Catholic Culture Liturgical Living
Catholic Culture Liturgical Living

Sacred Signs and Active Participation at Mass

by Rev. Cassian Folsom, OSB


Essay by Fr. Folsom, vice-rector of Sant' Anselmo delivered as an address to the Adoremus Conference held in Los Angeles on November 22, 1997.

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Adoremus Bulletin


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Adoremus Society for the Renewal of the Sacred Liturgy, May/June 1998

What Do These Actions Mean, and Why Are They So Important?

About ten years ago, I had the rare good fortune to spend two weeks on Mount Athos in Greece: the Holy Mountain as they call it. I remember standing in the back of one of the churches, praying—when a young man came in with his little son: maybe three or four years old. The man had brought his son with him on pilgrimage to the Holy Mountain.

There was an icon of Our Lady in the church, as there always is. It was a particular style of Marian icon, however, called "Our Lady of the Sweet Kiss", because the child Jesus is reaching up to his mother Mary in a tender embrace.

This man walked up to the icon of Our Lady, made the customary reverence (a profound bow, so as to be able to touch the ground with your fingers as a sign of humility)—and then he lifted up his son to kiss the icon.

Now the little boy had learned to kiss the members of his family, not with small, silent kisses, but with great big kisses that were very loud indeed. And that’s how he venerated the icon. He gave a loud smack to Christ, the wisdom and power of God—and then he gave a loud smack to the Mother of God, she who holds Divine Wisdom in her arms. When the kiss of the little boy was joined to the kiss of the Christ child, the Spirit of God entered powerfully into that church, and I worshipped in reverence and in awe.

Adoremus: come, let us adore the Lord, for it is He who made us! In the monastic office, that’s the invitatory antiphon for Sunday Vigils: Adoremus Dominum, qui fecit nos. In this conference, I would like to talk about the attitude of love and reverence that’s necessary for adoration. More specifically, I’ll be talking about sacred signs and gestures that we use in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.

What does "active participation" mean?

But before I begin with the Mass itself, let me first describe the big picture for you: this will set the stage for what follows. The big picture is the well-known expression "active participation" at Mass. What does that mean?

First of all, it means the interior participation of all the powers of the soul in the mystery of Christ’s sacrificial love. Participation, in the first place, is something interior; it means that your mind and heart are awake, alert and engaged.

Secondly, participation involves exterior action: saying things and doing things. What I’m going to focus on today, are the bodily gestures and sacred signs we use in the course of the Mass. So we’re talking about the relationship between soul and body in liturgical prayer.

This theme is an important one, because modern man, it seems to me, has lost this sense of the unity of his being: the unity of body and soul, of the interior man and the exterior man.

A famous theologian of the earlier part of this century, Romano Guardini, was already talking about this problem in the 1920’s. He said: "The agent acting in the liturgy, the one who prays and offers, is not `the soul’ or `the interior spirit’ but man. It’s the whole man which carries out liturgical activity. The soul, to be sure, but only insofar as it gives life to the body. The interior spirit, to be sure, but only insofar as it manifests itself in the body."

We have a hard time getting this right. Either we act as if the body is everything (which is one of the great temptations of our day) or we act as though there is a great divorce between body and soul and the body is of no account at all. Remember, the ultimate goal for the Christian is not the immortal soul, but the resurrected body! So the problem of the relation between body and soul remains. We may poke fun at the ancients for not always getting it right, but modern man is in no better shape; in fact, he’s much worse. Modern man boasts of the power of his intellect, desperately searches for the sensual pleasure of the body, and forgets his soul altogether. It’s a rare thing when a person succeeds in integrating mind, soul and body into the unity of what the human person is called to be: "man fully alive", as St. Irenaeus says.

Now, why am I talking about all this? Because these problems show themselves in the liturgy. The solution, according to Romano Guardini, is liturgical formation. He says: "Filled as we are with the negative formation of the spirit of the age, we must learn once again to live our religion as `men fully alive’. That is, we must learn to pray with our body also. The way we carry ourselves, our gestures and actions—these things must become spontaneously religious in themselves. We must learn to express our interiority exteriorly… we must become capable once again of living in a world of symbols."

