To Kneel or Not to Kneel?

[ 16 ] October 16, AD 2013 |

                To receive Communion… that is the question. I was recently confronted about this, at a parish I will be teaching religious education through my job this year. At this parish, all children are made to kneel in order to receive Communion. When the explanation behind this was a speech given by Pope Benedict XVI in 2007 and my obedience to the Pope was called into question, I began to feel a bit uneasy. I knew both forms are allowed, but did the Pope really call to kneel for Communion? Am I being unfaithful when I don’t kneel?

                I decided to research a few questions about kneeling and the Eucharist. Feel free to add your thoughts and findings on the matter also.

What is the history of kneeling?

“The most ancient practice of distributing Holy Communion was, with all probability, to give Communion to the faithful in the palm of the hand…From the time of the Fathers of the Church, a tendency was born and consolidated whereby distribution of Holy Communion in the hand became more and more restricted in favor of distributing Holy Communion on the tongue.” (source) Although there is no mention of it in Conciliar documents, receiving Communion while standing slowly became universal practice after Vatican II.

What do Church documents say about it?

                The General Instruction of the Roman Missal assigns to Conferences of Bishops the decision as to whether the faithful should stand or kneel (no. 43 §2) and also what an appropriate sign of reverence before receiving Communion is (no. 160§2).

The American adaptation of the General Instruction Roman Missal in 2002 stated that “The norm for reception of Holy Communion in the dioceses of the United States is standing. Communicants should not be denied Holy Communion because they kneel.” The same document in 2010 was slightly altered to more explicitly allow for kneeling: “The norm established for the Dioceses of the United States of America is that Holy Communion is to be received standing, unless an individual member of the faithful wishes to receive Communion while kneeling.” Why is standing the norm? Uniformity in posture 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” (GIRM, no. 42).

A statement from the Vatican (here) allows for both and Redemptionis Sacramentum also allows for both: “The faithful should receive Communion kneeling or standing, as the Conference of Bishops will have determined”, with its acts having received the recognitio [approval] of the Apostolic See.” (no. 90 Redemptionis Sacramentum)

If the bishops in your country chose standing as the norm, can you still kneel?

Yes.  Cardinal Arinze, speaking on Redemptionis Sacramentum here says, “People are free. Even if the bishops [of your country] have chosen standing, those who want to kneel are free to kneel and no one has the right to say to them ‘you are disobedient’.” And also, “A Catholic who is not forbidden to receive Communion should not be denied just because the Catholic prefers to kneel or to stand.”

Did Pope Benedict XVI always distribute Communion to people that were kneeling?

Yes. In 2008, the Papal master of Ceremonies, Monsignor Guido Marini announced a new Vatican protocol for receiving communion.

“In continuity with the teaching of his Predecessor, starting with the Solemnity of Corpus Christi in the year 2008, the Holy Father, Benedict XVI, began to distribute to the faithful the Body of the Lord, by placing it directly on the tongue of the faithful as they remain kneeling.” (source)

Does Pope Francis also only distribute Communion to those kneeling?

Although no official communication has been made, the faithful have been receiving Communion from Pope Francis while kneeling.

Does the Eastern Church also kneel?

No. Standing for communion has always been maintained by other rites in the Catholic Church, while kneeling has been tradition only in the Latin rite.

 

So there you have it. To stand or to kneel, there seem to be convincing arguments from both sides. It is clear that both forms are permitted by the Church. As to which is better… that final decision might have to come down to being between you and God.

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Category: Columnists, Sacraments

About the Author ()

Julie Machado is a 27-year-old Portuguese-American who grew up in California, but moved to Portugal for college and has been there ever since. She has a degree in Theology from the Catholic University of Lisbon, is currently teaching English and has special interest in Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the Body. She blogs at Marta, Julie e Maria.
  • JR Labio

    Thanks for the short, but informational, explanation! After learning that I could kneel over a year ago, I started to kneel for Communion. I like it better that way because it inherently makes me have to be reverent or have a reverent mindset.

  • kneeling catholic

    Hello, Julie!

    A nice balanced treatment. There are two additional points I’d like for you to consider:

    1) re: history. I often hear that Hand Communion is ancient. Fact is, it might be or it might not be. The modern practice is however not the ancient practice, the only description of which we owe to to St. Cyril of Jeru., which also guarded that the Holy Fragments were treated with reverence. That is out the window with the modern Communion-any-old-way. When is the last time you saw someone lick their palms to keep the Fragments from being discarded?

    2) re: history. There still exist Apostolic Churches which separated from Rome more than 1500 years ago. If Hand Communion, or the modern Communion-any-old-way were so wide spread 1500 years ago, then why do ZERO of these Churches practice Hand Communion? Unless someone argues that the Georgians or Armenians or Copts –or the Russians a little later–all banned Hand Communion to imitate Rome, it must be admitted that Hand Communion could never have been very wide-spread in the ancient Church.

    Lastly I would like to point out that your phrase ‘ all children are made to kneel in order to receive Communion’ makes it seem rather tyrannical. I think you could also say ‘Children are FORCED TO come to church for an hour before they can receive Holy Communion’. That sounds pretty bad too! When you teach, you ‘make’ children do things and this can look tyrannical.

    Does ‘ all children are made to kneel *before the King of Kings’ sound better?

  • disqus_JntNQhiuJy

    The previous bishop of WV asked that we no longer kneel after the “Lamb of God”….same kind of questions came to mind. I prefer kneeling before my King as much as possible, but depends on what the King’s local right hand man tells you.

