Standing or Kneeling During the Consecration?

Author: Joseph Fessio, S.J.

Standing or Kneeling During the Consecration? Some Parish Bulletins Go Astray

by Joseph Fessio, S.J.

One of the most useful sources of information in most parishes is its weekly bulletin. In many parishes the bulletin is no longer simply a calendar of events, but a mini- newsletter complete with "editorials." Often, as in the bulletin of the Quebec parish noted here, it is used to explain liturgical practices; and the questions addressed may be important ones, as in this case. Unhappily sometimes the parish bulletin misinforms. Fr Fessio's comments show where this one went astray —Ed.

******************* St. Mark the Evangelist Church Aylmer, Quebec May 21, 1995

Why don't we kneel at the consecration?

Visitors or guests at our eucharists (especially when we celebrate our children's first communion) sometimes remark "but you don't kneel at the consecration." Some might consider that an insignificant detail, but it really is not.

It has to do with the slow recovery of the importance of the eucharistic prayer in the Mass. We are talking about the prayer that begins with "The Lord be with you," "Lift up your hearts" and ends with the Great Amen. This is one prayer. It has an integrity of its own; and it is important not to single out one moment or part (such as the moment or words of consecration) as more important than the rest. To underline that integrity it is best to take the same bodily posture during the entire prayer. The eucharistic prayer is basically a prayer of praise and thanksgiving (even if it includes an intercessory part), and as a prayer of praise and thanksgiving it calls for the bodily posture of standing. Moreover it is a communal prayer, a prayer of the community even if it is proclaimed by the presider. As a communal prayer it calls for all to take the same bodily posture.

At the heart of the sacrament of unity (which the eucharist is) we would not want to be doing different things.

It is true that, for a long time, we did not have this appreciation for the eucharistic prayer. The moment and words of consecration were given so much importance that they virtually eclipsed the rest of the eucharistic prayer. Bells would be rung, the choir would not sing, everyone would observe silence, all but the priest would be on their knees. While all this spoke of immense faith and devotion, the disadvantage of that was (in retrospect) that we tended to overlook the rest of that one prayer of which the words of consecration are "only" a part.

In view of this, the real question is not what you do during the words of consecration, but what is the best posture to take during the entire eucharistic prayer. What makes this prayer so important is that it is a brief summary of the Christian faith. If the church speaks its faith anywhere in the most authoritative way, then it is in the eucharistic prayer. That is also the reason why the acclamations during that prayer, by which we give our assent to the faith proclaimed, must be sung. It also explains why, during the festive seasons of the church, such as Easter and Christmas, a good part of that prayer is being sung.

This is admittedly a somewhat long response to a simple question. On the other hand, the question touches on some basic issues of the faith we cherish. *********************

"Visitors or guests at our eucharists (especially when we celebrate our children's first communion) sometimes remark "but you don't kneel at the consecration." Some might consider that an insignificant detail, but it really is not."

That's correct. It is not an insignificant detail. That is why the Church regulates the posture as well as the words of liturgical celebrations. In this case, the rubric in force is from the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM). no. 21, requiring that people "should kneel at the Consecration unless prevented by lack of space, large numbers, or other reasonable cause."

This is the norm—and has been since at least 1201 A.D.—in the Roman Rite. The bishops of the United States of America asked for and received approval from Rome for the congregation to remain kneeling throughout the Canon of the Mass (from the end of the through the Great Amen) and from the until the Postcommunion prayer. This remains the norm in the U.S. In fact, in June of 1995 at their annual summer meeting, the U.S. bishops rejected a proposal that kneeling at this time should be optional rather than mandatory.

"It has to do with the slow recovery of the importance of the eucharistic prayer in the Mass. We are talking about the prayer that begins with "The Lord be with you," "Lift up your hearts" and ends with the Great Amen."

No. It has to do with the rapid loss of awareness of the importance of the consecration.

"This is one prayer. It has an integrity of its own; and it is important not to single out one moment or part (such as the moment or words of consecration) as more important than the rest."