I am convinced that we can rediscover these things in our own Catholic tradition. In fact, if we can learn these things and live them out in practice, we’ll be making a significant contribution to the new evangelization. How many young people of the West have looked to the religions of the Far East for some kind of experience of God? Such people are willing to follow a rather strict discipline, to remain seated for hours, back straight, without moving, all for the sake of meditation. But the richness of prayer—even mystical prayer—is our Catholic inheritance: like a treasure box filled with amazing and precious gems—but alas, often shut, locked, the key rusting on a hook and the box itself pushed into a corner and forgotten.

But we have the key! Holy Mother Church offers us the key. And part of the treasure we will find in the Church’s tradition is the role of the body in both private and liturgical prayer.

We can begin our study of sacred signs and gestures, starting from the very beginning of the Mass and going all the way to the end.

1. Dipping Your Hand in Holy Water

When you come into the church building, what is the first thing you do? Don't you dip your hand into the holy water and make the sign of the cross? Why do you do that? Well, for three reasons:

a. in repentance for your sins;

b. for protection against the Evil One;

c. to remind you of your baptism.

a. Holy water reminds us to be sorry for our sins. When there is the rite of sprinkling in the liturgy, we always sing the Asperges, which means "you will sprinkle or wash". Asperges me hysoppo et mundabor; lavabis me et super nivem dealbabor. These are words from the great penitential psalm, Ps 50: You will sprinkle me with hyssop and I shall be cleansed: you will wash me, and I shall be made whiter than snow.

b. Holy water is a sacramental which is a protection against the snares of the devil. The old prayer for the blessing of holy water said: "O God, creator of unconquered power, King of invincible empire and victor ever-great: who put down the powers of hostile dominion and conquer the fury of the roaring enemy, who fight powerfully against our wicked foes: trembling we beseech you, O Lord, we implore you and beg you: that you might graciously look upon this creature of water and salt, kindly illumine it, sanctify it with the dew of your loving kindness, so that wherever it is sprinkled, through the invocation of your holy Name, every infestation of the unclean spirit be cast out, and the terror of the poisonous serpent be driven far away. And may the presence of the Holy Spirit deign to be with us always, we who implore your mercy."

c. Holy water reminds us of our baptism: of that great day when we ourselves or our parents or sponsors—renounced Satan, professed faith in Christ, and were baptized into the mystery of the Holy Trinity. At that moment all our sins were forgiven: original and actual, and we became children of God, filii in Filio, heirs of the promise, daring now to call God our Father.

When you dip your hand into the holy water font, remember these things, and like Our Lady, treasure them in your heart.

2. Sign of the Cross

Then you make the sign of the cross. Do it deliberately. Not hurriedly, not sloppily—but carefully and with reverence. The deepest mysteries of our faith are contained here.

Let me return once again to the story I told you at the beginning about Mount Athos.

While there, I had occasion to talk with a young Greek layman, who pointed out to me that Catholics make the sign of the cross backwards. That’s not the most ecumenical way to put it! But there’s something behind what he said. You know how the Byzantine tradition makes the sign of the cross: with the thumb, forefinger and middle finger held together and the last two fingers held together against the palm.

The three fingers symbolize the Trinity, and the two fingers symbolized the double nature of Christ: divine and human. Making the sign of the cross then, becomes a mini-catechesis, a self-reminder of the most basic mysteries of our faith.

But the way of holding your fingers is not the only difference. The eastern tradition makes the sign of the cross from right to left, whereas we make it from left to right. Why?

It’s interesting to note that in the 13th century, Pope Innocent III (contemporary with St. Francis of Assisi) instructed the faithful on the meaning of the sign of the cross in these words: "The sign of the cross is made with three fingers, because the signing is done together with the invocation of the Trinity. This is how it is done: from above to below, and from the right to the left, because Christ descended from the heavens to the earth, and from the Jews (right) he passed to the Gentiles (left)."

Note that Pope Innocent is describing what the custom was in the West. In the 13th century the East and the West still made the sign of the cross in the same way. The pope goes on to say: "Others, however, make the sign of the cross from the left to the right, because from misery (left) we must cross over to glory (right), just as Christ crossed over from death to life, and from Hades to Paradise. [Some priests] do it this way so that they and the people will be signing themselves in the same way. You can easily verify this—picture the priest facing the people for the blessing— when we make the sign of the cross over the people, it is from left to right."

