Stand, Sit, Kneel, Repeat: Why Catholics Do the Things We Do

The meaning of kneeling, bowing and striking the breast

Léon Augustin Lhermitte (1844–1925), “La prière, église Saint-Bonnet”
Léon Augustin Lhermitte (1844–1925), “La prière, église Saint-Bonnet” (photo: Public Domain)

If you're a non-Catholic attending a Catholic Mass for the first time, chances are you'll notice this: On cue, people stand up; they sit back down; they kneel; then they stand… The curious onlooker might wonder what is the Secret Code that Catholics flash to one another, to achieve such uniformity under such complex circumstances.

My Irish aunt used to joke about it, her irreverent but good-natured banter extracting humor from our Sunday ritual. “They learned precision in the marching band,” she once told me, speaking of churchgoers who led the pack, standing before the priest could raise his arms to signal the start of the gospel, kneeling as the Eucharistic prayer was about to begin.


But do all of these postures have meaning?

Well, yes. When we stand, or kneel, or make the sign of the cross on our foreheads, lips and hearts, we are saying something about who we are, and who God is, and what we believe. Let’s talk about some of them:

Standing has been a common posture for prayer since the early Christians. It’s a sign of respect, and can also be a wordless symbol for the Resurrection. Catholics may sit while the two readings from the Old Testament and from the New Testament Epistles are read; but we always stand for a reading of the Gospel, in which are found the words of Christ himself.

Kneeling is a sign of humility. It’s a common posture for personal prayer and worship. Catholics kneel during the Eucharistic Prayer, that central point during the Mass when God comes down to us, when the Eucharist is transformed into the Body and Blood of Christ.

Bowing is a sign of profound reverence. We stand during the recitation of the Nicene Creed, which is a profession of our faith; but we add a bow of the head when we remember the Incarnation, saying, “... and by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary and became man.”

We also bow when we go forward to receive Holy Communion. The Church asks that we express our reverence at this time with an outward symbol. That can be kneeling (if there is a communion rail), genuflecting (dropping onto one knee) or, in most cases, a  bow of the head as one approaches the priest or extraordinary minister of Holy Communion to receive the Body and the Blood of Christ.

The Sign of the Cross is a simple ritual that expresses our prayer that the Trinity — God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit — will be with us. We sign ourselves at the beginning of a prayer, and again at the end. We dip our fingers into the holy water font, then make the Sign of the Cross with the blessed water. At the beginning of the Gospel, we use our thumbs to make a small sign of the cross on our foreheads (asking God to help us understand his word), on our lips (that we might speak his word), and on our hearts (where we will store his word and ponder it).

Striking the Breast. We strike our breasts as we recite the Confiteor (English: “I Confess” – also known as the Penitential Rite), near the beginning of Mass. We ask God’s forgiveness for our sins, asking him to cleanse our hearts before we listen to his word and before we receive Him in the Eucharist. As we say the words “through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault,” we strike our fists against our chests in a gesture of penitence and surrender. Although the rubric for the current translation doesn’t specify how many times to strike our breasts, many repeat the gesture three times.


Liturgical Postures Reserved for the Priest and Deacon

There are other actions which are performed by the priest or deacon, and which also express what we as Catholics believe:

The Liturgical Kiss. The priest and deacon kiss the altar at the beginning of Mass because it symbolizes Jesus himself. The same with the text of the Gospel: After the priest or, if present, the deacon reads the Gospel, he kisses the text. Kisses show up at other times: during Good Friday services, for example, when the faithful process forward to kiss the feet of Jesus on the crucifix.

Lying prostrate or face-down on the floor is a sign of complete surrender to God. During the liturgy of Ordination, candidates about to be ordained to the priesthood lie prostrate in the aisle as the Litany of the Saints is recited or sung, invoking the prayers of all the saints for their ministry. On Good Friday, the dramatic gesture is used by the priest and deacon, who lie before the altar.