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Online Edition - Vol. VIII, No. 7: October 2002

The conflict over reverence

No-kneeling orders cause consternation, grief

by Helen Hull Hitchcock

"I'd think it would make a bishop happy to have people in his diocese who want to kneel", Bob Ryan, a parishioner at St. Patrick's Cathedral in Fort Worth told John Burger of the National Catholic Register (Sept. 29-Oct 5, 2002).

"The Eucharist is the heart of the Catholic faith", said Ryan, who became a Catholic in 1995. "For people who have knelt all their lives, and a bishop saying you shouldn't kneel, there's something wrong".

Such comments have been re-echoing throughout the country for months, and intensified this summer when the Bishops' Committee on the Liturgy published a comment on the "American Adaptations" to the new Roman Missal's regulations for celebration of Mass.

The July issue of the BCL Newsletter stated that kneeling is "not a licit posture for receiving holy Communion in the dioceses of the United States of America unless the bishop of a particular diocese has derogated from this norm in an individual and extraordinary circumstance".

In fact, the dioceses vary in practice.

Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz of Lincoln, Nebraska, has specifically stated that people may kneel if they prefer. Father Mark Huber, chancellor, told the Register, "There has been a lot of confusion" about the new norm, and speculated that there will "probably be enough questions sent to Rome to lead them to make a clarification".

Also, in a July response to a question about kneeling to receive Communion, the archdiocese of Boston said that "Cardinal Law has clearly stated on several occasions that both standing and kneeling are clearly appropriate and acceptable postures for receiving the Eucharist".

In other places, however, the adaptations for posture and gesture are interpreted very rigidly. There is considerable variation from one diocese to another -- certainly undermining uniformity of practice in the US Church.

The regulation for kneeling to receive Communion is found in the American Adaptations of the IGMR paragraph 160, on "Distribution of Holy Communion". It says that the "norm" for reception of Communion in the US is standing, that people "should not be denied Holy Communion because they kneel", and says people who kneel "should be addressed pastorally, by providing the faithful with the proper catechesis on the reasons for this norm". (It does not describe what constitutes "proper catechesis".)

This same section specifies the "gesture of reverence" before receiving Holy Communion in the hand as "a bow of the head", although the priest is to genuflect before consuming the Blessed Sacrament.

Just before last November's USCCB meeting, when the bishops considered the final version of the "adaptations" for the IGMR, the Congregation for Divine Worship, in an October 25 letter from Cardinal Medina Estévez, stated:

"This dicastery [Vatican department] agrees in principle to the insertion [of the standing adaptation]. At the same time, the tenor of not a few letters received from the faithful in various dioceses of [the United States] leads the congregation to urge the conference to introduce a clause that would protect those faithful who will inevitably be led by their own sensibilities to kneel, from imprudent action by priests, deacons or lay ministers in particular, or from being refused Holy Communion for such a reason as happens on occasion".

The letter did not spell out what "imprudent action" means, though considering the present muddle, it might have been well if it had.

Reverence illicit? Dissenting?

Considering the BCL's unusually harsh "illicit" comment regarding the standing norm, and one bishop's remarkable dictum that people who kneel are "dissenting" from the "law of the Church" -- it is worth noting that bishops had asked specifically about the meaning of the word "norm" in the proposed adaptation during their discussion.

At that time, it was explained that the word simply reflected the usual practice in the United States; thus, implicitly, that to say that "standing is the norm in the United States" was a simple statement of fact. Since then, judging from the BCL's and other interpretations, the word "norm" has assumed a juridical meaning far stronger than most bishops apparently understood when they voted for it.

Adoremus has received dozens of phone calls and letters (some of them published in AB) from people who are concerned about the prohibition of kneeling to receive Holy Communion or, even more commonly, at other parts of the Mass where it is customary to kneel (e.g., after the Agnus Dei and following reception of Communion). Dozens more report that they are also being ordered not to genuflect or make the sign of the cross before they receive.

Yet we have not had even one report that any priest or bishop has been concerned about people making no gesture of reverence at all -- not even the prescribed "bow of the head" before receiving Holy Communion.

Why this inconsistency?

"Catechesis" on reverence?

Many Catholics see these new restrictions placed on customary gestures of devotion as reflecting a de-sacralizing attitude towards the Blessed Sacrament; and the restriction on kneeling, genuflecting, etc., is perceived as a determined effort by some Church authorities to diminish the honor and reverence due the Blessed Sacrament. This perception is increased when such draconian efforts to get people off their knees comes at a time when confidence in bishops' governance is at such a low ebb because of the sex-abuse scandals and cover-ups that have plagued the Church throughout the entire year.

An unsigned article on USCCB Liturgy committee's web site, "Postures and Gestures at Mass", states that standing "from the earliest days of the Church, has been understood as the stance of those who are risen with Christ and seek the things that are above. When we stand for prayer we assume our full stature before God, not in pride, but in humble gratitude for the marvelous thing God has done in creating and redeeming each one of us. By Baptism we have been given a share in the life of God, and the posture of standing is an acknowledgment of this wonderful gift".

This article, one of a series of BCL bulletin inserts intended for "catechesis" on the liturgy repeats a liturgists' nostrum that kneeling to express reverence at Mass 1) was an innovation of the middle-ages; and 2) originated in feudal times as a gesture of fealty of a vassal to an overlord.

That argument is seriously misleading, as was noted in "Why don't they want us to kneel at Mass" (AB April 2002), which cited many biblical instances of kneeling -- both in the Old and New Testaments. But even if both statements were true -- if kneeling is a gesture of fealty -- wouldn't this be the best posture for us to assume before the Lord God present in the Blessed Sacrament? Reverence is not precisely the same as respect.

In a recent letter to Adoremus, Canadian lawyer Hugh Ballantyne added a linguistic note to our biblical citations. "In the Greek New Testament", he writes, "is the verb proskyneo, and it means 'kneel before'. In the Latin Vulgate it is translated as 'adoro'; in the King James Version, as 'worship'; and in the Douai-Rheims, as 'adore'. Wherever you see 'worship' in the KJV New Testament, think 'kneel before'.

"In this biblical sense to worship God is to kneel before God. The biblical root of our concept of worship is a word that means 'kneel'. If we are not kneeling, we are not worshipping", he observed. "We stand for the national anthem. But we kneel before God, and we worship Him alone, because the Bible tells us so".

As we said in our April article, Catholics feel "manipulated, and torn between their desire to be obedient to their priest or bishop and their desire to show reverence for Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament". No one should ever be forced to make such a choice.

And why wouldn't it make a bishop happy when his people kneel?

***

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