So the people, imitating the blessing of the priest, began to sign themselves from left to right. Be that as it may, centuries have gone by since then, and we in the West make the sign of the cross from left to right, with the palm open.

Here’s an important liturgical principle: it is always difficult and often undesirable to jump back across the centuries to some ideal liturgical practice of the past. That’s what Pius XII in Mediator Dei called "archeologism". You can’t erase the intervening centuries. The principle rather is continuity with the tradition (mind you, I’m not saying a fossilized tradition, but a living tradition). So the Western way of making the sign of the cross is a valid development of the liturgical tradition.

When we make the sign of the cross, are we aware of its meaning? Listen to what Guardini says about this: "When we cross ourselves, let it be with a real sign of the cross. Instead of a small cramped gesture that gives no notion of its meaning, let us make a large unhurried sign, from forehead to breast, from shoulder to shoulder, consciously feeling how it includes the whole of us, our thoughts, our attitudes, our body and soul, every part of us at once, how it consecrates and sanctifies us. It does so because it 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 fibre of his being."

In the liturgy, there are many occasions when we make the sign of the cross:

  • with holy water before Mass begins

  • at the beginning of Mass itself

  • at the Gospel: "may the Lord purify my understanding, my speech, and my heart, so that I may receive the words of the Gospel".

  • we make the sign of the cross in the rite of baptism, for anointing the sick, for exorcisms, when we pray throughout the day

  • in the Divine Office, we make the sign of the cross when we begin the Benedictus and the Magnificat, because they are Gospel canticles, and the Gospel stands for Christ Himself.

In the library of Sant’Anselmo in Rome, a place where I spend a good deal of time, there is a fine mosaic floor showing the cross of Christ, surrounded by the words: Ave Crux, Spes Unica. Hail O Cross, our only hope! The cross of Christ is indeed our only hope—there is salvation in no other name. So when we make the sign of the cross, which we do many times each day, let’s do it well!

3. Genuflecting Before the Blessed Sacrament and Bowing Before the Altar

What’s the next thing you do as you enter the Church? You walk to your pew, and if the Blessed Sacrament is reserved on the altar, you genuflect; if it’s reserved somewhere else, you make a profound bow to the altar. I’ll say something about kneeling later. Here we are talking about a gesture of greeting, a kind of salute. I mentioned both genuflecting and bowing. What’s the difference?

There’s a traditional distinction that’s very useful: a distinction using three Greek words: latria, hyperdulia, dulia. These three categories indicate different grades of reverence due to God and the saints. Latria means adoration: it is reserved to God alone. Dulia means reverence; it is given to the saints and to sacred objects. Hyperdulia means "extra special reverence". There is only one person in this category: Mary the Mother of God, since she is above all the saints by the glorious design of Divine Providence.

Latria, hyperdulia, dulia. When we reverence the altar — and the altar always represents Christ—we are showing honor to a sacred object. That means dulia. So we bow. When we reverence the Blessed Sacrament, however, we are adoring God Himself, since the Lord is truly present in the Blessed Sacrament. That means latria. So we genuflect.

Let me say something about both of these gestures.


There are three kinds of bows. (I hope all these distinctions aren’t confusing. In fact, they’re rather useful).

a. There’s the simple bow of the head that we use at the Name of Jesus. During the Mass, that head bow is also used at the Name of Mary, and at the Name of the Holy Father.

b. There’s a medium bow of the head and the shoulders. In monasteries we use that bow to greet another monk in order to honor the presence of Christ in our brothers. That is, when we process into choir, as we get to the center and split doff to go to our choir stalls, after bowing to the altar we bow to one another: a medium bow.

c. Then there's a profound bow, bending the entire body at the waist, touching the knees with the palms of the hand. That bow is used when the deacon asks the priest for a blessing before reading the Gospel, when a monk asks the abbot for a blessing, or in the Liturgy of the Hours, whenever there is a Glory Be. At the doxology after every psalm, all the monks in choir make a profound bow in honor of the Trinity. This comes from the Rule of St. Benedict, where he says: "After the third lesson (he's talking about one of the nocturnes of Vigils) let the cantor intone the Gloria Patri, and as soon as he beings, let all rise in honor and reverence for the Most Holy Trinity." (RB 9).

