This is an email that I sent when one of my friends asked me what the deal was for kneeling to receive the Blessed Sacrament; why do people do it in general, and why do I do it in particular.
Once upon a time, everyone received Communion kneeling, all the time, for about one thousand years. For well-nigh a millennia, if not longer, every Catholic in the world assumed the practical posture of respect, and humility, before his God (the other being prostration, but that is not practical for receiving a consumable). They knew what they were doing and they knew why they were doing it – for probably all of that time, the countryside was crawling with kings and barons and dukes and earls and lords and things, who all wanted their subjects to assume the proper posture for being in their presence. People understood that they should bow or even kneel to their temporal superior, who quite possibly held their livelihood in gloved, bejeweled fingers. How much more must they have understood that it is right and proper to conduct themselves with even more humility before the Blessed Sacrament, which is God. People should know who and what they are in relation to each other and especially to God. One of the gifts of the Holy Spirit is “fear of the Lord”. It is not such for nothing.
However, time passed and what with the Enlightenment and the Age of Reason, people began to get uppity. Sometimes it was good, and we had the American Revolution. Sometimes it went overboard, and we had the bloodbath of the French Revolution. England went through a totally schizophrenic phase and couldn’t decide what religion it was going to be that year or whether or not they’d suffer the current monarch to live. As nobility gradually lost more and more power, and the monarchy gradually became more and more of a joke, ordinary people didn’t have much of a temporal hierarchy to show them how to behave towards a spiritual hierarchy. Little by little, the formal acts denoting the balances of rank and respect faded into empty courtesies. Men stopped kneeling to anyone, and bowed to whomever they wished. It became a greeting between anybody. Those bows became slighter and slighter until they turned into head nods. Men stopped doffing their hats with a flourish, and substituted tipping them instead. That tipping turned into touching, that touching to motioning somewhere in the vicinity of his hairline. The curtsy found itself on a milk carton. This loss of meaningful motion, if you will, had a sort of “trickle-up” effect – it started with one’s local baron and went up from there.
However, when even the kings and queens were being met with bows meant more to pacify their sense of propriety than any actual deference, the Church was different. People still clung to the knowledge that Churchmen were still a people set apart, and since they dealt with the holies, the mysteries, their affairs of God, laymen showed them more respect than their secular counterparts. But just because the decay was slower, did not mean it wasn’t happening. First a skirt-chasing king and then an overreacting monk sent colossal shock waves through Christendom. Suddenly there was a sense that Church leaders were no more than men, and somewhat distasteful ones at that. Confidence was shaken and respect lost. Even through it all, though, the notion that God was supreme, and that the Blessed Sacrament was indeed His Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity, remained. People still knelt down to receive their Lord. They still understood, on some level or other, where they were in relation to God.
Towards the middle of the 20th century, the Uppity chart had another enormous spike, far outstripping the previous one. God didn’t matter, and if He did, everything was cool, because Jesus is our homeboy. The world looked at religion and said, “Who cares? It’s all good… except when you make me do something I don’t feel like doing.” Catholics looked at the Church and said the same thing. God became radically unimportant. Jesus became a buddy instead of Lord, and buddies don’t ask us to kneel to them. They offer to fist-bump us instead. Religion became unprecedentedly casual. The sense of awe for God, the reverence, the knowledge that He is an omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent deity with all the power of life and death, creation and destruction, miracles and wonders, who made us, taught us, saved us from ourselves and from sin and death, and who gives us the ability to exist and act, had all but disappeared.
Reception of the Blessed Sacrament had been understood as an intimate encounter with God in a totally unique way, yet undeniably while in communion (“common union”) with the others at Mass. It was stripped down to its skivvies, so to speak, to be taught as merely another way we the faithful express our union with each other at Mass (note that I refer to reception, that is, how we receive, not the sacrament itself), with exactly the same meaning and significance as standing together in the pews. Reception became all about us, without a whit for God. Eventually we regained a single scrap of sanity, and the bishops decided that people should be encouraged to bow before receiving the Sacred Species.
