Kneeling at Mass


I was recently contacted by a lady complaining about the practice in her parish of everyone standing around the altar during the Eucharistic Prayer at weekday Mass. She claimed that this was irreverent and said that she insisted on kneeling.

I’m sometimes asked whether people may kneel to receive communion if they wish. Special ministers of communion tell stories of this practice sometimes endangering others in the communion line. Again, those who kneel claim they are showing reverence and respect.

What is the appropriate posture for prayer and communion?

Standing is the traditional posture for public prayer. Standing expresses reverence, joy, praise and thanksgiving. We stand to prepare for action, to take an oath, or to show respect for others.

In the tradition of the Roman Rite, standing has always been the norm for prayer on Sundays, during the Easter season and during the celebration of the Eucharist. It was only in the Middle Ages, when the faithful ceased to participate actively in the Mass, that the German custom of kneeling was introduced into the Roman liturgy. It has most commonly been used as a posture in private prayer to express humility, penance and adoration. It is through its association with adoration that kneeling came to be seen as a gesture of reverence. However, as the practice of standing for the Gospel shows, the more traditional way to express reverence is to stand.

Kneeling as a posture of adoration before the Blessed Sacrament is an important part of the liturgical tradition of the Roman Rite. However, it is also important to maintain the distinction between adoration and reverence in regard to the Eucharist. Reverence is an attitude that should underline all actions and postures and is not synonymous with any posture. In current liturgical practice, while the faithful kneel during part of the Eucharistic Prayer, they stand to receive communion.

When the custom of a parish is to stand for communion, an individual may not kneel. The 1967 Instruction “Eucharisticum Mysterium” is clear on this point::In accordance with the custom of the Church, the faithful may receive communion either kneeling or standing … the faithful should willingly follow the manner of reception indicated by the pastors so that communion may truly be a sign of familial union among all those who share in the same table of the Lord (EM 34).

It is also instructive to look at what the General Instruction of the Roman Missal has to say: “There is a beautiful expression of this unity when the faithful maintain uniformity in their actions and in standing, sitting or kneeling”. (GIRM 62).

The important message here is when people stand, kneel or sit as one it is a sign and witness of their unity as members of the body of Christ and of the Mass as a communal rather than individual activity.

It is also important that we don’t focus on externals such as postures or dress as indicators of another’s orthodoxy, faith or reverence. Only God knows what’s in a person’s heart.

“We thank you for counting us worthy to stand in your presence and serve you. May all of us who share in the body and blood of Christ be brought together in unity by the Holy Spirit.” (Eucharistic Prayer II)

Elizabeth Harrington