ROME, 28 JUNE 2011 (ZENIT)
Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.
Q: At the final prayer of Mass, my parish priest stands and the entire congregation immediately kneels as he asks us to "Bow your heads and pray." He then prays the prayer, gives the blessing, and dismisses us. Notices are given just before he prays. Then we all stand to sing the final hymn. Is it optional to kneel or stand for the final prayer of the Mass? — R.D., Manchester, England
A: The usual procedure for the end of Mass is the following. After communion, the celebrant sits in silent thanksgiving while the rest of the faithful either sit or kneel as they prefer. A meditative song of thanksgiving may also take place during this time.
When thanksgiving is over, all stand and the priest sings or says the closing prayer of Mass to which the faithful respond Amen.
If there are any announcements to be made, they are delivered after this prayer. If necessary, the people may be invited to sit.
If the priest imparts the simple blessings ("The Lord be with you … May almighty God bless you …"), then the assembly remains standing for the blessing, dismissal and closing hymn.
If the prayer over the people or a solemn blessing is used, then the deacon, or in his absence the priest, says to the people: "Bow your heads and pray for God's blessing." The people remain with heads bowed while the priest, his hands extended over the assembly, sings or says the prayer.
After each formula the people respond Amen. Concluding the prayer, the priest says, "May almighty God bless you ...."
There is nothing in the rubrics to suggest that the people should kneel to receive the priest's blessing, although this might well be a legitimate custom in some places as a substitute for bowing.
The solemn blessings and prayer over the people are generally used on solemnities and other important occasions. They may also be used on Sundays especially during the major liturgical seasons such as Lent and Easter.
One of the novelties that people will find in the new translation of the Roman Missal is that, beginning with Lent 2012, the priest will have the option of proclaiming a different prayer over the people for each day of the penitential season. These traditional prayers had been present in the missal before the conciliar reform but were dropped from the missal issued by Pope Paul VI. They were restored in the third Latin typical edition in 2001.
The principal difference between the solemn blessing and the prayer over the people is that three prayers are usually used for the solemn blessing, while just one is used for the prayer over the people. Another difference is literary style. The blessing addresses the assembly and invokes God's favor upon it. The prayer over the people addresses God directly, asking for his grace.
For example, one blessing formula for Ascension proclaims: "You believe that Jesus has taken his seat in majesty at the right hand of the Father. May you have the joy of experiencing that he is also with you at the end of time, according to his promise."
One of the restored prayers over the people that will be heard next year is that of the First Sunday of Lent: "May bountiful blessing, O Lord, we pray, come down upon your people, that hope may grow in tribulation, virtue be strengthened in temptation, and eternal redemption be assured. Through Christ our Lord."
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Follow-up: Kneeling at the Final Prayer [7-12-2011]
Related to our comments regarding kneeling for the final prayer (see June 28), a reader from Bhopal, India, wrote, "I am glad you explained the meaning of postures during the liturgy. I still have a doubt in my mind regarding 'kneeling.' I very well remember that the Second Vatican Council banned kneeling at Mass. I am surprised to see that you reintroduce it in your writing. We never had another council to decide on changes to be made. I believe that nobody has the legal right to go against the council decision. Could you please explain?"
I fear that our reader was misinformed regarding the decisions of Vatican II. The only conciliar statements remotely related to postures are Nos. 30-31 of Sacrosanctum Concilium:
"30. To promote active participation, the people should be encouraged to take part by means of acclamations, responses, psalmody, antiphons, and songs, as well as by actions, gestures, and bodily attitudes. And at the proper times all should observe a reverent silence.
"31. The revision of the liturgical books must carefully attend to the provision of rubrics also for the people's parts."
This is hardly carte blanche to abolish kneeling, a longstanding practice which was substantially reaffirmed and mandated in the reformed rites. It would appear that it is yet another example of reforms supposedly mandated by Vatican II which cannot actually be traced in its texts.
I therefore did not "reintroduce" kneeling for the simple reason that it has never been abolished. It might be possible that in some places it has fallen into disuse because ministers gave the faithful incorrect instruction. In some cases the lack of kneeling is the result of so-called church renewals in which the kneelers were removed.
This does not appear to be the case in India, although it might be true for some regions. Indeed, priests from that country assure me that it is common practice to kneel throughout the Eucharistic Prayer and for the Lamb of God.
It is also possible that a bishops' conference in a mission country could decide that kneeling might be interpreted negatively in the context of a particular nation's spiritual patrimony. In such a case the episcopal conference could ask approval from the Holy See to change the postures used by the faithful during Mass.