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At the Name of Jesus, Every Knee Shall Remain Unbent?
The Language of the Body and the Mass
(New Oxford Review) Feb 1999

W. Patrick Cunningham

The rhythms of our worship become part of us; sacred actions long practiced become second nature. Catholics at Mass sit to hear the homily and rise together to recite the Creed and to pray the General Intercessions. They sit again while the collection basket goes round and while the priest blesses the gifts of bread and wine. Then, to the priest's exhortation "Pray that our sacrifice may be acceptable" they reply "May the Lord accept the sacrifice at your hands," and all rise together for the prayers that culminate in the communal recitation or singing of the Sanctus, which ends with "Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, Hosanna in the highest! "

And then - and then what happens? According to the rubrics published by the American bishops, according to immemorial custom, according to the instructions in the missalette in the pew, we kneel. But this Sunday you are not at your home parish, and as your knees begin to bend, you hesitate, noticing that many people are still standing. Have you mistaken the moment, rapt as you are in a mystic reverie or daydreaming? Isn't this the Eucharistic Prayer and Consecration? Don't we kneel now? You kneel uncertainly, distracted by an uneasy need to survey your fellow worshipers: Almost all of them are standing. If you continue kneeling, your view of the altar will be blocked and you risk sidelong glances from those towering over you. You surreptitiously check the missalette: Yes, it says "Kneel."

What's going on?

Up, Up and We Pray

The liturgical norm in the U.S., according to custom and clear directives from the bishops, is that the congregation at Mass should kneel between the Sanctus and the Lord's Prayer, that is, during the entire Eucharistic Prayer. But some liturgists have been arguing that this is incorrect, that "Catholics Should Stand at the Consecration" (as D. Phillipart wrote in U.S. Catholic in July 1993). Kneeling, he said, is a penitential posture, and "is like mourning on Easter...." Erasto Fernandez, writing in Emmanuel (100:293), opines that the standing posture is "the expression of the holy freedom of the children of God acquired at Baptism." Fernandez states, citing Deuteronomy 18:3-5, that "for community or liturgical prayer, the common posture is standing, sometimes with the arms extended." He allows that "it is customary to kneel during the recitation of the institution narrative [the Consecration] ... out of deep respect for the central action." But he insists that one could also "remain standing." Phillipart would restrict kneeling to penitential times, private prayer, and extraliturgical devotions. If Christ is present in all the Mass, "why kneel at the Consecration?"

One begins to detect not the crisp aroma of fresh scholarship but the dubious smell of innovation. Seizing and altering sacred signs is a tempting strategy for those with a program of innovation. And behind the movement to train Catholics out of kneeling, which has been practiced for centuries, and into standing, there is a definite program. For at the Consecration the priest, who confects and administers the Eucharist, stands, while the people, who are primarily supplicants for the Divine Gift, kneel. This difference of body language bespeaks their different roles in the sacred service. Those who want no differentiation of roles, then, must see to it that everyone stands.

Kneeling is typically called "a vestige of the past" that must be eliminated in order to re-move from the hearts of Catholics - indeed, from their very limbs - any memory of the bad old days of the Tridentine Mass, where "the faithful are often relegated to a passive stance, denying their baptismal priesthood as well as the liturgical roles by which it is properly expressed..." ("The Tridentine Mass and Liturgical Reform" by R.D. Duggan, Church, Spring 1995). And some liturgical innovators who wish to make worship exclusively a "horizontal" experience abhor anything that smacks of adoration or hierarchy. if the people stand during all the prayers, even the key prayer of the Mass, then the priesthood of believers is symbolized in the same way as that of the priest. Finally, since the rubrics say "kneel," anyone who wants to reduce the authority of the bishops will naturally encourage folks to stand, just as they promoted Communion-in-the-hand for years prior to its approval by the relevant Church authorities. In other words, use of the standing posture where it is prohibited is, ipso facto, an act of rebellion, of contumacy.

But this willfulness may be rooted in genuine - and corrigible - misunderstanding of body language. The misunderstanding that leads to militant demands for standing prayer, and has even led some churches to eliminate their kneelers and prie-dieu, probably derives from the observation that standing, in etiquette, is a sign of high regard.

But maybe it is not. The act of standing re-quires interpretation. Standing can be a posture of attentiveness and readiness to serve, but it is equally the posture of self-defense and readiness to challenge or intimidate. In other words, we may stand even for someone we decidedly do not revere. Kneeling, however, is a clear signal of reverence and even worship. St. Paul speaks of kneeling in supplication (Eph. 3:14), and throughout the Bible we encounter kneeling or prostration in public worship (1 Kings 8:54, 2 Chron. 6:13, Acts 9:40, 20:36). Our supreme model of prayer, in His supreme act of worship, His Passion, Death, and Resurrection, knelt before His Father in prayer (Lk. 22:41). The Greek original of this text actually emphasizes the kneeling posture of Christ in Gethsemane. Kneeling is also shown as the natural posture of a disciple approaching Jesus with a request for healing (Mt. 8:22, 9:18; Mk. 10:17, 15:19).

If natural and supernatural body language, if Scripture and Tradition, if custom and rubrics all support the kneeling posture, why the incessant drumbeat for elimination of kneeling during liturgical prayer, especially during Mass? How curious that the revisionists are determined that we shall not bend the knee to Our Lord! One parish with which I am familiar omitted kneelers from its new church because, it was claimed, the parish was "too poor to afford them." To which the natural reply is, "But you could afford pews? Is sitting in comfort more important than kneeling in worship?" In another local church under renovation, when a group of parishioners offered to pay for kneelers directly out of pocket, so that they might worship fully, as the bishops require, the pastor went out and got a few of those knee pads that gardeners use and huffed, "Here, use these!"