It is one prayer with an integrity of its own. Just like a human body is one body with an integrity of its own. But that does not mean that some parts aren't more important than others. Losing a hand is tragic, but it's not as serious as losing one's head.

The author is apparently opposed to all discrimination of the sort that would claim that one element of a whole is more important than others. However, the author's bulletin is one document; but the Mass schedule is more important than a bake sale announcement. And presumably the author's reflections on standing or kneeling are more important than an ad for a local pizza parlor on the back. A man might have a long conversation with his beloved; but if it contains the words "Will you marry me?", no one doubts where the relative importance lies. A football game is a well-defined unity; but some plays are more important than others—which is why they find their way into the highlights.

"To underline that integrity it is best to take the same bodily posture during the entire prayer."

The author offers no evidence for this assertion; with reason, since there isn't any. Integrity might be better emphasized by one posture or by different postures, depending on the circumstances. Would the integrity of the conversation mentioned above be diminished if the man knelt down when he asked the question?

But, of course, if he insists on one posture throughout the whole Eucharistic Prayer, we have that already in the U.S.: kneeling. Some American liturgical experts have claimed that kneeling during the consecration is no longer generally practiced in European churches. This is untrue. People generally do kneel, although the point during the prayer at which people kneel is not uniform as it is in the U.S. Kneeling, obviously, is still a universal gesture of reverence.

"The eucharistic prayer is basically a prayer of praise and thanksgiving (even if it includes an intercessory part), and as a prayer of praise and thanksgiving it calls for the bodily posture of standing."

Apparently the author now thinks that some things in the Canon are more important than others. He implies—perhaps rightly, but inconsistently with his previous principle—that praise and thanksgiving are more important than intercessory prayer. Significantly, he does not mention adoration or worship. If he is interested in the integrity of wholes, he might reflect that the entire Mass is an act of worship of our saving God.

But even on his own assumptions, his conclusion doesn't follow. No one has ever shown that kneeling is incompatible with praise and thanksgiving. In fact, the inspired Word of God teaches us just the opposite. The prophet Daniel says: "And I knelt down on my knees [rather emphatic! what else could he kneel down on?] three times a day to give thanks and praise to God" (Dn 6:11). Interestingly, this passage is considered by Jews to be the basis for the three regular times of prayer at the synagogue. Moreover, the Liturgy of the Eucharist, as is generally recognized, is rooted in the Jewish Berakah (Gk: , Lt: ). The Hebrew root of means to genuflect or kneel, and there were genuflections in the developed Jewish form of this prayer.

The New Testament witness is quite consistent with this. In Jesus' presence, people almost by instinct knew they should kneel. "A leper came to him and knelt before him..." (Mt 8:2). '-A ruler came in and knelt before him..." (Mt 9:18). "But [a Canaanite woman] came and knelt before him..." (Mt 15:25). "A man came up to him and kneeling before him said..." (Mt 17:14). "Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee came up to him, with her sons, and kneeling before him she asked him for something" (Mt 20:20). "A man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, 'Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?"'(Mk 10:17).

It may be objected that in all these cases it is a question of intercessory prayer. But there is plenty of that in the Canon, especially the Roman Canon (Eucharistic Prayer I) which had been exclusively used in the Western Church for 1400 years. But even more significantly, kneeling was a favored posture of prayer for New Testament Christians. "Peter put them all outside and knelt down and prayed" (Acts 9:40). Paul, in his farewell to the Christians of Ephesus, "knelt down and prayed with them all" (Acts 20:36). Later on his trip to Jerusalem, as he leaves Tyre, "they all, with wives and children, brought us on our way till we were outside the city; and kneeling down on the beach we prayed and bade one another farewell" (Acts 21:5). And in writing to the Ephesians Paul says "l bow my knees before the Father. ." (Eph 3: 14).