Standing to receive Communion is the norm in the United States. It became the norm after a bunch of obstinate, misguided people refused to stop standing to receive Communion. It used to be a liturgical abuse. However, in this case the squeaky wheel got the grease – the bishops caved, petitioned “The Vatican” (here used in its inaccurate catch-all definition of “someone in the upper levels of the hierarchy but I’m not sure who”), somebody at “The Vatican” caved as well, and those obstinate, misguided people had a field day while dragging the rest of us down. The bishops rationalized this incredible display of their real identity as invertebrates along these lines: People are raising a giant stink about this. We can’t get certain priests (and perhaps other bishops) to knuckle down and tell people NO, you really can’t do that and how dare you display such disobedience and flagrant disrespect. The fire is raging and we’re tired of trying to put it out. And all things considered (in my opinion they couldn’t possibly have considered “all things” but again IMO they obviously didn’t consider the Biggest Thing), it’s really Not That Bad… right?? And poof, an abuse became, not only legitimate, but THE NORM. Those bishops didn’t just say “Well, ok, I guess we can tolerate it,” but said “Hey guess what! EVERYBODY has to do this thing that used to be WRONG!!!!1!!!!11!!!! :D :D Oh and btw you can just forget about what your conscience tells you because if I catch you kneeling I will refuse you Communion, or pull you to your feet, or otherwise embarrass and persecute you.” (Yes, those things did happen, and there are many cases on video even now.)
It took awhile, but eventually the CDW (Congregation for Divine Worship) received enough letters to write something definitive in reply. Here are three letters addressing this issue. From the first one comes this quote: “In fact, as His Eminence, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger has recently emphasized, the practice of kneeling for Holy Communion has in its favor a centuries-old tradition, and it is a particularly expressive sign of adoration, completely appropriate in light of the true, real and substantial presence of Our Lord Jesus Christ under the consecrated species.” Additionally, from an interview of Cardinal Canizares, current head of the CDW, comes this quote:
“The pope then, to give greater prominence to the due reverence with which we must approach the Body of Christ, wished that the faithful who receive Communion from his hands do so on their knees. This seemed to me a beautiful and edifying initiative of the Bishop of Rome. The present norms do not require anyone to do the same. But neither do they prevent it.”
There is something of a siren song in things which are meant to be symbols, signs, and other quiet messages of larger truths and realities. Just because an action, object, etc., has a meaning, or has a reason, does not mean that the meaning or reason is true, accurate, applicable, or enlightening. Also, just because two items have related meanings/reasons does not mean they are interchangeable or of equal value. For example: Standing to receive Communion has a meaning, and so does kneeling. One aspect of properly forming our consciences is learning how to evaluate their importance, truth, applicability, and value. Standing is a sign of Christian unity, full stop. That is the meaning/reason for why it is the norm at this time. Kneeling is a sign of right orientation with respect to how we should comport ourselves in the close proximity of Jesus. That is the meaning/reason for why it had been the norm for over 1000 years. If it is written that at the name of Jesus every knee shall bend, then what are we saying when we do not bend the knee when He is before us, hidden under the guise of bread? My conscience does not permit me to think that standing to receive my Lord as though I am going through a lunchline is ok for me to do. Other people are in different situations, so I don’t bother thinking about whether it’s right or wrong for them to stand. It is not forbidden, and I’m not going to act like it is. Rather like wearing my veil, it is an understanding I have come to for myself within the guidelines of Church law.
I consider commenting negatively about a person’s decision to kneel for Communion in the same light as commenting negatively about a person for wearing a veil, or having a home altar, or genuflecting before the tabernacle, or bowing at the name of Jesus, or kissing their thumb-cross after the Sign of the Cross, or just plain praying too much. It’s foolishness, and rooted in mean-spiritedness. I think it’s silly and narrowminded to expect everyone never to do more than the bare minimum. That being said, it’s common knowledge that wherever the minimum is, that’s where most people tend to be. Lower it, and people will sink. Raise it, and people will rise. Perhaps someday kneeling at an altar rail will become the bare minimum again.
There is the argument that doing anything other than standing to receive Communion with an optional-but-encouraged bow beforehand is disruptive, that it is simply one person calling attention to herself, and that it is an inappropriately singular display of overly pious behavior.
