Why the Various Postures at Mass

Author: Father Edward McNamara


Why the Various Postures at Mass

ROME, 19 MAY 2009 (ZENIT)

Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university. Q: I am a catechist and I explain Mass for the young ones. A question I always encountered and never found any information about is this: During Mass there are various postures that the community adopts, and these are adapted according the prayers that are being said. Many ask the reason why this posture is used at that particular time. Some of these are obvious: At the start of the Mass, standing means welcoming the priest who is representing Jesus. But some of them are not that obvious. So I am sending a list of the postures that we use in our diocese, so that you can help answer various questions that many youths and children ask. I am including even those that are obvious to be sure that I am not mistaken. — T.B., Malta

A: Our reader provides a list of the postures adopted in his diocese. As answering each item separately would exceed the possibilities of this column, I hope he will forgive me if I use a different method which I hope serves the same purpose.

According to the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, No. 43, the postures adopted by the people at Mass are the following:

"The faithful should stand from the beginning of the Entrance chant, or while the priest approaches the altar, until the end of the Collect; for the Alleluia chant before the Gospel; while the Gospel itself is proclaimed; during the Profession of Faith and the Prayer of the Faithful; from the invitation, Orate, fraters (Pray, brethren), before the prayer over the offerings until the end of Mass, except at the places indicated below.

"They should, however, sit while the readings before the Gospel and the responsorial Psalm are proclaimed and for the homily and while the Preparation of the Gifts at the Offertory is taking place; and, as circumstances allow, they may sit or kneel while the period of sacred silence after Communion is observed.

"[They should kneel during the consecration from the epiclesis to the mystery of faith] In the dioceses of the United States of America, they should kneel beginning after the singing or recitation of the Sanctus until after the Amen of the Eucharistic Prayer, except when prevented on occasion by reasons of health, lack of space, the large number of people present, or some other good reason. Those who do not kneel ought to make a profound bow when the priest genuflects after the consecration. The faithful kneel after the Agnus Dei unless the Diocesan Bishop determines otherwise.

"With a view to a uniformity in gestures and postures during one and the same celebration, the faithful should follow the directions which the deacon, lay minister, or priest gives according to whatever is indicated in the Missal."

The special provision mentioned for U.S. dioceses of kneeling during the entire Eucharistic Prayer and after the Agnus Dei may be praiseworthily retained in other places where it is already the custom of the people. It falls to the national bishops' conference to make specific adaptations to local needs pending definitive approval from the Holy See.

Therefore, as can be seen, the fundamental posture in liturgy is standing. Standing is a natural gesture of respect toward authority. This is why the assembly stands for the celebrant's entrance and exit, and during the proclamation of the Gospel, just as the Israelites stood upright as they listened to God's word. Indeed, standing was the normal position for Jewish prayer and this custom passed to Christianity as is witnessed by murals in the catacombs.

Today the faithful mostly remain standing whenever they are associated to the solemn prayer of the celebrant. The upright position is that of the heavenly elect as seen in the Book of Revelation 7:9 and 15:2. The Fathers of the Church considered this position as expressive of the holy freedom of God's children. St. Basil in his treatise on the Holy Spirit says that "We pray standing, on the first day of the week, but we do not all know the reason. On the day of the resurrection (or 'standing again'; Greek anastasis) we remind ourselves of the grace given to us by standing at prayer, not only because we rose with Christ, and are bound to 'seek those things which are above,' but because the day seems to us to be in some sense an image of the age which we expect …" (Chapter 27).

Because of this relationship with the Resurrection the liturgy prescribes that certain prayers, such as the litanies of the saints, are prayed standing and not kneeling on Sundays and during Eastertide.

Sitting is the posture of the doctor who teaches, of the one who presides, and so the bishop can preach while seated at his cathedra. On the other hand, it is the posture of those who listen with attention. The faithful are therefore invited to sit at some moments such as the readings, except for the Gospel; the homily; during the preparation of gifts; and also, if they wish, after communion. Most ancient and medieval churches did not have pews, but the faithful were often invited to sit on the floor for the readings and homily and this was probably a custom from apostolic times as witnessed by Acts 20:9 and 1 Corinthians 14:30.

Kneeling was originally reserved, above all, for intense personal prayer, as we see St. Stephen do before succumbing to martyrdom. We also find saints Peter and Paul using this posture for ordinary prayer and meditation (Acts 9:24, 20:36, Ephesians 3:14).

However, the liturgy did not initially accept this posture except as an act of penance. The Council of Nicaea (A.D. 325) forbade penitents to kneel on Sundays, and St. Basil said that we kneel in order to show with our acts that sin has cast us to the ground. Little by little the gesture lost its exclusively penitential connotation and, especially during medieval times, it took the additional meaning of profound respect and adoration that is prevalent today. In this way the act of kneeling during Mass reinforces the sentiments and attitudes expressed by the upright position.

Another gesture is that of bowing which also means veneration and respect and, in some cultures, adoration. The invitation to bow the head precedes certain blessings and prayers over the people. During Mass the whole assembly bows the head when Jesus' name is mentioned during the Gloria and in recalling the mystery of the incarnation in the creed. In this way the gesture underlines the importance of the mystery mentioned in the liturgical text. 

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Follow-up: Why the Various Postures at Mass [6-2-2009]

Relative to our May 19 comments on postures, several readers had inquired regarding the correct posture during the consecration.

As already mentioned, the correct posture is kneeling. According to universal norms, this means from the epiclesis (when the priest outstretches both hands over the chalice) to the memorial acclamation. This is the minimum requirement.

In some countries the faithful kneel during the whole Eucharistic Prayer or a substantial part of it in virtue of particular law or legitimate custom.

Standing during the consecration is permitted only for exceptional circumstances, such as when there is no space to kneel.

Sitting is never foreseen during the consecration except for the physically impaired.

As we mentioned, the present significance of kneeling reinforces the sense of respect and adoration contained in standing.

With this in mind a Canadian reader asked about his bishop's insistence that churches should remove kneelers and new churches must be built without them. The argument given is that in his diocese: "We stand with Christ in his resurrection during the consecration."

Loath as I am to disagree with a successor of the apostles, I must honestly state that in this respect the bishop is simply wrong in his theological interpretation of the meaning of kneeling and in his interpretation of liturgical law.

I would suggest that the reader in question send a copy of the bishop's written directives (and not just hearsay) to the Congregation for Divine Worship and inquire if this is the mind of the Church. If possible, it is preferable that the inquiry should come from a cleric, especially one who knows something of canon law and who can phrase the query appropriately.

Such a query should be brief, to the point, and respectful of all persons involved, especially toward the bishop. This is the best way of receiving a prompt and satisfactory outcome to the consultation.

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