  • Mary Pearlman

    Just my opinion, but since the norm in our parish and in our diocese is for people to stand and receive Holy Communion in the hand, it appears to me that those who choose to kneel, and to receive on their tongues, are really just making themselves seem more pious and separate from the rest of us faithful Christians. I follow St Ambrose’s advice to St. Monica myself – if was good enough for Monica, Augustine, and Jerome, it’s good enough for me. So, if I’m at your parish, and everyone is kneeling and receiving lingually, so will I – ever mindful that when the apostles first received the holy body and blood of Christ, they did so at a Seder, and so passed and ate the unleavened bread while reclining around the table like all good Jews continue to do to this day.

    • kneeling catholic

      Hello, Mary!

    • kneeling catholic

      kneeling is hard the first time you do it, for the reason you mention i.e. not wanting to be conspicuous and especially if you fear that the priest or extraordinary minister will upbraid you!
      there are times, however, when you should disregard what you think other people might think about you. If they want to judge you, that is more their problem than yours.
      I would argue that instances when God’s Honor, or your own conscience demands something, then it’s time to disregard the gaze of your friends.
      Kneeling was a development of practice, not an artificial imitation of what someone thought they read in the Church Fathers. It emerged as the Church’s appreciation of the Eucharist grew and refined itself. If you feel that Eucharistic tradition was wrong or too over the top, then-by no means-kneel!

    • B.E. Miles

      Hi Mary,

      While It may well be the norm in your parish or diocese to receive Holy Communion while standing, it nevertheless remains the Universal Norm of the Church to receive kneeling and on the tongue. Just sayin’.

      Also, you said in part: “It appears to me that those who choose to kneel, and to receive on their tongues, are really just making themselves seem more pious and separate from the rest of us faithful Christians.”

      Quick question for you: Why do you immediately impute the worst motivation (spiritual pride) to those Catholics who choose to receive Holy Communion according to the Universal Norm of the Church? That seems awfully mean-spirited of you.

      And just in case you’re open to the truth, here’s the real reason why I choose to receive kneeling and on the tongue: When the King of the Universe condescends to make Himself utterly helpless and vulnerable, all so that a wretched sinner like me might find life, my heart quite naturally leaps to show him every form of reverence and gratitude – regardless of what nasty and judgmental things people around me might be thinking.

      And for the record, I have the utmost admiration and respect for my brothers and sisters in Christ who, making an altar with their hands, choose to receive our crucified Lord standing, with all reverence and sincerity of heart.

      So please Mary, do try to think better of us next time – for your own sake if not sure ours.

  • Mary Pearlman

    Hi to you, Kneeler! Of course, I believe most firmly that you, (and all of us) must follow our conscience but is this a matter of conscience, or of practice? Also, Pope Benedict evidently was addressing a particular issue of sacrilege taking place in Italy and in Europe and therefore instituting practices to prevent abuse. I’m trying to understand why some Catholics feel so strongly about this that they are willing to separate themselves from the rest of their community and even their pastors – but then again, I know that I’ll never understand everyone, and that’s okay too. Thanks for talking about it with me.

    • kneeling catholic

      Hello again, Mary!

      you probed … “I’m trying to understand why some Catholics feel so strongly about this”
      mostly I feel strongly because I think if the Lord Jesus stood right in front of me, undisguised, I would like to believe I would fall to my knees–as did the one grateful leper, and many others. Even if He were to tell me ‘it’s ok to treat Me like your buddy’, I would still kneel before Him. It just *seems* right to fall down before Him!

      • Mary Pearlman

        Kneeler, thank you. You’re right. Absolutely. I have to think about this more, and talk to my pastor more. I appreciate the time you took to explain.

      • kneeling catholic

        No, thank you, dear lady! your humility brings tears to my eyes!
        please pray for me!

  • Gary Adrian

    Personally I find that kneeling forces me to take on a more reverent attitude about the most amazing thing I am about to receive. As I look up at the priest giving me the sign of the Cross with the body of Christ I am about to receive, I feel a flush of awe at this wonderful gift.

    For years I received standing and in the hand, as one might do when buying a ticket at the theater, it was a robotic action done to get through the line. When kneeling, I am forced to change my stance, forced to think about what I am doing. For me it is just logical, there is no reason to stand when we can get so many spiritual benefits by kneeling.

  • ross hoffman

    Much ado about personal expression of reverence…..LET IT BE!

  • Patrick Lahey

    In my youth, there was still a communion rail where the faithful knelt and waited as the priest came to each of them in a lateral line to administer communion. Those brief moments as I was kneeling and waiting for the priest to bring me communion were among the most profound times of the Mass. It was the time I was most focused: kneeling before the altar, gazing upon the religious adornments of the sanctuary, and awaiting the impending arrival of my Lord and Savior. I never minded if the priest had to return to the tabernacle for additional hosts, since it prolonged the experience. The same Lord and Savior awaits me during mass as I stand in line behind my brothers and sisters in Christ and await my turn to receive Him, but the overall experience is a poorer one.

  • LILLIAN PORTER

    I would like to kneel to receive Our Lord but I’m getting doddery and am afraid I couldn’t get up, easily, from that position, which would create a distraction and take people’s minds off of Jesus. I’ve had some near falls when someone has suddenly dropped to their knees in front of me.
    I notice that the pic of Pope Benedict distributing Communion, shows people using a kneeler – something to grasp onto and to push off of, in order to stand upright again. Would the reintroduction of Communion rails be a hindrance, now that we have Extraordinary ministers?

    • MM

      Lillian, I am with you. My knees are no longer able to get down on the hard floor with no rail to help me up or down. When there is still an altar rail at a church (I only know of one such church in my area) then I kneel but in my parish and others without an altar rail I stand. I would imagine there are many people in my situation.