Pictured above are two United States Marines receiving Holy Communion from a military chaplain on Iwo Jima in 1945. Despite the chaos of the battlefield, what we see is a beautiful moment of sublimity and transcendence. These two soldiers demonstrate humility and reverence by the very nature of their physical posture. Now this is adoration: kneeling on dirt and rocks to receive Our Eucharistic Lord. Oorah!
For many today, however, Communion can often be a time of noise and chaos instead, somewhat analogous to a battlefield. There is the ever present army of not-so-extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion fanning out throughout the Church. There are multiple lines of people processing forward, sideways and even backwards in some parishes. There is constant motion, constant noise (God forbid silence ever crept into the Holy Mass), and people heading every which way, including the exits!
But there is another way: kneeling. Just like the Marines in this picture, those of us who are blessed to receive Holy Communion while kneeling learn to appreciate the importance of posture.
Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger also understood it when he wrote “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” [cited in the Letter “This Congregation” of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, 1 July, 2002].
Cardinal Antonio Canizares Llovera, the prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, understands as well. In 2011 Cardinal Llovera said that receiving Holy Communion on the tongue while kneeling “is a sign of adoration that needs to be recovered” by the Church.
The tradition of kneeling for Communion is slowly returning, assisted in part by the reemergence of the altar rail at parishes around the country. In such diverse diocese as Charlotte, North Carolina, Savannah, Georgia and Madison, Wisconsin the rail has returned.
Of course the removal of altar rails coincided with the removal of high altars and Catholic statuary during the great parish “wreckovation” projects of the 1970’s and 1980’s.
So, what is the norm in the U.S. today? The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has established the following directive for the reception of Communion:
“When receiving Holy Communion, the communicant bows his or her head before the Sacrament as a gesture of reverence and receives the Body of the Lord from the minister…(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.”
Rome itself reaffirmed the right of the communicant to receive kneeling in 2004 with the release of Redemptionis Sacramentum in which it stated:
“…it is not licit to deny Holy Communion to any of Christ’s faithful solely on the grounds, for example, that the person wishes to receive the Eucharist kneeling…”(RS 91).
However, not everyone appreciates the increasing practice of kneeling among the faithful.
The Catholic Channel is the XM/satellite radio station operated by the Archdiocese of New York. One of its long time programs is The Busted Halo which is hosted by Paulist priest Father Dave Dwyer. Father is also the cohost of the weekly Conversation with Cardinal Timothy Dolan on the same channel.
Based on the nature of the calls and questions fielded by Father Dave it is clear that many listeners of his program are either recent converts or reverts, a good number of whom are unsure of the “why” of common beliefs and practices of Catholicism.
In a recent segment on his Busted Halo show Father Dave was asked by a caller how the faithful should best receive Holy Communion at Mass.
Father correctly stated that the norm was to slightly bow one’s head and then receive while standing, either in the hand or on the tongue. He then proceeded with the following commentary:
The bishops have given us the directive to receive in such a manner. Some apparently feel that isn’t reverent enough for them and choose to either genuflect before receiving or to kneel. Really at Communion we should all strive to be uniform. And I’ll tell you, when I see someone kneeling to receive that says to me that they think they are “holier than thou”.
This unfortunately is still a common bias held by those who are strongly resisting the return of venerable traditions and reverence to the Holy Mass. Nowhere does our Pope emeritus, the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments or the USCCB asks priests to pass judgment on those who feel called to receive the Holy Eucharist on their knees. It is unfortunate that anyone who hears a Mass offered by Father Dave and who chooses to kneel for Communion will know that he views their act of love instead as an act of false piety stemming from pride.
A 2008 Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) survey found that over 40 percent of Catholics questioned view the Eucharist as only a symbol of Jesus. It would seem that Father Dave and others who share his bias should be more concerned with the disbelief of those stepping forward to receive at Communion, and less concerned with personal and acceptable acts of adoration of those who elect to kneel.
I would like to end by strongly encouraging those who are feeling called to genuflect or to kneel at Communion to do so. If you are reluctant due to fear or concern for what others may think (the priest included), please think of the two Marines in the picture at the top of this post. In the presence of Our Lord you can never go wrong by dropping to your knees.
For priests who are considering this for their parish, I would encourage you to research and pray about this. The theology behind kneeling is compelling. Pope Benedict XVI demonstrated during his papal liturgies the importance of posture for communicants. Before going the full route of installing an altar rail, some pastors have started slowly by putting kneelers out during less crowded daily mass. This helps to reintroduce the concept and logistics for both celebrant and faithful.
In “The Spirit of the Liturgy” Cardinal Ratzinger observed that “the man who learns to believe learns also to kneel, and a faith or a liturgy no longer familiar with kneeling would be sick at the core.” At times over the past 40 years our liturgies have indeed suffered. May this reemergence of kneeling by the faithful for Communion serve to strengthen the belief in others while paying homage to Our Lord.
(AP Photo/Joe Rosenthal/1945)