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Posture and Prayer

by Father Frank C. Quinn, O.P., Ph.D.

Debate over posture in the Eucharistic Prayer remains an issue in the Roman Catholic Church in the United States. In 1969, the United States bishops voted to continue the pre-Vatican II posture of kneeling immediately after the Sanctus through the end of the prayer.

This present study assumes the fact that posture affects how we understand prayer and at the same time fosters dispositions with regard to our role in public, liturgical prayer With these assumptions in mind, it is the conviction of this author that the decision of the American bishops to continue the same posture that had obtained in the pre-Vatican II Church in effect helped sustain a Eucharistic piety pertaining more to the arena of individual devotion than to the corporate liturgical spirit demanded by the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy. Ironically, this decision affected not only the liturgical enactment of the Eucharistic Prayer but also the entirety of the Communion rite following it.

The Order of Mass
When the new Order of Mass was promulgated in 1969, the General Instruction of the Roman ("GIRM") that accompanied it treated the posture of the congregation from the Eucharistic Prayer until the end of the Mass as follows:

Unless other provision is made, at every Mass the people should stand. . . from the prayer over the gifts until the end of the Mass, except at the places indicated later in this paragraph. . . They should sit, . . . if this seems helpful, during the period of silence after Communion. They should kneel at the consecration unless prevented by the lack of space, the number of people present, or some other good reason.

Further precision was provided by the journal Notitiae. The phrase"kneel at the consecration" was interpreted as follows:

They also stand throughout the Eucharistic Prayer, except the consecration. The practice is for the faithful to remain kneeling from the epiclesis before the consecration until the memorial acclamation after it (emphasis added).

Thus, in the rubrics of the editio typica of the Roman missal the general posture throughout the major portion of the Liturgy of the Eucharist, including the Eucharistic Prayer, was standing. Three exceptions were made: the assembly was to sit during the preparation of the gifts, kneel from the first epiclesis through the anamnesis of the Eucharistic Prayer, and if opportune, sit after the entire congregation had received Communion.

Implementation in the United States.
In their November, 1969 meeting, the American bishops voted on the provisions of GIRM. They made one change in terms of posture during the Eucharistic Prayer:

. . . no. 21 of the General Instruction should be adapted so that the people kneel beginning after the singing or recitation [sic] of the Sanctus until the Amen of the Eucharistic Prayer, that is before the Lord's Prayer.

Since 1969, then, the rubric on kneeling during the Eucharistic Prayer has differed from the Roman rubric. Parochial assemblies in the United States continued in effect to do what they had been doing. These same assemblies ignored (and continue to ignore) the rubric on standing during the Communion rite: most congregations kneel following the Lamb of God and continue to kneel while Communion is being distributed. As with standing/kneeling during the Eucharistic Prayer, standing/kneeling during Communion speaks rather clearly of a Eucharistic piety more devotional than liturgical.

There is plenty of opportunity for Marian hymns at times when the liturgy itself speaks of Mary and her role in our salvation. In Advent, for example, both Mary and John the Baptizer are important figures in our life of faith. In December and January, we commemorate Mary in such celebrations as the Immaculate Conception, Our Lady of Guadalupe, and the Solemnity of Mary on January1. Especially at these times, Marian hymns are most appropriate.

Liturgy and Devotion
Why did the American bishops change the Roman rubric in the first place? Several reasons have been offered. First of all, although liturgical change was in the air at the end of the 1960s and in the beginning of the 1970s, there was some concern about how much the American Church could accept at any one time. John Huels notes that the bishops' "reasoning was political: Because this was a time of rapid and major changes in the liturgy, they feared that the people would not absorb any more liturgical changes."

A second reason supporting the bishops' decision was that such kneeling during the Eucharistic Prayer was particularly suitable to the piety of the American people. This latter explanation provided the basis for retaining the practice of kneeling in the 1990s: "The Committee of the Liturgy recommends that the Conference remain with the decision made in 1969, because this seems to reflect the piety of a significant number of Catholics in the United States." And this piety is related to a "gesture of humility" that "reflects the appropriate attitude before the Real Presence, an aspect of spirituality strongly felt in recent centuries."

This explanation, supporting what can only be termed an individualistic Eucharistic devotionalism, would seem to apply not only to the mandated practice of kneeling or genuflecting during the Eucharistic Prayer but would also seem to justify the ignoring of the Roman rubric imposing standing during the Communion rite. Thus kneeling is clearly understood to be a gesture of humble worship of the real presence in the Blessed Sacrament. Posture and piety reinforce one another.

Devotion and Liturgical Posture
In the journal Notitiae, quoted earlier, in the interpretation of the kneeling and standing rubrics of GIRM relative to both the Eucharistic Prayer and the Communion rite, it is insisted that this is not

to be considered trivial, since their purpose is to ensure uniformity in posture in the assembly celebrating the Eucharist as a manifestation of the community's unity in faith and worship. The people often give the impression immediately after the Sanctus and even more often after the consecration by their diverse postures that they are unmindful of being participants in the Church's liturgy, which is the supreme action of a community and not a time for individuals to isolate themselves in acts of private devotion.

Although this paragraph is clearly devoted to the necessity for uniformity in ritual posture and gesture, the reason given—that liturgy is corporate and that liturgical celebration is not the time for private devotion—would seem to call into question the United States bishops' decision vis-a-vis kneeling during the Eucharistic Prayer. As noted above, the reason given for the bishops' vote was an appropriate attitude before the Blessed Sacrament (even though this way of speaking of the Eucharistic Prayer pertains more to the reserved sacrament and Eucharistic adoration) and that this reflected American Catholic piety. But such explanations pertain more to the "private devotion" rejected in the commentary on GIRM printed in Notitiae. If this is true, then it may well be that we have not yet [accepted the teaching of the GIRM]:

. . . it is of the greatest importance that the celebration of the Mass, the Lord's Supper, be so arranged that the ministers and the faithful who take their proper part in it may more fully receive its good effects. . . This purpose will best be accomplished if, after due regard for the nature and circumstances of each assembly, the celebration is planned in such a way that it brings about in the faithful a participation in body and spirit that is conscious, active, full, and motivated by faith, hope, and charity. The Church desires this kind of participation; the nature of the celebration demands it; and for Christian people it is the right and duty they have by reason of their baptism (emphasis added).


(Reprinte from Parish Liturgy, April-June, 1998, pp. 5-6)

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