EUCHARISTIC PIETY: A STRONG RECOMMENDATION
By Fr. Regis Scanlon, O.F.M., Cap.
The doctrine of the Real Presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist is one of those
wonderful truths by which Christianity shines forth as a religion of mysteries far
exceeding the capacity of the human mind. The Catholic Church has defined the dogma of the
Real Presence by stating that Jesus Christ is present whole and entire under the
appearances of bread and wine following the words of consecration at the Eucharist.
This sacred dogma of the Catholic Faith accounts for the tremendous reverence and
solemnity which has traditionally accompanied the celebration of the Eucharist, reception
of Holy Communion, and Benediction of the Most Blessed Sacrament. One has only to recall
the ringing of the bells, the kneeling and incense in the presence of the Eucharistic
Lord, along with the meditative and reverential silence which pervaded most Catholic
churches and chapels. These symbols communicated in a practical manner, even to the
unschooled and to children, what words often failed to make clear to students of Sacred
A piety void has set in.
Today, the toning down, and in some cases the deletion, of these symbols and signs of
adoration and reverence regarding the Eucharist has resulted in a piety void in the life
of a number of Catholics. This lessening or absence of concrete symbols of adoration is no
doubt also retarding the transmission of the dogma of the Real Presence among Catholics.
In places where these concrete symbols have been diminished, the Church has been left with
merely a theoretical approach to teaching the doctrine of the Real Presence. Tremendous
mysteries are difficult to communicate even to the scholarly by means of precise
terminology, and nearly impossible to the theologically uneducated and children.
Recovery from this piety void and from youth's doctrinal haziness about the Real
Presence will hopefully come about with the full and complete implementation of the
Eucharistic doctrine of the Second Vatican Council. One document, issued on May 25, 1967,
by the Sacred Congregation of Rites, which was intended to implement the Conciliar decree
on the Liturgy and Worship of the Eucharist, is Eucharisticum Mysterium. In this document
is found a recommendation which has since been repeated on April 3, 1980, in Inaestimabile
Donum, a document by the Sacred Congregation for Sacraments and Divine Worship, the
publication of which was ordered by John Paul II himself. The recommendation is:
"When the faithful communicate kneeling, no other sign of reverence
towards the Blessed Sacrament is required, since kneeling is itself a
sign of adoration.
"When they receive Communion standing, it is strongly recommended that, coming up
in procession, they should make a sign of reverence before receiving the Blessed
Sacrament. This should be done at the right time and place, so that the order of people
going to and from Communion should not be disrupted."
The act of reverence strongly recommended by the Sacred Congregations here appears to
be more than a mere reverential act toward holy things like bowing the head, folding of
the hands, or the sign of the Cross. It seems most likely that what is being recommended
here is the traditional form of worship or adoration called latria reserved to God alone.
In the Latin Rite the traditional act of latria is the genuflection, and similar to it is
the profound bow of the Eastern Rites. That the Congregations are recommending a
genuflection can be argued from the context of the recommendation, which has previously
referred to kneeling as a sign of adoration, and from the caution that this act of
reverence not be done out of place or at the wrong time, to interfere with the free flow
of communicants, which caution would be meaningless if a simple bow of the head, folding
of the hands, or sign of the Cross were meant.
A more immediate act is desired
The interpretation of this strong recommendation as a request for a genuflection prior
to the reception of Holy Communion would also receive support form both Sacred Tradition
and Holy Scripture. The fifth-century Doctor of the Church, St. Augustine, clearly
expressed the necessity of making an act of adoration prior to the reception of the
Eucharist when he stated:
While it is true that the communal act of worship at the "Lord, I am
not worthy" minimally fulfills this act of faith, there is such a
great lapse between this act and the individual reception of the
Eucharist due to the number of communicants, that an individual act
of adoration, more personal and more immediate to the reception, is
desired. It is also true that a private interior act of worship
would suffice to fulfill this act of faith, but good liturgy by its
very nature should be a public expression of one's Faith.
If one grants the desire for public, individual acts of latria prior to the reception
of the Eucharist, then there is no more appropriate clear symbol of adoration than the
genuflection for the Latin Rite Catholic today. While powerful monarchs often welcomed
kneeling in the past as a sign of fealty, I doubt whether even the Pope wants to promote
this symbol of reverence to his person today. Few would deny that the traditional sign of
Eucharistic adoration in the Latin Rite has been kneeling or the genuflection. However,
"the bending of the knee" is also the most Scripturally appropriate gesture to
be made to both God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. The Lord God, speaking through
Isaiah the prophet, says: "To Me every knee must bend" (Isaiah 45:23). And St.
Paul points out that "at Jesus' name every knee must bend in the heavens, on the
earth, and under the earth" (Phil. 2:10). Even when Scripture records a mockery of
Christ's divine Person, it records the act of a mock bending on the knee. "They
genuflected before Him and pretended to pay Him homage" (Mark 15:19). Undoubtedly,
there is no other sign today for the Latin Rite Catholic that conveys so clearly adoration
toward the Eucharist or is more scripturally and Traditionally appropriate than the
"bending of the knee".
As this strong recommendation of the Church gradually becomes implemented, it will have
to be done in a true response of the Spirit. It must not be forced upon anyone! If this
act of reverence is interpreted as a genuflection, care must be taken that those who do
not make this exterior sign of adoration are not judged as less holy. First of all, there
are elderly and injured people for whom a genuflection may be difficult. Secondly, the
genuflection, as a sign, demonstrates the holiness of the Eucharist and not the sanctity
of the communicant. Today, however, a possibility far greater than these is that this sign
of reverence strongly recommended by the Church will not be implemented by pastors and
congregations, out of a false respect for the feelings of those who cannot or will not
make this recommended act of homage to the Eucharistic Lord. Care must especially be
taken, therefore, that the faithful are told clearly what the Church prefers.
Abridged from an article which originally appeared in Theotokos, the newsletter of
the Auraria Catholic Club, Denver, Colorado.
Full text available,
Electronic text (c) Copyright EWTN 1996. All rights reserved.