Kneeling or Standing during the Eucharistic Sacrifice

        The conservative Adoremus Bulletin (Adoremus: Society for the Renewal of the Sacred Liturgy - Vol. V, No. 5: July / August 1999) contained a discussion as to which posture kneeling or standing - is most appropriate during the Liturgy of the Eucharist at mass.

        The bulletin took a strong conservative position in favor of kneeling during this part of the mass.

        In response to this I wrote the following letter which was published in "Adoremus" and prompted a reply from the editor as well as from another reader- as follows:

My letter to "Adoremus":

        Your review of the imbroglio over kneeling vs. standing in the liturgy was most welcome and informative, albeit a bit biased. It may be a slight overstatement to suggest that those who advocate the standing position are any less devoted to the Real Presence or other articles of faith.

Consider the following:

1. The earliest Christian iconography always depicts Christians at the Agape and (otherwise at
prayer) in the "orans" position, i.e. standing with arms extended heavenward. A visit to the
Catacombs will verify that.

2. In the ancient Eastern-rite churches (Orthodox and Uniate), from ancient times to the present, the faithful stand (sometimes for hours!) during the celebration of the liturgy. These traditions are older than our present rites.

3. Anyone who has visited the ancient Roman basilicas and the cathedrals of Europe knows that they were designed for people to stand at prayer in the liturgy. The addition of kneelers (and sometimes chairs) is a much later afterthought. It is not the ancient tradition.

4. The posture of kneeling in Christian art is very much connected with the feudal system: knights in obeisance to their lord, etc. As such it is a wonderful posture of humility, submission, adoration, etc. Agreed.

5. Thus kneeling is an appropriate gesture of adoration, for instance, in the exposition or Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament, Forty Hours Devotion, private prayer, etc. But one must ask is this really the same mode of prayer that is called for at the public celebration of the Eucharist? Is the Sunday Eucharist primarily an exercise in adoration? Is it not rather primarily an act of thanksgiving as the name implies? This is not to deny the act of adoration, but I don't think it is not main focus of the sacred action at the altar.

For instance, the liturgy calls for an affirmative sung acclamation of the assembly after the elevation of the Sacred Species as well as the response of the "Great Amen" at the final doxology before the "Our Father". Is kneeling for these sung acclamations of the assembly really the right posture for these moments? Is the expressive mode of prayer at these times simply adoration or is it not much more? Does it not perhaps make more sense to have the people on their feet for these sung acclamations?

From a musical point of view alone (I am a liturgical musician) I find it awkward and meaningless to have the congregation sing these jubilant acclamations of praise and affirmation on their knees. It simply is the wrong modality of prayer. It is not the way to "proclaim the mystery of faith."

6. I hesitate to use the "argumentum ex tourismo" (argument from tourism). It has been effectively used by those who find great convenience and sense of unity in attending the same traditional Latin Mass wherever in the world they travel. Yet, as a matter of fact, standing during the Eucharistic prayer seems to be most prevalent outside the United States and may well indicate a return to perhaps an even more ancient practice. Who knows?

Richard Cross

The editor, Helen Hitchcock, replies:

        "You have a good grasp of the now-standard arguments in favor of changing the traditional kneeling posture during the Eucharistic Prayer and elsewhere during the Communion Rite. But as virtually every recent poll shows, many Catholics today have lost the sense of the Mass as a sacrifice, and a sense of reverence, awe and adoration during the Eucharistic celebration. Kneeling expresses this aspect of the Mass more clearly than any other posture.

        There are many biblical references to kneeling for worship and prayer. Kneeling did not originate with feudalism. The "acclamation" following the Mysterium Fidei (mystery of faith) is the people's
acknowledgement that the Body of Christ has just been made present in the consecrated elements, a personal and communal affirmation of faith, similar to an "amen" (Hebrew: "so be it") at the conclusion of a prayer.