To the first, I say that people really ought to be focusing on their own prayers, songs, and connection to the Lord, and if they’re distracting themselves by people-watching and happen to be self-righteous enough to take umbrage, then it is their own darn fault.
To the second, I say that if indeed the kneeler is putting on some kind of production, they should be corrected, because NO ONE should be putting on a show at Mass. However, someone dropping to their knees and then taking all of an extra second to get up, all the while attempting to be graceful and not taking up extra space, is not an attention-calling action at all. It is different, yes, and perhaps surprising the first few times it is witnessed by various people, but so is anyone else who receives in an “alternate” fashion – the woman who receives the Precious Blood instead of the Body, for instance, or someone in a wheelchair, or the little old ladies who don’t leave their pews. (Our parish does not offer the Precious Blood to everyone, most likely because our pastor is aware of the hypocritical numbers game involved in offering the Precious Blood while also enlisting Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion.)
As for the last one, it particularly gets my dander up. It falls under the principle of catering to the least common denominator. There are some people who take offense to anyone who does more of anything that they do. How dare they go to Confession more than once a year! How dare they pray the Rosary every morning! How dare they genuflect when crossing in front of the tabernacle! They’re making MEEEEEEEEEEE look bad! If traveled through its logical course, this route will slowly strip away all the exterior, and then interior differences between people; never requiring more of those who do less, but requiring less of those who do more. Well, the least common denominator are those “cultural Catholics” who don’t go to Mass or pray at all! We shouldn’t look any more pious than they are, because of course that’s being a show-off. And poof, the whole religion crumbles because no one practices or believes anything anymore.
And that brings me to my last point: lex orandi, lex credendi, lex vivendi. It’s the principle that the law of faith, the law of belief, and the law of life are all interconnected. How we pray – our words and actions – molds what we believe, and that affects how we live (and the other way ’round, too). It is very important that our words and actions embody and reflect the truths we as Catholics hold, otherwise our personal beliefs will go haywire. For me, I must assume what my properly-formed conscience tells me is the appropriate posture for receiving the Blessed Sacrament, because I believe certain things about the nature of the Host and the nature of God, and my relation to Him. I used to stand to receive Communion like everyone else, and it was one of the major contributing factor in becoming a functional atheist when I was a teenager. My body language, my actions, told me that this was just some random non-tasty thing that I was eating. It was not holy, or sacred, or even very important. When I came out of that bleak era, I quickly realized that I did not feel right just shuffling along like I used to. I started genuflecting and then standing back up to receive. That got old relatively fast because after awhile I felt like I was cheating; as though I were curtsying to the Queen and then standing up to slap her on the back and ask her about that local sports team. So I started kneeling and haven’t looked back.
I did catch some flack for it a couple times. Once was while I was at my old parish – no sanctuary of orthodoxy there – and the priest harrumphed, rolled his eyes, whispered, “You’re not supposed to do that,” and fortunately still gave me Communion. For months after that my parents were mystified because I was sporadically receiving and not receiving Communion. My dad asked me if I wanted to go to Confession with him that Saturday (the not-so-subtle “are you in mortal sin?” angle), but I said no and next Sunday I received Communion. My mom noticed it first. Whenever we sat on the left side of the church, thereby getting funneled into the line to receive communion from whoever the priest was that Sunday, I stayed in the pew. When we sat on the right side, and in no danger of a repeat scene, I went up. Luckily it wasn’t too long after that that I switched to my current parish and now don’t have to deal with it anymore.
Two other blips in the record: When the swine flu hysteria first peaked, and our pastor was really skittish about Communion on the tongue and said so in his homily, I stood and received Communion in the hand out of obedience to his direct request to us, his parishioners. The next week he seemed to have calmed down, and I went back to kneeling.
The other one was at Easter Vigil. The pastor had brought up kneeling in passing during the “rehearsal” for those receiving their sacraments, and since he did actually mention that it was not the norm, plus I knew that as a sponsor I would have a lot of non-understanding eyes on me, I decided the most prudential thing to do would be to receive standing (but still on the tongue) to prevent idle gossip and a wounded pastor. He’s a good man and an excellent priest, and has too many other people making trouble for him for me to add to it.
If you have any questions, feel free to ask. I promise not to write a book for ALL of them.