways in which Christ is present at Mass: in the Word, the priest, and the whole gathering of worshippers. ("Standing or kneeling?" and "‘Real Presence’ and the ‘Body of Christ,’" September, 1995, The Voice, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Gatineau-Hull.)

Of course, showing special "respect" for the Consecration does not indicate contempt for the rest of the Eucharistic Prayer. It is indeed a sign, however, of the belief that at the words, "this is my Body, this is my Blood," Christ Himself becomes present on the altar.

In number 1377 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, we read that "the Eucharistic presence of Christ begins at the moment of the Consecration." Most Catholics naturally assume that this makes the Consecration the high point of the Mass, and deserving of recognition as such. Christ is indeed present in the liturgy in other ways, as Fr Marrevee says; yet, as Pope Paul VI taught in Mysterium fidei (number 39), Christ is present in the Holy Eucharist in "a manner which surpasses all the others....This presence is called ‘real,’ not in an exclusive sense, as if the other kinds of presence were not real, but ‘par excellence.’"

Surely, then, it is appropriate – and even necessary – to acknowledge this truth by "external" things such as kneeling.

Pope Paul’s teaching by the way, rules out two other common arguments against kneeling during the Consecration: a) that we should stand to show the "equality" between the Holy Eucharist and the Gospel, and b) to show that the gathering of worshippers is also the "Body of Christ." The Church teaches that Christ is indeed present in the proclamation of the Gospel and in the members of His Church, but that He is supremely present in the Holy Eucharist.

(c) Kneeling as a sign of "individualism"

The NBL article seems to object to kneeling during the Consecration on the ground that such a posture is "individualistic." While individualism is indeed inappropriate in the liturgy, to say that kneeling is individualistic is quite arbitrary. Many postures are neither individual nor communal in and of themselves. Adopting them individually makes them individual; and adopting them with other people makes them communal. Kneeling in a group is no more "individualistic" than standing in a group. In fact, if any posture connotes individualism in our culture, it is standing.

(d) Kneeling and "active" participation in the liturgy

It is claimed in the NBL article that while "standing is a sign of our activity....kneeling is a sign of penitence or passivity and receptivity..." The argument that kneeling at the Consecration is a sign of penitence has been refuted above. On whether kneeling is a sign of "passivity and receptivity," it should be noted that the two dispositions are not the same, and that the latter is actually a salutary and necessary thing.

One of the foundations of the liturgical reform envisioned by the Second Vatican Council is the requirement of "full, conscious, and active participation" in the liturgy. Passivity, therefore, is certainly out of the question. Receptivity, on the other hand, is properly understood as saying "yes" to God’s grace, and is, therefore, an action – in fact, it is in a sense the most important action we finite beings can perform. It is an eminently human disposition, perfectly befitting the creature before his Creator. If in fact we kneel as a sign of receptivity, we should be doing more, not less of it.

(e) Kneeling in liturgical law

It is implied in the NBL article that conferences of bishops (and perhaps individual priests) are free to abolish kneeling, on the basis of number 21 of the General Instruction on the Roman Missal.

GIRM 21, however, says that "unless impeded by a lack of space, density of the crowd or other reasonable cause, they [the faithful] should kneel down for the Consecration." While authority is given to episcopal conferences to "adapt" liturgical postures for particular cultures, "standing is hardly an ‘adaptation’ of kneeling," as Fr. Somerville points out on page 2 of his 1991 article. Even if it were, the authority to adapt postures is given to episcopal conferences. It would seem that individual bishops do not have the authority to make such a change, let alone individual priests.

Kneeling for the Consecration, then, is required by universal liturgical law, and it is virtually certain that only Rome can change it.

3. Doctrinal arguments

The matters touched on above are not the only doctrinal issues raised by the campaign against kneeling.

(a) Implications for doctrines about the Church (ecclesiology)

The NBL article argues that we should stand during the Consecration, "to express the unity between the priest and the people of God, and to demonstrate in a more evident manner that the anaphora [Eucharistic Prayer] is the prayer of the whole Church, and not just the prayer of the priest."

Fr. Marrevee seems to go even further, arguing that the Eucharistic Prayer is "a prayer of the community, even if it is proclaimed by the presider."