For guests who aren't accustomed to monastic ceremonial, it's a very impressive thing to see all the monks in choir practically disappear into the choir stalls as they all make a profound bow for every doxology. Another instance for this kind of bow—as I mentioned—is whenever we pass in front of the altar, as a way of saluting Our Lord, for the altar always represents Christ.

Try it next time you pass in front of the altar (that is, if the Blessed Sacrament is not there). Bend right in two, all the way down. Slowly, reverently. It is the Lord Himself you are greeting.

Genuflecting—a "half-kneel"

This gesture is related to kneeling, but you can think of it as a quick kneel, or a "half-kneel", since you only bend one knee, not both, and immediately get up again. When I say "a quick kneel", I don't mean that you should do it in a hurry! Sometimes when people go into their pew, you see them make a little bob that vaguely resembles a genuflection. No. Put that knee all the way down to the floor, and let it rest there for a moment. Keep your back straight, and for balance, you might want to place both hands on your other knee. You might want to practice at home, and teach your children to make this gesture well.

Now, my suggestion to practice genuflecting may seem silly — but actually these bodily gestures have become foreign to us, and we need to re-learn them with a new deliberateness. To do it well, you have to be conscious of what you're doing. We have to be taught.

You know after the consecration of both the Host and the Chalice, the priest genuflects in adoration. The Holy Father nowadays has a hard time doing that, as many older people do, because of arthritis or a once-broken hip or some other physical difficulty. For Pope John Paul, it costs him something to genuflect. But he grips the altar bravely, and forces his aching bones to bend all the way down to the floor. And then the Master of Ceremonies helps him back up. Why does he go to so much pain and trouble? Because of love. He loves the Lord present in the Blessed Sacrament. If the Holy Father makes this gesture at such great personal cost, can we who are healthy do any less?

4. Standing to Begin Mass

After you make your preparation for Mass—whether kneeling or sitting in the pew—the bell rings, and you stand for Mass to begin. What does this gesture of standing mean?

Allow me to refer to Guardini again. In his book called Sacred Signs, he describes this situation:

When you are sitting down to rest or chat, and someone to whom you owe respect comes in and turns to speak to you, at once you stand up and remain standing so long as he is speaking and you are answering him. Why do we do this? In the first place to stand up means that we are in possession of ourselves. Instead of sitting relaxed and at ease we take hold of ourselves; we stand, as it were, at attention, geared and ready for action. A man on his feet can come or go at once. He can take an order on the instant, or carry out an assignment the moment he is shown what is wanted.

The posture of standing, then, is a sign of respect, reverence before God. In addition, it means that we are to ready respond to Him subito, sempre, e con gioia as Chiara Lubich, the foundress of the Focolari Movement says. That means "right away, always, and with joy." We stand as Mass begins. We stand for the Gospel. During the Divine Office, we stand for the Benedictus and the Magnificat, because these are Gospel canticles, and we are aware of the Lord's presence in a more intense way.

To stand was also the normal posture for Jewish prayer, and the posture characteristic of Christian prayer as well. In the catacombs of Santa Priscilla, there's a famous fresco—still visible after all these centuries—of a person in the orans position—standing, the garments falling in noble folds, with arms outstretched. In fact, this is the symbol of the Pontifical Liturgical Institute in Rome, where I live and work: Ecclesia Orans, the praying Church.

As many of you are aware, the posture of standing is a posture typical of the Easter season: standing is a sign of the Resurrection. In fact, the ancient discipline of the East prohibits kneeling on Sundays and during the Easter season. That's good to know. But there's the same principle at work here as we saw when talking about the sign of the cross. To be aware of the liturgical traditions of other rites is always useful, but it does not mean that we should ignore the legitimate developments of our own tradition.

I have heard that in some places in this country, people are being told that they can't kneel during the Eucharistic Prayer. Well, this can be understood from the point of view of comparative liturgy and the history of the liturgy, but our western tradition has developed in a different way, and these developments have their own value.

The rubrics of the editio typica — the official Latin edition of the Missal—indicate that kneeling is the proper gesture at the consecration. When the English Sacramentary first came out, the Bishops' Conference of the U.S. decided that for American Catholics, kneeling was in order for the entire Eucharistic Prayer. And that rubric has never been changed.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. We're talking about standing.