The Great Community Hand-Grab

Another striking innovation is taking place - at the Lord's Prayer. Congregants join hands and raise them, sometimes forming lines that stretch clear across the pews. At the extra-biblical text "for the kingdom, the power, and the glory the hands are raised high. Why is this happening, and what does it mean?

I believe my wife and I were there at the birth of this novelty. Back in the 1970s, charismatic groups began using the "hand-holding Our Father." Individual charismatics would pray in the orante position (hands extended) throughout the Mass, and when the Lord's Prayer came and the congregants all stood, husbands and wives would join hands. Seeing this, others began to hold hands. Soon all charismatic communities across the U.S. were holding hands at the Lord's Prayer, and the practice gradually filtered into local Catholic parishes. Hip liturgists, predictably, like it. But there are strong body-language arguments against the practice of handholding. First, holding hands is nowhere specified in the rubrics (no doubt that is to some people part of its appeal). Second, joining hands here interferes with the symbolism of the Pax that immediately follows, by introducing an extraneous and premature symbol of unity. Third, holding hands perverts the Lord's Prayer into a sign of horizontal fellowship when it is actually of transcendent significance.

When I raise questions about this innovation, the response is usually, "Well, why not? Anything that brings people together is good. We are preparing for Communion, so why not introduce another element of unity? We are saying 'Our Father,' so why shouldn't we symbolize our commonality by joining hands?"

It sounds innocent. But the very fact that this is a radical innovation should give us pause Nowhere in the history of the Church do we fin( holding hands as a liturgical sign, except in the marriage rite, where hands are joined as a sign of marital unity. If we truly understand and respect the intimacy of this sign, we will not make it promiscuous. There are already powerful sign: of Christian unity in the Mass: the Pax and Holy Communion.

Psychologically speaking, an obtrusive sign of unity that tries to enforce its own compliance is more likely to be in practice a sign of disunity. I must admit that my wife and I routinely decline the offer of fellow worshipers to hold hands at the Lord's Prayer. They occasionally take it as a sign of personal rejection. It is not. But it certainly signals division. In a parish that does not practice handholding, this kind of division cannot arise.

Holding hands while we all sing together is what we do at the conclusion of our Lions Club meetings. In that setting, it seems clubbily appropriate. But the sacred signs of the Communion Rite bespeak a fellowship of a different order. They have been very carefully crafted and their continuity is admirable. The body language they require is subtle and respectful. The Lord's Prayer concludes with the supplication to the Father to forgive us as we forgive, and this leads into the prayer for deliverance and the Pax, which symbolizes our forgiving of all who have offended us. That, in turn, is the requirement for us to present ourselves at Communion, at the altar of sacrifice, where we receive the gift of the Body and Blood of Christ. By holding hands at the Lord's Prayer, we interrupt and muddy the distinctive flow of one sign into another at this most critical time of worship.

Sign and Interpretation

St. Paul, in counseling the high-octane charismatics of his day, insisted that intelligibility in common prayer is essential, and that equivocal signs such as praying in tongues need interpretation (I Cor. 14). The meaning of any sacred word or action must be clear. And caution is in order when we adopt the words and gestures that, as we worship, become second nature to us.

In an article in Homiletic & Pastoral Review (Nov. 1995), I pointed out that we should not be surprised that a majority of American Catholics reportedly think that the Eucharistic species are merely bread and wine, and not the Real Presence of Christ. After all, since 1969 we have been reciting a Memorial Acclamation after the Consecration that goes, "When we eat this bread and drink this cup..." Such a formulation, repeated week after week and year after year, can only have the effect of diminishing our alertness to the Real Presence. Combine this liturgical habit with a Communion distribution that has become decidedly casual, and with a catechesis that no longer trains Catholics to think of substance and accident and Transubstantiation - and the result must be that ignorance of the Real Presence will become first a habit and, finally, a conviction. Archbishop Rigali of St. Louis, in fact, has issued instructions to his diocese (June 1997) that post-Consecration references to the sacred species as "bread and wine" are not to be used at Mass.

Innovators, once they seize control of parish or chancery, wield power. So how do we combat them? Our weapon of choice, of course, is prayer. But we must also act judiciously. We can appeal to simple dialogue and to confrontation backed by research. Every time an innovation is proposed, we should ask, "How do you know that?" and ask for references. "Everybody does it now" should no more influence the parish than it influences family decisions about the hour a teenage daughter should come home. Then we should suggest a moratorium on action while those references are checked for accuracy and relevance, and a consensus is fairly sought.

Networks of experts have developed over the past few years to provide scholarly support to embattled Catholics. Catholic Answers in San Diego has just recently put out a fine book called Mass Confusion: The Do's and Don'ts of Catholic Worship by James Akin ($15.95, 888-291-8000), which lays out what our authentic liturgical rites and rights are. It will help in thwarting the revisionists. The St. Joseph foundation (11107 Wurzbach Rd., San Antonio TX 78230; .210-697-0717) provides access to canonical remedies for particularly egregious violations. I have also noticed that, in almost any parish, two things can reduce the number and severity of liturgical enormities imposed on the long-suffering faithful. One is the formation of a pious society for the promotion of common prayer; the other is the simple, communal act of showing up in force for planning meetings.

If all else fails, a Catholic may practice what one might call the ultimate liturgical body language: You may process solemnly out the door of a parish overrun by liturgical Philistines and into a parish where willful innovation has not vitiated essential Catholic signs and symbols.

W. Patrick Cunningham is a journalist in San Antonio, Texas.

Copyright © 1998 New Oxford Review. Reprinted with permission from the New Oxford Review (1069 Kains Ave., Berkeley, CA 94706). Subscriptions, which must be paid by check, are $19.00 for one year.

Related Laws

  1. Kneeling To Receive Holy Communion

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