Local Changes To Mass Raise Ire

SEATTLE—To sit, to stand, or to kneel—that is the question.

New directives from Rome and the U.S. bishops make small but significant changes, and some parishioners and priests fear that their dioceses are asking to give up good customs, and the reverence they add to Mass.

The revised General Instruction of the Roman Missal, with adaptations for the United States, was published by the U.S. bishops in April.

In a few dioceses—including Seattle; Gary, Ind.; Los Angeles; and Monterey, Calif.—the bishops have acted on a clause in the General Instruction of the Roman Missal that allows them to depart from a 30-year national custom of kneeling after the Agnus Dei (Lamb of God).

A vocal minority in those areas is confused and troubled by the change.

In Seattle, Archbishop Alexander Brunett has established the practice that all in the assembly will continue to stand after the Agnus Dei, while in the majority of U.S. dioceses the people kneel. Also, Seattle parishioners are asked to remain standing through the rest of Communion, until all have received, at which time they may sit or kneel for a period of sacred silence.

Archbishop Brunett said the new practice is not a change but a renewal of the original meaning of Communion.

“It's the same kind of theology and practice that the Church has had for centuries,” he said. “The idea is for a hymn to be sung [at that time] and not to stand for the sake of standing. We come forward as a joyful community. We stand as an act of praise or acknowledgment. … They don't drop immediately into their private devotion but enter into that communal event.”

Although priests are being catechized on the new posture and are encouraged to catechize their people, no one will be disciplined for not standing, the archbishop said.

“It's not a mandate,” he said. “Our procedure here is that if this is any kind of a burden or hardship on people, they can certainly sit or kneel. If they don't feel they want to enter this aspect of communio theology, I'm not going to look down on it.”

Gail Rowan, a mother of two in Mount Vernon, Wash., said she is deeply disturbed to be asked to stand at a time she is inclined to kneel out of reverence and adoration, and she wrote of her concerns to the bishop and the Vatican.

“It didn't feel right,” she said. “People have told me, ‘I used to pray [after receiving Communion], but now I'm looking around.’”

Though most parishioners appear to be going along with the new practice without objection, Rowan said she and her family continue to kneel.

“You miss that time for prayer and giving thanks to God,” she said. She pointed out that the amount of time to kneel and pray personally after Communion had been cut from several minutes to a matter of seconds.

The General Instruction of the Roman Missal now says that while the priest is receiving Communion, the Communion chant is begun.

“Its purpose is to express the communicants' union in spirit by means of the unity of their voices, to show joy of heart and to highlight more clearly the ‘communitarian’ nature of the procession to receive Communion,” say the new guidelines. “The singing is continued for as long as the Sacrament is being administered to the faithful.”

The new rules allow sitting or kneeling for the “period of sacred silence after Communion.”

Seattle parishioners say their priests have instructed them that the new practices are in accord with Rome and the U.S. bishops, which leaves little room for questioning.

In fact, customary practice of kneeling remains the norm in the United States, according to the new General Instruction of the Roman Missal. But it also allows bishops the option to depart from that norm.

The kneeling norm in the United States is an exception to the norm for the rest of the world. Throughout the world, the faithful kneel only for the consecration—they do not kneel during the whole Eucharistic prayer or during the “Behold the Lamb of God.” Exceptions to this rule were requested by the U.S. bishops after the Second Vatican Council and granted by the Vatican.

Kneeling Debate

The subject of kneeling has been in dispute for years and culminated recently in some cases of individuals being refused Communion because they knelt to receive. In one extreme situation, a priest called in the local police to arrest a kneeling communicant, said Charles Wilson, a canon law expert with the St. Joseph Foundation in San Antonio.

Although the General Instruction of the Roman Missal states that standing is the normal posture for receiving Communion in the United States, it also states: “Communicants should not be denied holy Communion because they kneel.” Rather, the document continued, those who kneel should be instructed “pastorally” on the reasons for the norm.

Canon 843 states that “sacred ministers may not deny the sacraments to those who opportunely ask for them, are properly disposed and are not prohibited by law from receiving them.”

Responding to several letters from Catholics in the United States who said they were being forced to stand, the Vatican Congregation for Divine Worship wrote, “The faithful should not be imposed upon nor accused of disobedience and of acting illicitly when they kneel to receive Communion.” And Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, said kneeling for Communion is a centuries-old tradition.

Edward Peters, professor of canon law at the Institute for Pastoral Theology of Ave Maria University in Ypsilanti, Mich., said, “I don't think there's any question but that withholding Communion from someone who chooses to kneel is a serious violation of that person's fundamental canonical rights under Canons 213, 843 and 912.”

“The argument that unity of posture is important at Communion time seems to me exaggerated here,” he said. “Of course unity is important, but it should be a unity in important things, such as our belief in the Real Presence or our willingness to show our love for Jesus in Communion, and not on something mostly external, let alone divisive.”

Helen Hull Hitchcock, editor of the liturgical journal Adoremus Bulletin, said many Catholics find it inexplicable that a bishop would object to people's expression of devotion to the Eucharist through kneeling.

“Many liturgists have been convinced that kneeling is a posture only used for penance,” she said. “This argument was steadfastly advanced during the whole time the bishops were considering the revision of the “Roman Missal.”

Richard Stith, a Catholic who teaches law at Valparaiso University in Indiana, said kneeling in prayer after Communion does not conflict with an attitude of communion with others but focuses momentarily on the very source of that communion—Christ himself.

“The tradition of folding oneself, internally and externally, around the Body of Christ—embracing and communing with Christ dwelling within one after Communion—is the closest to an ecstatic union with our Lord that we non-mystics ever get to experience,” he said. “It also is the greatest source of our union with others. We are united with others because of our union with Christ. He is the axis of the wheel, and we are the spokes.”

Archbishop Brunett said the people who have written him about their discomfort with standing are not aware of the different liturgical gestures in Catholic churches around the world, where, for example, it might not be the custom to kneel during the Eucharistic prayer.

“Most of the letters I get about this issue show a not-very-well-developed understanding of Eucharistic theology,” he said. “They … show somebody is doing something from habit but not with understanding for why they did it.”

Ellen Rossini writes