When you stand at Mass, don't slouch over, don't fidget. Stand up straight and be still. "Be still and know that I am God", as the Psalm says. Some time ago, I remember observing one of the priests in the sanctuary during the long reading of the Passion on Palm Sunday, which lasts probably 10 or 15 minutes. He stood perfectly still the whole time, and didn't move a muscle. I was impressed by his reverence. Practice standing up straight without unnecessary fidgeting about. It's not easy! But it's a way that we can honor Our Lord.

5. Beating the Breast

Next we come to the Confiteor—although unfortunately this option of the Penitential rite is not always used. During the words mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa, there is the gesture of striking the breast. This is a sign of repentance, of humility, like the parable of the Pharisee and publican in the Gospel:

"But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying: O God, be merciful to me a sinner!" (Lk 18:13)

In the Missal of Pius V, the rubric for this gesture was very specific: "He strikes his breast three times, saying: mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa." The rubric in the Missal of Paul VI is less precise. It simply says: "Striking themselves on the breast they say mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa." To make matters more confusing, in the English translation, the words are not repeated three times, but only once:

"I confess to Almighty God, and to you my brothers and sisters, that I have sinned through my own fault, in my thoughts and in my words, in what I have done and in what I have failed to do."

The gesture is still there, although both words and gesture have been much reduced. The words express our repentance verbally. Striking the breast expresses our repentance physically, in body language.

Guardini has something to say about this gesture too. He asks the question:

What is the significance of this striking the breast? All its meaning lies in its being rightly done. To brush one's clothes with the tip of one's fingers is not to strike the breast. We should beat upon our breasts with our closed fists. In the old picture of Saint Jerome in the desert he is kneeling on the ground and striking his breast with a stone. It is an honest blow, not an elegant gesture. To strike the breast is to beat against the gates of our inner world in order to shatter them. This is its significance.

Perhaps we should take this gesture more seriously than we ordinarily do. In monastic spirituality, there is an ancient tradition called penthos in Greek, or compunctio in Latin: a profound attitude of repentance for our sins, and not only for our own, but also for those of the whole world. St. Benedict says: "We know that our prayers will not be heard on account of many words, but because of purity of heart, compunction, and tears" (RB 20:3). In another place, he says: "During Lent, let us guard ourselves from every vice, and dedicate ourselves to prayer with tears, to reading, to compunction of heart and to fasting" (RB 49:4).

Perhaps someone will object: those are fine sentiments for the olden days, for a spirituality of centuries gone by, but it's not suitable for today! Pius XII once said that the overriding sin of our twentieth century is a loss of the sense of sin. And Pope John Paul II quotes this saying of Pius XII in his apostolic exhortation Reconciliation and Penance.

It's true. We as a people, and we as Catholics—have lost the sense of sin. The gesture of striking the breast, made carefully and with full awareness, can communicate to ourselves and to others more than mere words can say, that we recognize our sinfulness and publicly declare our sorrow for our sins.

I remember visiting a traditional monastery not too long ago, where all the monks who are not priests—were kneeling in choir just before Communion. The deacon chanted the Confiteor, and when he got to the words mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa, the thunder of a multitude of monks all beating their breast at the same time shook the complacency of my heart. Try it yourself. The rib cage is like an echo chamber. If you strike your breast properly, you'll hear the sound of it: like the sound of thunder.

6. Sitting

After the penitential rite, you sit down. This means something too. "The posture of sitting is proper to the bishop who teaches and to the head of the community who presides." That is why the bishop—or the abbot—has a chair, a cathedra. The word cathedral, strictly speaking, means the place where the bishop's chair is.

When I was a junior monk, I remember passing through the Abbey Church on my way from one place to another. A group of tourists was visiting the church, and some of the youngsters, just for the fun of it, were taking turns sitting in the abbot's chair. I saw this from a distance, and it disturbed me greatly. Obviously, these young people meant no harm, and did not understand the significance of the abbot's chair. But it symbolizes his authority, his person. The same thing applies to the chair of the bishop. So sitting, on the part of the superior, is a posture of authority for the sake of teaching.

St. Augustine describes this in some of his sermons. He would sit on his cathedra, and the people would stand to listen. In fact, until modern times, chairs or pews were not thought of in designing churches. The people stood, as they do to this day in the Byzantine tradition. But standing for a long time is tiring, and requires real discipline. Toward the end of the Middle Ages, the practice of sitting during certain moments of the Mass become more widespread. By the time this country was founded, the practice was standard, so all the Churches built here have pews or chairs. But if you visit various cathedrals and other churches in Europe, you see that it wasn't always so.