These examples cannot be reduced to merely intercessory prayer, much less be made evidence of the penitential character of kneeling (another commonly heard simplification). Besides, we are positively exhorted by St. Paul to bend our knees at Jesus' Name (Phil 2: 10)—so how much more before His Real Presence in the Eucharist, at the Consecration and thereafter, and particularly at Holy Communion?

"Moreover it is a communal prayer, a prayer of the community even if it is proclaimed by the presider. As a communal prayer it calls for all to take the same bodily posture. At the heart of the sacrament of unity (which the eucharist is) we would not want to be doing different things."

Precisely. But our unity is not merely with those around us in the congregation at any particular Mass. The "community" of which we are a part is the entire Church celebrating a common rite. The "sacrament of unity" unites us with the whole Church, not just our fellow parishioners. This is why the "regulation of the sacred liturgy depends solely on the authority of the Church, that is, on the Apostolic See and, as laws may determine, on the bishop" (Vatican II, , pare. 22, #1) so that "no other person, even if he be a priest, may add, remove, or change anything in the liturgy on his own authority" (Ibid., pare 22, §2).

The canon of the Mass is a "communal prayer" in that the people are to join their hearts to the prayer of the priest, which he offers as both the representative of Christ and in unity with the community— that is, the whole Church, past, present and future. This prayer is not simply the prayer of any particular assembly of people. The Eucharist is the re-presentation of the unique sacrifice of Christ by the priest who acts in the person of Christ, united with the entire community of believers— of all times, everywhere. Thus if an ordained priest or bishop does not say the prayer, or if he does not say the words of institution prescribed by the Church, the bread and wine remain unchanged. On the other hand, if a priest prays this prayer even if no other person is present, the bread and wine are changed into the Body and Blood of Christ. That the sacramental action of an ordained priest or bishop is necessary to effect the Sacrifice of the Mass is the teaching of the Catholic Church, which must be believed. No mere gathering of people can do it. It is important to understand this. Some theologians and liturgists today deny this. Some say that our baptism makes us all equally "priests," and that the "hierarchical priesthood" linked to ordination is unnecessary for a "eucharistic celebration." The Holy See has recently gone to great lengths to make clear the distinction between the "common priesthood" of all the baptized and the sacerdotal priesthood of an ordained man.

This distinction is further symbolized by the difference in the posture of the priest who offers the sacrifice from the people on whose behalf he offers it.

"It is true that, for a long time, we did not have this appreciation for the eucharistic prayer. The moment and words of consecration were given so much importance that they virtually eclipsed the rest of the eucharistic prayer. Bells would be rung, the choir would not sing, everyone would observe silence, all but the priest would be on their knees."

The importance of the "moment and words of consecration" may have been exaggerated at some periods in the Church. But one thing was constant in East and West: an awareness that something utterly unique was taking place during the Canon. That is why as early as the 4th century in the East, the railing separating the congregation from the clergy was raised, eventually becoming the which completely hid the sacred action from the faithful.

It is important to mention this since an argument for standing not mentioned in this text but often heard is that the people stand during the Liturgy of the Eucharist in the Eastern rite churches and in the Orthodox churches. To this it may be responded: a) the people were entirely separated from the sanctuary; b) the near-millenial tradition in the West is to kneel during the consecration; and, c) it is liturgically and anthropologically indefensible to make such a change in such a central tradition.

Special liturgical forms of reverence have been accorded to the consecrated host at the time of consecration since the 13th century, which may well represent a development of liturgical understanding. Surely those who could build such magnificent gothic cathedrals precisely through the inspiration of the Mass as they understood it might have at least as good a sense of what is liturgically appropriate as we who have not yet demonstrated that we can consistently rise above the mediocre in art or architecture,

"While all this spoke of immense faith and devotion, the disadvantage of that was (in retrospect) that we tended to overlook the rest of that one prayer of which the words of consecration are "only" a part."

It did speak of "immense faith and devotion," which is one reason why Mass attendance was so high and conversions so numerous prior to the liturgical confusion of the past 30 years. The panoply of changes intended to foster a more active participation of the congregation have demonstrably not succeeded. They have resulted in a loss of a sense of the sacred and an empirically verifiable loss of faith and devotion.

