National Catholic Register


No-Kneeling Rule Sparks Widespread Outcry

BY John Burger

Septembar 29-October 5, 2002 Issue | Posted 9/29/02 at 2:00 PM


LINCOLN, Neb. — A new directive on the posture for receiving Communion is being implemented in a way that those who wish to receive kneeling are often humiliated.

The new directive merely codifies what has been a practice since the 1960s, and it isn't meant to prevent those who still receive kneeling, usually at an altar rail, from doing so.

Nevertheless, Adoremus Bulletin editor Helen Hull Hitchcock and EWTN news anchorman Raymond Arroyo said they have heard from people all over the country who are being forced to stand.

“We've gotten a lot of reports from Southern California of people being interfered with, told they must stand during the distribution of Communion, stand until everyone has received and refused Communion if they knelt,” Hitchcock said.

The July issue of the U.S. bishops' Committee on the Liturgy newsletter says that kneeling is “not a licit posture for receiving holy Communion in the dioceses of the United States of America unless the bishop of a particular diocese has derogated from this norm in an individual and extraordinary circumstance.”

In fact, Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz of Lincoln, Neb., “has given a derogation so people can kneel if they prefer,” said Father Mark Huber, chancellor. “There has been a lot of confusion” about the new norm, said Father Huber, who speculated that there will “probably be enough questions sent to Rome to lead them to make a clarification.”

The new norm comes out of the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM), a set of directives on how to celebrate and assist at Mass. Published with the new edition of the Roman Missal, the GIRM says communicants may receive standing or kneeling, as established by the bishops' conference.

The U.S. bishops requested a number of other adaptations to the GIRM. Before approving them, Cardinal Jorge Medina Estévez, prefect of the Vatican's Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments, insisted that the bishops add a clarification that communicants should not be denied the Eucharist because they kneel. The adaptation says that instances of people kneeling should be addressed pastorally “by providing the faithful with the proper catechesis on the reasons for this norm.”

Cardinal Medina's letter, from Oct. 25, 2001, stated: “This dicastery [Vatican department] agrees in principle to the insertion [of the standing adaptation]. At the same time, the tenor of not a few letters received from the faithful in various dioceses of [the United States] leads the congregation ... to urge the [bishop's] conference to introduce a clause that would protect those faithful who will inevitably be led by their own sensibilities to kneel, from imprudent action by priests, deacons or lay ministers in particular, or from being refused holy Communion for such a reason as happens on occasion.”

Msgr. Anthony Sherman, assistant director of the bishops' Committee on the Liturgy, affirmed that one can not be refused Communion for failing to stand, but he said that people ought to “accommodate themselves to the new norms.”

But insistence on standing is causing angst for many individuals and groups riding the wave of what they see as a return to traditional pious practices but which others see as nostalgia for the pre-Vatican II Church. It also is presenting a dilemma for people who are aware of the need for obedience to priests and bishops but feel a need to show respect for the Blessed Sacrament in what they consider a traditional, more reverent posture.

Parishioners at St. Patrick's Cathedral in Fort Worth, Texas, say several people have been humiliated by priests or eucharistic ministers who have insisted that the communicants stand before they are given Communion. They say their complaints to Fort Worth Bishop Joseph Delaney and Msgr. Hubert Neu, pastor of the cathedral, have not yielded satisfactory answers.

The parish council wrote to Cardinal Medina. An undersecretary of the Congregation for Divine Worship replied July 1, reiterating the stipulation that communicants who choose to kneel are not to be denied Communion on those grounds.

“The priests have stopped coming to the altar rail,” said Robert Gieb, an attorney who is president of the parish council. He pointed out that parishioners never stopped the practice of receiving at the rail after Vatican II. He said many parishioners were angered by implementation of the new norm, which started in the diocese on the solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ in June.

“The Eucharist is the heart of the Catholic faith,” said parishioner Bobby Ryan, 40, who finds it hard to give up the devotional kneeling he has learned since he became a Catholic in 1995. “For people who have knelt all their lives, and a bishop saying you shouldn't kneel, there's something wrong. ... I'd think it would make a bishop happy to have people in his diocese who want to kneel.”

Gieb, who said he and a few other parishioners still kneel, complains of what he calls the “posture police, who want to prohibit the faithful from dropping on their knees before God.”

Msgr. Neu said he does not deny or delay Communion to anyone who kneels. “We're going by the norm,” he said, pointing out that the bishops want uniformity in practice. People who kneel are “going contrary to the norm, but I've given Communion to them.”

Bishop Delaney could not be reached for comment.