The "early church" arguments offered would be more persuasive if those who invoke them were more consistent in applying the principle. For example, one never hears of a liturgist urging a return to bread and water fasts, public penance for adultery, and other strict ascetical practices common in the early Church. Thus the "more traditional than thou" arguments for liturgical changes, which ignore the past several centuries of development in Catholic doctrine and liturgical practice, seem unconvincing. (For the record, we are biased in favor of reverent and beautiful celebrations of Mass as the Council intended, and we presume you are, too.)"

A comment from David, a reader of "Adoremus."

        "Thanks for your thoughtful remarks on kneeling at Mass. It's interesting that that article is still stirring debate! I'm glad to hear it. I can't argue with your first three points; that is, with the historical facts you raise. I would question, however, the inferences drawn from them - chiefly, that the ancient practice is necessarily more authentic and more fitting today. I don't think anyone of any rite in the Church today would like to return to the ancient practice of the Sacrament of Penance, for example, in which confessions were public and often made only once in anticipation of imminent death, because of extremely onerous penances. This is an extreme example, perhaps; but it makes the point, I think.

        With regard to your fifth point, I think that if we look closely, we could find a number of things in the liturgy which seem inappropriate from a certain perspective. For example, ever since I was a child I found the concluding rites of the Mass strangely short and perfunctory, coming as they do so quickly after the high point of Holy Communion. I always thought our common song should be much more meditative than it normally is, and that there should be a much longer period of silence, and then an extended period of common thanksgiving. Liturgists, however, rightly point out that receiving the Holy Eucharist has profound evangelical and missionary implications, and that it is appropriate that we are promptly "sent forth" to proclaim the Good News the world after the Communion of the Mass. Here we have an example, I think, of two impulses which cannot be perfectly reconciled in the liturgy, on this side of the eschaton, at least. As it stands, the Church is doing its best to recognize the need for both worship and thanksgiving and evangelical commissioning at this point in the Mass.

I hope these remarks are helpful. God bless, David

My reply to David:

        Thanks, Dave, for the reply to my message. You state many good and provocative points. I certainly would not to return to the early penitential practices of the church. I guess I speak more as a musician and I do find it awkward to sing acclamations of affirmation while not standing. I just have a problem, for instance, with kneeling in a posture of adoration at the end of the Canon of the mass. I'm not sure that is the right mode of prayer.

        Interestingly I just returned from a concert tour in Europe. Highlights were a concert in the Church of the Pieta in Venice (Vivaldi's church, as it is called) as well as a Sunday liturgy we sang in St. Mark's Basilica. Both thrilling experiences. On the Saturday night vigil mass (it was the Feast of the Redeemer in Venice) I went to mass with my wife at the Church of the Gesuati (actually a Dominican church today). To our surprise the locals stood through the entire Canon of the Mass. This is Italy! Sacre bleu. And so close to Rome! Well, I gather that this is quite a common practice in Europe and French Canada as well. I trust it is not a sign of any diminishing belief in the Real Presence in the Eucharist.

        Thanks again and keep touch. Richard

Concluding comment:

        Here is the text of the ancient Roman Canon of the mass. The big question is "Who are these "circumstantibus" i.e. "those standing around" the altar? The priest prays, "Remember, Lord, (he names the people for whom the mass is being offered) and "all those standing around" ("omnium circumstantium") whose faith is known to you " Does this refer only to the deacons or ministers at the altar or does it refer to the assembly standing, arms outstretched in the orans gesture?

Memento, Domine, famulorum famularumque tuarum N. et N. et omnium circumstantium, quorum tibi fides cognita est, et nota devotio, pro quibus tibi offerimus, vel qui tibi offerunt hoc sacrificium laudis, pro se suisque omnibus: pro redemptione animarum suarum, pro spe salutis, et incolumitatis suae: tibique reddunt vota sua aeterno Deo, vivo et vero.

(The ancient Roman Canon of the mass)

Richard Cross