There is no evidence that people generally ("we") tended to overlook the rest of the Canon of the Mass.

"In view of this, the real question is not what you do during the words of consecration, but what is the best posture to take during the entire eucharistic prayer."

Since the premises are false, the conclusion ("in view of this") is not demonstrated. The "real question"— at least as the Council saw it—is how we can more fully, consciously, and actively participate in the Mass. To think that the proposed innovation will bring this about is naive. Certainly it would not pass the Conciliar standard for innovations, which should only be made when "the good of the Church genuinely and certainly requires them" (Vatican 11 Decree on the Sacred Liturgy, pare. 32, emphasis added).

"What makes this prayer so important is that it is a brief summary of the Christian faith. If the church speaks its faith anywhere in the most authoritative way, then it is in the eucharistic prayer. That is also the reason why the acclamations during that prayer, by which we give our assent to the faith proclaimed, must be sung. It also explains why, during the festive seasons of the church, such as Easter and Christmas, a good part of that prayer is being sung."

This is emphatically not what makes this prayer so important. (Again the author violates his own principle that nothing in the Canon is more important than anything else.)

As a 'brief summary of the Christian faith," which it is (though the Creed does this more explicitly) it could be proclaimed by anyone. What makes this prayer important is that when a bishop or priest utters it, with the requisite conditions, something happens: the bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ and Christ's life, death, and resurrection become really, sacramentally present. No "summary of the Christian faith," as such, can do this.

SUMMARY COMMENTS

Although this author does not make the claim, others, relying on the same erroneous principles do: that we do not know exactly when the bread and wine become Christ's Body and Blood and that the entire Canon, and not just the institution narrative, is consecratory.

We also do not know exactly where the Pacific Ocean ends and San Francisco Bay begins. But that does not mean that we can't tell generally where the boundary is. Some real boundaries are not subject to mathematical precision.

But the fact that one may not be able to pinpoint the moment of transubstantiation to the millisecond does not mean that there is no precise moment at which it occurs. It cannot be a gradual, "evolutionary" process. It is not all bread, then mostly bread but partly Christ's Body, then mostly Christ's Body but still partly bread, and finally all Christ's Body. There is a time when it is entirely bread; and there is a time when it is entirely Christ's Body. There is no time when it is not one or the other even if we can't say with complete precision where the boundary is.

That is not to say we cannot determine when in the Canon transubstantiation occurs. No one contends that it occurs before the (the prayer imploring the Holy Spirit—or God in the Roman Canon—to "come upon these gifts to make them holy"). The very words of the indicate that the sanctification of the gifts has not yet taken place. In the Roman Canon—the canon which had been the only canon of the Roman Rite for over 1400 years—and in the additional canons approved since the Council, the occurs immediately before the institution narrative. Even if one were to claim that it is the which effects the change, it would have to take place at the end of the —which is precisely where the rubrics for the Roman Rite require the people to kneel if they are not already kneeling.

But if the change of substance hasn't occurred by the end of the institution narrative, then the Church in the liturgy which is a norm of her belief has been not only encouraging but positively legislating idolatry: the adoration of not-yet-consecrated bread. (When in the early 13th century some priests began to hold the host aloft while reciting the words of consecration, the bishop of Paris ordered, in 1210, that the host should be held breast-high before the consecration, and only after the consecration should it be lifted high enough to be seen by all "lest (as a London synod of 1215 put it) a creature be adored instead of the Creator."

We are left with the conclusion that any defensible theory about when the transformation of the elements takes place must locate it somewhere between the end of the epiclesis and the end of the institution narrative. This is a dramatic moment within the unity of the canon. Popular piety and liturgical norm are at one in recognizing this— let us bend the knee before this great mystery of faith.

Fr. Fessio is editor of Ignatius Press.

Copyright (c) 1996 EWTN

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