Now, when we sit down for the readings, the posture of being seated signifies attentive listening, readiness to be instructed. When you sit down during Mass, remember that you're not sitting in your living room, you're not sitting in a lounge chair or a "Lazy-Boy". Sit up straight, quietly, reverently. Don't fidget, be still! To listen carefully to the Sacred Scripture requires energy and attention, and our posture should reflect that interior attitude of alertness: listening with the ear of the heart, as St. Benedict says.

If this applies to the people in the pew, how much more does it apply to those who are in the sanctuary! The Ceremonial of Bishops says that "when the bishop is seated, if he is wearing liturgical vestments, unless he is holding the crozier, he should place his palms on his knees." Here's another principle to keep in mind: what is legislated for the superior generally holds for the subject as well. Try sitting that way: quietly, prayerfully, upright. If you're not holding a book (or correcting small children), place your hands on your knees, palms down. You'll see what a difference it makes.

7. Folding Your Hands

Now we've come as far as the Gospel. We stand for the Gospel, as I mentioned earlier. We make a triple sign of the cross with our right thumb. Then what? What do you do with your hands? How about keeping them folded?

After the Council, as a reaction against rubrics that were perhaps too specific in a kind of exaggerated way, the pendulum swung to the other extreme, and nobody bothered about rubrics anymore. From a high degree of formality in the liturgy, we changed to a style that is extremely casual. This perhaps corresponds also to a style that is typically American: being casual is the order of the day. In fact, clothing styles go to a great deal of trouble in order to seem casual. That means that there are rigid unwritten laws about being causal—a great irony, isn't it? In any case, we see this casualness also in terms of folding our hands.

There are two basic ways of doing this: with the fingers interlocked—or with the fingers straight, palm to palm. This is what the Caeremoniale Episcoporum, published in 1985, says about folding your hands. There's a paragraph entitled De manibus iunctis (Concerning folding the hands), and an explanation in a note at the bottom of the page that says:

"When it says with hands folded, it is to be understood in this way: palms extended and joined together in front of the breast, with the right thumb over the left in the form of a cross" (#107, n.80)

When we were in grade school, the nuns would explain this business about how to hold your thumbs by repeating the saying of the New Testament: "mercy over justice" —which is a very fine spiritual interpretation of a simple gesture.

Guardini has something to say about the gesture of folding your hands, explaining two ways of doing so.

When we enter into ourselves and the soul is alone with God, our hands closely interlock, finger clasped in finger, in a gesture of compression and control.

So this way of holding your hands can be a sign of intimate and personal prayer to God.

Our hands take the same position when some dire need or pain weighs heavily on us and threatens to break out. Hand then locks in hand and the soul struggles with itself until it gets control and grows quiet again.

So the same gesture can mean intensity and fervor of personal prayer. But in the liturgy, the gesture is different. Guardini says:

But when we stand in God's presence in heart-felt reverence and humility, the open hands are laid together palm against palm in sign of steadfast subjection and obedient homage, as if to say that the words we ourselves would speak are in good order, and that we are ready and attentive to hear the words of God.

Guardini describes other gestures of prayer with the hands (hands uplifted in prayer, for example), and urges his readers to a deeper awareness of the meaning of these gestures. He says:

The Church is fully in earnest in the use she makes of the language of gesture. She speaks through it her inmost mind, and God gives ear to this mode of speaking. Our hands may also indicate the goods we lack, our unchecked impulses, our distractions, and other faults. Let us hold them as the Church directs and see to it that there is a real correspondence between the interior and exterior attitude.

Do you see how much meaning is contained in the simple gesture of folding your hands? Be conscious of what you are doing next time, and teach your children the same. It will become a habit of reverence. If your hands are folded properly in prayer, the external posture will have a positive influence on the interior man as well, and you will be led to a profound attitude of prayer.

8. Kneeling for the Eucharistic Prayer

After the Gospel and the homily (if there is one that day), after the Preparation of the Gifts, the Great Prayer, called "the Canon" or "the Eucharistic Prayer", begins. During this time we kneel. Since this gesture has a somewhat complicated history, it's worth spending some time on it.

