Standing & Kneeling


I am amazed at the extreme reaction of some people to the section in the new General Instruction of the Roman Missal about the appropriate posture for receiving communion. They claim, vehemently, that Catholics have always knelt to receive communion and that kneeling is far more reverent than standing. Well, numerous accounts of worship in the early church and the practice of the last 40 years put paid to the first claim, but what about the second?

Standing expresses joy, praise and thanksgiving and is a sign of respect and reverence. We stand to prepare for action, to take an oath, or to show respect for others. Hence we stand for the prayers of the Mass, for the reading of the Gospel, for the general intercessions and to receive communion. In some parts of the world, the assembly stands throughout the Eucharistic Prayer.

Kneeling was not practised in the early church and the Council of Nicaea in 325 ruled that kneeling was forbidden on the Lord’s Day (Sunday), all feast days and on any day in the Easter Season. 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.

Kneeling is customary 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 distinguish 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 one posture.

In current liturgical practice, while the faithful kneel during most of the Eucharistic Prayer, they stand to receive communion. Receiving the Body and Blood of Christ is a time of thanksgiving and communion, not an occasion of penance or adoration.

The “General Instruction” says:
“In Australia standing is the most common posture for receiving Holy Communion. The customary manner of reception is recommended to be followed by all, so that Communion may truly be a sign of unity among those who share in the same table of the Lord.” (160)

The 1967 Instruction “Eucharisticum Mysterium” makes it clear that all should follow the customary practice of receiving communion:
“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.” (34)

The importance of unity in gesture as a sign of our oneness in Christ is emphasised elsewhere in the General Instruction:
“The faithful are to shun any appearance of individualism or division. Indeed they form one body by a common partaking at the Lord’s table. This unity is beautifully apparent from the gestures and postures observed in common by the faithful”. (95-96)

Elizabeth Harrington