Posture and Gesture for Receiving Communion

The Missal has in the front of it an important document which I sometimes jokingly refer to as “the driver’s manual”. This document, called the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM), is like a map that guides the celebration of Mass. 

It assists those responsible for the celebration of the Eucharist by providing an explanation of the structure of the Order of Mass and the various ministries, furnishings and other requisites involved.  The General Instruction is much more than a set of rules or rubrics however; it articulates the doctrinal principles behind how Mass is celebrated and explains why we do the things we do. 

The Australian edition of the new General Instruction of the Roman Missal was implemented in May 2008. There were two main changes that affected the assembly. 

The first concerned the posture of the assembly at the end of the Preparation of the Gifts.  Where previously the people remained seated for the response “May the Lord accept the sacrifice from your hands ..”, we now say this while standing. Standing at this point is a sign of our readiness to enter into the Eucharistic Prayer which follows. 

The second change concerned how we come forward to receive Holy Communion. The revised General Instruction asked all communicants in future to make a simple bow of the head as they step forward to receive the consecrated elements from the minister “in reverence of the Mystery that they are to receive” and to remain standing to receive communion. (GIRM #160) Such a bow can be done simply, without disrupting the flow of the communion procession. The gesture is to be made before receiving the sacred host and again before taking the chalice.

Adherence to this direction seems to be patchy, with some communicants correctly making a reverent bow of the head before receiving Holy Communion, some making no gesture at all and others continuing to do their “own thing”, such as kneeling to receive communion and/or making the sign of the cross. 

It would be helpful if communicants were reminded occasionally about what the General Instruction says on the subject of how to receive communion and given an explanation of why it is important to observe these directives. Unity in gesture is a sign of our oneness in Christ. By everyone following the common practice, Holy Communion becomes a true sign of unity among those who share in the table of the Lord. 

The hymn or song that is sung during the Communion procession also serves to unify the assembly as well as prepare them to receive the Body and Blood of Christ. 

The overall content and purpose of the General Instruction did not change with the 2008 revision. There are several key aspects in the current version that were also in the previous edition but which have not yet been implemented fully. These include everyone receiving communion from the altar and not the tabernacle, incorporating times of silence into the celebration, the central role of singing, and respecting the altar by placing on it only what is required for the celebration of the Mass: sacred vessels, corporal, purificator and Missal.




Elizabeth Harrington