The meaning of this gesture of kneeling is manifold:

  • humble submission before the majesty of God

  • penance and a spirit of repentance

  • adoration and reverence in prayer

The use of this posture in the Mass developed gradually.

a. In a seventh century document, the Ordo Romanus I, it says that during the Canon only the Pope stood upright, while all the others in the sanctuary remained bowed for the entire Eucharistic Prayer. The sign for standing upright again was the phrase nobis quoque peccatoribus near the end of the Canon: that was the sign also for the deacon and subdeacon to go about their preparations for communion. In fact, in the old Mass, that phrase was said out loud while the rest of the Canon was said quietly, as a remnant of the ancient practice of bowing during the Canon.

b. From the ninth century onward, there is historical evidence for the posture of kneeling during the Canon. The Synod of Tours (813) described this as the characteristic posture of the faithful, although for Sundays and feasts, it was the custom to stand.

c. In the thirteenth century, because of developments in Eucharistic theology and various movements of Eucharistic devotion, the practice of kneeling at the consecration became the norm.

d. In 1502, the Ordo Missae of John Burckhard prescribes kneeling for the prayers at the foot of the altar, and for the consecration. Our present rubrics—by way of the post-Tridentine liturgical books—have their origin in this Ordo Missae of Burckhard.

The history of this gesture—whether in liturgical prayer or in private prayer—is rather complex. For our purposes today it is enough to stress the importance of doing it well. Guardini says:

"Let not the bending of our knees be a hurried gesture, an empty form. Put meaning into it; to kneel, in the soul's intention, is to bow down before God in deepest reverence."

The bodily posture of kneeling is above all a sign of reverence for Christ present in the Eucharist.

Which reminds me of a story I must tell you. In January 1993, I was serving as substitute chaplain at a small Catholic college in New England. It snows there, and that particular winter there was lots of it. The Blessed Sacrament is reserved not only in the main church, but also in the chapels of the two dorms.

Now, during the Christmas vacation, since no one is around, the Blessed Sacrament is removed from the dorm chapels, and when the students come back, it is brought back again. So I was walking with the Blessed Sacrament from the church to the girls' dorm, covering the pyx with my cope, because it was windy and cold. An altar server with his candle accompanied the Blessed Sacrament.

As we approached the door of the girls' dorm, two of the students happened to be coming out at the same time. They weren't expecting us, but as soon as they saw that I was carrying the Blessed Sacrament, without a moment's hesitation, they knelt down in the snow in honor of Christ present in the Eucharist. That gesture made a profound impression on me.

In these our days, when the Catholic understanding of the Eucharist is often very weak—when there are some people who don't even know what it is that they receive—it is imperative that we show by our gestures the faith we believe. Actions speak louder than words! So let us kneel. Flectamus genua. Carefully, deliberately, reverently. That will reinforce our own belief in the Real Presence of Christ, it will teach our children by example, it will inspire our fellow Catholics, and it will scandalize a world that does not believe.

9. Walking up to communion

After the Eucharistic Prayer and the Great Doxology, it is time for communion. How do you get from your pew to the sanctuary? You have to walk. Now, it's not as self-evident as it seems. How to walk with dignity, to process? Guardini addresses this question also.

Walking. How many people know how to walk? It is not hurrying along at a kind of run, or shuffling along at a snail's pace, but a composed and firm forward movement. There is spring in the tread of a good walker. He lifts, not drags, his heels. He is straight, not stoop-shouldered, and his steps are sure and even.

When I was a novice, we were taught how to walk in procession so that we would keep even two by two, and so that the line would stay straight. It was particularly difficult to keep together when making a turn, because the monk on the outside would have to walk faster than the monk on the inside, so as to keep together. Anyone who has done any marching knows that: marching in a band, or in the armed services, or in a parade.

At the time of my novitiate, we all thought that being taught how to walk was ridiculous. "You'd think a grown man would know how to walk!" we exclaimed in our pride and ignorance. But the fact of the matter was, we didn't know how to walk properly. The Novice Master was right: we had to be taught.

When you walk up to communion, don't look all around you this way and that. Concentrate on what you are about to do, on whom you are about to receive. With this kind of walking, you draw near to presence of God. Be conscious of what you are doing, and walk with calm reverence and a spirit of recollection and prayer.

