On kneeling and communion rails

Lately, there has been much debate about kneeling at Mass in general and kneeling at a communion rail in particular. The nays say that it isn’t necessary to get down on our knees to show reverence; the yeas contend that kneeling is an act of worship.

This past summer, my husband and I and four of our children spent ten wonderful days in Ottawa, Canada. Our hotel was in the heart of the busy downtown core and a three-minute walk to St. Patrick’s Basilica. I resolved, since we were so close, to attend early morning weekday Mass at the Basilica. Each morning, I would quickly put on the clothes that I had laid out the night before and quietly leave my sleeping family. After greeting the hotel doorman, I would hurry along the streets of Ottawa, joining the early morning crowd of office workers and arrive at the church with a few minutes to spare. The first time I walked into the Basilica, I was pleasantly surprised by the beautiful marble communion rail. I hadn’t seen one of those since I was a very little girl growing up in my Toronto parish.

At communion, I followed the people lining up in front of me. It was an interesting yet familiar experience, kneeling to receive Jesus in the Holy Eucharist. It was very humbling and so right—kneeling, waiting, and in humility extending my tongue to receive Jesus. Why couldn’t I receive communion like that every time?

In the past few months since returning from our holiday, I have had the blessing of attending a Latin Novus Ordo Mass every First Friday. Father offers the sacrifice of the Mass ad orientum. My favourite part of the Mass is kneeling at the communion rail and patiently awaiting the time when Jesus will be placed on my tongue. I have the same feeling of humility and reverence, the same realization that Jesus is entering me, and I can’t begin to humble myself enough to receive Him. Kneeling at the communion rail somehow gives me a tiny fraction of the humility I need to receive the Son of God.

In his book The Spirit of the Liturgy (Ignatius Press), then Cardinal Ratzinger defines the word proskynein, a Greek verb, as “the classical word for adoration on one’s knees.” In other words, worship. According to Cardinal Ratzinger, there are two aspects to worship—the spiritual and the bodily—and they are inseparable. If kneeling is just a physical act, it is meaningless. Similarly, if we attempt to worship without the bodily form, then the act of worship “evaporates.”

Human beings do not just communicate with language. We express ourselves with our whole body. Priests lie prostrate at their ordination to signify humility, poverty, service. Married couples express their love for each other using their bodies in the most intimate way. Friends greet each other with an embrace or an affectionate touch. Since our bodies are so much a part of how we interact, claiming that we can fully worship our Lord using only our language and what we feel in our heart does not make sense.

I am by no means a liturgical expert but from my point of view as an ordinary Catholic, I do have questions and observations. If the God of the universe can show His humility by falling under the weight of a cross, if He can manifest His poverty while nailed to an instrument of torture reserved for criminals, then what is the big deal against kneeling, especially at a communion rail? Why, in some Roman Catholic churches, is there the continued resistance to kneeling as the prayers of communion and consecration are recited? If Jesus humbly consents to come to me hidden in the form of bread and wine, then why shouldn’t I get down on my knees in adoration? Why would I not at least try to imitate the humility of my Lord and Saviour as He gives Himself to me in the Holy Eucharist? If Pope Benedict believes that kneeling is important and if the faithful who receive the Eucharist from him are now required to kneel, then why are not the rest of us following his example?

At my parish, I see people attempt to kneel as they receive Holy Communion. Since the church does not have a communion rail, it is very awkward, but I applaud them for their perseverance. Granted, even if there were a communion rail, some people would be unable to use it because of medical conditions. However, the illness and pain that prevents one from kneeling can be offered as a sacrifice and expression of reverence. Offering up one’s inability and standing with a bowed head is a powerful prayer.

I leave it to Pope Benedict to give the strongest reason for kneeling. “The man who learns to believe learns also to kneel, and a faith or a liturgy no longer familiar with kneeling would be sick at the core. Where it has been lost, kneeling must be rediscovered, so that , in our prayer, we remain in fellowship with the apostles and martyrs, in fellowship with the whole cosmos, indeed in union with Jesus Christ Himself.” (The Spirit of the Liturgy)

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