Risen With Christ

The U.S. bishops' liturgy committee, in an article TITLEd, “Postures and Gestures at Mass,” said that standing is a sign of respect and honor: “This posture, from the earliest days of the Church, has been understood as the stance of those who are risen with Christ and seek the things that are above [emphasis in original]. When we stand for prayer we assume our full stature before God, not in pride, but in humble gratitude for the marvelous thing God has done in creating and redeeming each one of us. By Baptism we have been given a share in the life of God, and the posture of standing is an acknowledgment of this wonderful gift.”

Communion, said the unsigned article, one of a series of bulletin inserts on the Roman Missal, is “the sacrament which unites us in the most profound way possible with Christ who, now gloriously risen from the dead, is the cause of our salvation.”

The article, which can be read on the committee's Web page ( 3.htm), gives a brief overview of the history of kneeling. It says kneeling signified penance in the early Church, when kneeling was forbidden on Sundays and during the Easter Season and “the prevailing spirit of the liturgy was that of joy and thanksgiving.” In the Middle Ages, kneeling signified the homage of a vassal to his lord, it said, and more recently, the posture has signified adoration. The article does not cite authorities for this historical overview.

The committee's July newsletter noted the GIRM emphasizes that in matters of gesture and posture “greater attention needs to be paid to what is laid down by liturgical law and by the traditional practice of the Roman Rite, for the sake of the common spiritual good of the people of God rather than to personal inclination or arbitrary choice.”

In their consideration of the GIRM, the U.S. bishops “repeatedly recalled the need for uniformity in all prescribed postures and gestures,” the newsletter said. “Such uniformity serves as a ‘sign of the unity of the members of the Christian community gathered for the sacred Liturgy’ and it ‘both expresses and fosters the spiritual attitude of those assisting,’” said the newsletter, quoting the GIRM. “Likewise, a lack of uniformity can serve as a sign of disunity or even a sense of individualism.”

The new norm also instructs the communicant who stands to receive to bow his head before the Host or Precious Blood as a gesture of reverence. It does not say anything about genuflecting or making the sign of the cross, which some Catholics do before receiving from a priest at the head of a line.

But Bishop William Higi of Lafayette, Ind., wrote in his diocesan newspaper in June that “a person is not to genuflect before receiving.” He speculated that many people genuflect in response to reports of low levels of belief in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. “However, the sign of reverence has now been clearly determined for the United States,” he wrote in his weekly column in The Catholic Moment. “It is a bow of the head.”

“Should a person insist on kneeling for the reception of holy Communion, Communion will not be denied, but they clearly will be demonstrating dissent from the mind of the Church,” Bishop Higi continued. “Rather than reverence, the emphasis will be refusal to embrace particular law approved by the Vatican for the United States.”

Father Gerry Pokorsky, who heads Credo, a society of priests advocating high-quality translations for the Mass, finds it “disproportionate” to insist that kneeling is “illicit” when there have been so many other problems in the Church in recent years.

As to the liturgy committee's article claiming that kneeling was an act of penance in the early Church, Father Pokorsky cites St. Paul's dictum that, “At the name of Jesus, every knee shall bow.”

“That doesn't sound like penance to me, it sounds like adoration,” the Arlington, Va., priest said. “Why this aversion to acts of piety? It's such a one-sided emphasis. Will the bishops now be attendant to all the liturgical abuses?”

As an example of those abuses, Father Pokorsky spoke of priests failing to perform the ritual washing of the hands after the presentation of the gifts. Other Catholics pointed out that some celebrants fail to genuflect after the consecration and lay ministers in the sanctuary often are exempted from the requirement to kneel during the Eucharistic Prayer.

What many Catholic lay people are complaining about is that priests who are cavalier themselves about following obligatory liturgical norms become draconian in enforcing an optional directive on lay people. And bishops who ignore flagrant liturgical abuses by priests promote strict adherence to liturgical norms when it comes to a common posture for lay people.

Dominican Father Giles Dimock, a former professor of liturgy and now dean of the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C., said it's helpful to have a uniform posture, but that this goal must be balanced against individual devotion and the common good.

“I would never dream of refusing Communion to someone who wants to kneel,” Father Dimock said. “They feel it's necessary” to show reverence in such a way.

At the same time, communicants should be aware that Communion needs to be distributed to others in an orderly way. As a professor at Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio, Father Dimock was accustomed to giving Communion to students on their knees, but he said a few knelt a bit longer than a regard for others in line would allow. For those few students, the priest said, it was “like their own personal holy hour.”