10. Receiving Communion

Once you arrive at the sanctuary, what then? It depends, of course, on how the church is designed, whether you kneel at the altar rail to receive communion, or receive standing. I would like to say a few words about receiving on the tongue or receiving in the hand.

It's true that the more ancient way of receiving communion was in the hand. Listen to what St. Cyril of Jerusalem (fourth century) has to say about this.

"After this, ye hear the chanter, with a sacred melody, inviting you to the communion of the Holy Mysteries and saying: O taste and see that the Lord is good. Trust not the decision to thy bodily palate; no, but to faith unfaltering; for when we taste we are bidden to taste, not bread and wine, but the Body and Blood of Christ.

Approaching, therefore, come not with thy wrists extended, or thy fingers open; but make thy left hand as if a throne for thy right, which is about to receive the king. And having hollowed thy palm, receive the Body of Christ, saying after it, Amen. Give heed lest thou lose any of it; for what thou losest is a loss to thee as it were from one of thine own members. For tell me, if any one gave thee gold dust, wouldest thou not with all precaution keep it fast, being on thy guard against losing any of it, and suffering loss? How much more cautiously then wilt thou observe that not a crumb falls from thee, of what is more precious than gold and precious stones?"

Think of it! You are about to receive the Lord God Himself. Be on your guard, therefore, against any lack of reverence.

Here is a very practical point. Those who are ordained may take the Holy Eucharist themselves. Those who are not ordained receive the Eucharist; they never take it. Don't reach for it, wait until the Body of Christ is given to you. And take to heart the words of the centurion: "Lord, I am not worthy that you should come under my roof, but speak only a word, and my soul shall be healed".

Along with sentiments of unworthiness there should be sentiments of joy and gladness. For as the psalm says (Ps 35).

How precious is thy steadfast love, O God!

The children of men take refuge in the shadow of thy wings.

They feast on the abundance of thy house,

and thou givest them drink from the river of thy delights.

The ancient way of receiving communion in the hand gradually changed, however, as a response to occasions of abuse. For with communion in the hand, it is easy to slip the host into your pocket or your purse and, whether with innocent or evil intent, commit sacrilege.

By the early middle ages the custom had changed, and communion on the tongue was the rule. Here again, we have to be taught. Some people barely open their mouths, and it is difficult for the priest to place the host on their tongue. Some people open their mouth too wide and stick out their tongue too far, and there is the danger that the host will fall off onto the paten or, God forbid, onto the floor.

Let's avoid both extremes! Open your mouth wide enough and extend your tongue far enough so that the priest can place the host easily on your tongue.

Be aware of what you are doing. Remember the vision of Isaiah the prophet:

"In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and his train filled the temple. Above him stood the seraphim; each had six wings; with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said: "Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory." And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. And I said: "Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts! Then flew one of the seraphim to me, having in his hand a burning coal which he had taken with tongs from the altar. And he touched my mouth and said: `Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin forgiven'." (Is 6:1-7)

The Holy Eucharist is a burning coal, which the seraphim places upon your tongue. It will sear your heart with its heat, and you will be inflamed with the blaze of Divine Charity.

A Reminder

Now, I've said nothing new, I've told you nothing you don't know already. This has been just a reminder—both to me who speaks, and to you who listen—that the sacred signs and gestures of the Mass have a great power to open us up to the holiness of God.

Since by Divine Providence, we are gathered for this conference in the City of the Angels—Los Angeles —  perhaps the angels can teach us something about restoring reverence to the liturgy. I want to let St. Benedict have the last word: listen to what he says about reverence in prayer and the holy angels.

We believe that the divine presence is everywhere and that in every place the eyes of the Lord are watching the good and the wicked (Prov 15:3). But beyond the least doubt we should believe this to be especially true when we celebrate the divine [mysteries].

We must always remember, therefore, what the Prophet says: "Serve the Lord with fear" (Ps 2:11), and again: "Sing praise wisely" (Ps 46:8); and "In the presence of the angels I will sing to you" (Ps 137:1). Let us consider then, how we ought to behave in the presence of God and his angels. (RB 19).

Rev. Cassian Folsom, OSB
Pontificio Istituto Liturgico
S. Anselmo, Rome

© Adoremus Bulletin, Adoremus Society for the Renewal of the Sacred Liturgy, P.O. Box 3286, St. Louis, MO 63130, (314) 863-5858.

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