1. First, careful examination of the Roman Missal reveals that the established postures do not actually suggest any kind of "inequality" between priest and faithful. The rubrics call for the priest to "genuflect in adoration" twice at this point in the liturgy, once after the consecration of the bread, and once after the consecration of the wine. He stands during the rest of the prayer for practical reasons, among other things; but clearly the established postures do reflect the baptismal equality of priest and faithful: all those taking part in the liturgy, whether ordained or not, are required to bend the knee in humble, loving recognition of what happens at the high point of the Mass.

2.Even if this were not the case, however, recognizing differences between priest and faithful is not necessarily a bad thing. According to Catholic doctrine, the priest is not simply one of the people, or even a representative of the people. He is consecrated, "set apart," and commissioned to offer sacrifice in persona Christi. Clearly, those opposed to kneeling are convinced that this aspect of the Catholic understanding of priesthood is currently overemphasized, to the detriment of appreciating the equality of the baptized; but is this really the case?

3.In fact, it seems the reverse is true. In the June, 1994 issue of the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars Newsletter, Msgr. Francis Mannion, who heads the Society for Catholic Worship, argues that the chief problem in liturgy today is actually a creeping congregationalism. In the congrega-tionalist understanding, he explains, "ordained ministry loses its irreducible character and is regarded as a function or extension of the general ministry of the congregation." (See pp. 3-4.)

Though we cannot examine his arguments in detail here, it is perhaps sufficient to ask whether anyone really believes that putting the priest on a pedestal is a serious problem today. A much more serious problem is the opposite – the rejection of the unique dignity of the ordained priesthood. Certainly the last thing the Church needs today is to avoid recognizing the differences between the priesthood and the laity.

(b) Kneeling as a sign of faith in the Real Presence

Ordinary Catholics who resist the abolition of kneeling usually defend the tradition as a sign of faith in the Real Presence of Christ in the Holy Eucharist. Number 1378 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church affirms that the posture is indeed an expression of that belief. Fr Marrevee argues in the Voice articles, however, that kneeling during the Consecration is the product of an exclusive and excessive emphasis on the Real Presence, originating in the Middle Ages.

First, the growth of Eucharistic piety in the Middle Ages is one of the glories of our Living Faith, and of Latin-rite Catholic spirituality. The twentieth-century recognition of the need to foster previously neglected things which complement that Eucharistic piety takes nothing away from this precious heritage.

Second, anyone who has attended Mass at a parish church just about anywhere in the Western world in the last three decades knows that the Church is hardly suffering from excessive emphasis on the Real Presence. The behaviour of most Catholics at Mass – priests and laypeople alike – certainly does not indicate inordinate reverence toward the Holy Eucharist. On the contrary, studies indicate that a staggering 70% of those professing Catholicism reject or are confused about the Church’s teaching on the Real Presence. One study indicates that, even among Catholics who attend Mass regularly, 63% think of the Holy Eucharist as a symbol only. (See the editorial, "How is this possible?" Catholic Insight, May, 1995.)

Kneeling is indeed a sign of faith in the Real Presence; and for that reason, it has never been as necessary as it is today.

(c) Kneeling as a sign of faith in the divinity of Christ

The NBL article argues that since "we stand when someone important enters the room" out of "respect," we ought to stand during the Eucharistic Prayer, presumably to show respect for Jesus.

The trouble with this argument is that the one who "enters the room" at the Consecration is no mere man. Conventional signs of "respect" for men are absolutely inadequate in this context, as indeed any sign of mere "respect" would be. The appropriate response to the Real Presence of Christ in the Holy Eucharist is adoration, which is the act of love reserved for God alone; and, as we have also seen, kneeling is officially recognized as a sign of adoration.

In his 1989 Fragments article, Fr. Somerville shows how kneeling in the presence of Christ has deep roots in the New Testament. In several cases – the adoration of the Magi (Mt 2:11), Jesus walking on the water (Mt 14:33), the Transfiguration (Mt 17:6), and the Ascension (Mt 28:9), among others – kneeling before Christ is clearly an act of adoration and worship, and is therefore a sign of faith in His divinity.

Cardinal Ratzinger has said that kneeling during the Consecration "attains the status of a confession of faith in Christ," and that "words could not replace such a confession." (See Feast of Faith, Ignatius Press, pp. 74-75.) It is evident that, like faith in the Real Presence, faith in the divinity of Christ is currently very weak. The tradition of kneeling during the Consecration should be seen as a unique and precious means of catechesis on this most important article of faith.


