Question Box: Posture for receiving Communion

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Anne Marie Amacher
Archbishop Thomas Zinkula distributes communion to seminarian Blake Riffel at Sacred Heart Cathedral in Davenport June 1.

Q: What is the correct posture for receiving Communion? At my parish I have noticed more people genuflecting before receiving or kneeling to receive. I know of a few churches that have also set out kneelers.

A: There are many strong opinions on this among the Catholic faithful.

Fr. Hennen

The General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM) states: “The norm established for the Dioceses of the United States of America is that Holy Communion is to be received standing, unless an individual member of the faithful wishes to receive Communion while kneeling” (par. 160.2). An earlier version stated, “Communicants should not be denied Holy Communion because they kneel.” The original Latin of the General Instruction simply leaves it up to each episcopal conference.

As to the proper gesture immediately before receiving, the GIRM states, “When receiving Holy Communion, the communicant bows his or her head before the Sacrament as a gesture of reverence and receives the Body of the Lord from the minister…When Holy Communion is received under both kinds, the sign of reverence is also made before receiving the Precious Blood” (par. 160.3).

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It is clear that the norm is standing but that a person may kneel and should not be denied Holy Communion on that basis. Also, the gesture of reverence before receiving is a bow of the head.

Some may see this as magisterial “overreach,” curbing individual expressions of piety. Yet, that is in part what the rubrics are about. The liturgy is by nature proscriptive, telling us what and what not to do. The fact is, this is not about expressing our individual piety but celebrating the Eucharist, as far as possible, as one body. This “cuts both ways,” for those who consider themselves more “progressive” and for those who consider themselves more “traditional.”

Many will point to the fact that for centuries the faithful received kneeling, which is still the norm in the pre-conciliar liturgy, i.e. “Latin Mass,” according to the 1962 Missal. Others will say that if we are basing our practice on precedent, then the more ancient practice is standing (before we had kneelers, pews or even churches). They would add that this part of the Mass is called the “Communion Procession” for a reason, because there is a continuous movement of the faithful to the altar to receive the body and blood of Christ.

I do worry about how genuflecting/kneeling can disrupt the Communion procession and can even pose a tripping hazard. In one case, I did have to work with a person who was not only kneeling for Communion but also processing on her knees to Communion and back to the pew. This is not uncommon in Latino cultures. We were able to work out a solution that both respected her custom and made me and others feel more comfortable.

Practical concerns aside, I also wonder sometimes what is motivating those who choose not to follow the norm as laid out in the General Instruction. In almost every case I think it is out of genuine and deeply held reverence for the Blessed Sacrament. However, I worry that for some it is meant to be a show of their piety. If that is the case, woe to them! But if I am making a snap judgement of a person based on his or her posture, then woe to me! God, who looks into the heart, will have to sort that out. Even for those who simply intend to express their love for the Eucharist, I would ask, “Does this call more attention to Jesus, present in the Eucharist, or to you?”

(Father Thom Hennen serves as the pastor of Sacred Heart Cathedral in Davenport. Send questions to messenger@davenportdiocese.org)


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