The following pastoral considerations are offered as a conclusion to this study of whether we should continue kneeling during the Consecration.

In number 23 of Sacrosanctum concilium, the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council insisted that "there must be no innovations unless the good of the Church genuinely and certainly requires them." How does this apply to the controversy over kneeling?

1. First, it is impossible to show that it is necessary to abolish kneeling for the good of the Church. Even if one grants all the arguments of "progressive" liturgists – even the most incredible, such as the notion that the Church is suffering from excessive emphasis on the Real Presence – it is clear that in every case, the perceived problem could be corrected without sacrificing the good which comes from kneeling. For example, the Church may indeed be lacking in appreciation of Christ’s presence in the Word, and in the worshipping community; but surely this is not corrected by downplaying His Presence in the Holy Eucharist! What is required in this case is not decreased attention on the Real Presence, but increased attention to the other modes of Christ’s presence in the liturgy.

2.Second, there is a good deal of evidence that the abolition of kneeling would actually do grave damage to the Church. Fervent Catholics understand kneeling during the Consecration to be an act of communal adoration and faith in the Real Presence, and the teaching of the Church affirms them in this. It is understandable, then, that they should see the abolition of kneeling as a repudiation of those essential and cherished things.

Some bishops may wish to give anti-kneeling liturgists the benefit of the doubt on this score, and they may think that standing during the Consecration is licit. If this is the case, they should remember St. Paul’s words to the Corinthians, "All things are lawful for me, but not all things are helpful" (1 Cor 6:12).

Other bishops may actually prefer standing, and firmly reject the notion that it indicates a loss of faith. If this is the case, they should remember St. Paul’s words to the Romans, "I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself; but it is unclean for any one who thinks it unclean. If your brother is being injured by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love" (Rom 14:14-15).

3.Maintaining the tradition of kneeling during the Consecration injures no one; but abolishing that tradition undoubtedly will. If only our bishops appreciated the pain and anguish suffered by so many of their faithful on being forbidden to kneel at Mass!

If only these "little ones" commanded their attention and sympathy as much as the elite dissidents who demand feminist language, liturgical dance, and so many other unpopular, unnecessary, and sometimes unorthodox innovations! So many bishops and priests refrain from taking action against even the wildest abuses, in effect sacrificing orthodoxy for the sake of unity – or supposed unity – in the Church. Why then do some of those same bishops and priests actively pursue unnecessary and even questionable goals, which cause deep hurt in individuals, and bitter division in communities?

4. Virtually all bishops and priests in Canada today would say, rightly, that they highly prize the virtue of pastoral charity. The rest of us must take them at their word, and remember that, by the grace of their ordination, they have been conformed to Christ the Head and Shepherd of the Church, and have it in them to discern what is of God and what is not. We must nonetheless pray for them, and sacrifice for them, without ceasing. And we must cling to the Person of Jesus Christ in prayer, to overcome whatever stumbling blocks we must still encounter in this time of trial.

David Curtin, M.Div., is a contributing editor to Catholic Insight.

Editor’s note:

One should note that there is ample precedent for episcopal intervention on this issue. For example, in a letter of April 28, 1980, Cardinal G. Emmett Carter, then Archbishop of Toronto, called for obedience to liturgical law. Arguing that GIRM 21 requires kneeling during the Consecration, he repudiated the practice of standing at this point in the liturgy, saying such an unauthorized change is "totally unacceptable."

In a letter of June 3, 1997, Archbishop Justin Rigali of St. Louis, Missouri, called for renewed fidelity to liturgical norms. He emphasized the importance of reverence toward the Holy Eucharist. He reaffirmed the tradition of kneeling during the Consecration, as a sign of faith in the Real Presence, saying: "Recently, the bishops of the United States have reaffirmed.... [that] the congregation [should] kneel during the Eucharistic Prayer from after the Sanctus through the Amen of the final doxology.... Especially in churches where the practice of standing has been observed, this return to the norm of kneeling will require careful catechesis. I ask you to do all that you can to help our people understand this norm and how its observance contributes to the unity of our worship and to our faith in the Sacrament of the Eucharist."

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