Kneeling for communion

In Paul Turner's Blog by Paul Turner

Q:  In our diocese there’s a trend for mostly-younger priests to either instruct their ushers to bring portable kneelers forward to the Communion line to assist those who want to receive kneeling, or even to (re-)install communion rails in churches that maybe never had one, or least haven’t for 50 years. Our own bishop is not a fan of this trend, but his modus operandi is to “walk softly and carry a patient stick.” I believe that as an eminent canon lawyer his objection is based upon how he reads liturgical law, though he has not fully explained to me his rationale.

Here is how I have been wording it for my brother priests who are asking about it:

The current editio typica (unchanged since 2002) of the Institutio Generalis Missalis Romani n. 160 says, “Fideles communicant genuflexi vel stantes, prout Conferentia Episcoporum statuerit. Cum autem stantes communicant, commendatur ut debitam reverentiam, ab iisdem normis statuendam, ante susceptionem Sacramenti faciant.” The 2002 English version of GIRM n. 160 used to be worded, “The norm for reception of Holy Communion in the dioceses of the United States is standing. Communicants should not be denied Holy Communion because they kneel. Rather, such instances should be addressed pastorally, by providing the faithful with proper catechesis on the reasons for this norm.” The 2004 Instruction from the Congregation of Divine Worship  Redemptionis Sacramentum n. 91 reiterated, “It is not licit to deny Holy Communion to any of Christ’s faithful solely on the grounds, for example, that the person wishes to receive the Eucharist kneeling or standing.” Unexpectedly, the 2011 US version of GIRM (in our current 3rd ed. of The Roman Missal) n. 160 was reworded: “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,” with a footnote to RS 91. Gone is the pastoral note about explaining the reasons for receiving standing. It’s hard to know how to interpret this “unless” clause in GIRM 160, which doesn’t appear in the Latin editio typica. The source it cites (RS 91) does not say the faithful have the right to kneel; only that they cannot be denied Communion simply because they are kneeling. The issue of kneeling for Communion is unlike the issue of whether to receive on the tongue or in the hand; on this, the US GIRM 160 is unambiguous: “The consecrated host may be received either on the tongue or in the hand, at the discretion of the communicant.” No such thing is said of kneeling. I think it accurate to say that the US rubric does not grant receiving Communion kneeling the same recommendation that receiving standing enjoys. The “norm” is to receive standing; receiving while kneeling is tolerated. Further, GIRM 160 mentions “an individual member” who chooses to kneel; this is far from the priest actively encouraging or inviting all members of the faithful to kneel for Communion. Kneeling is not discouraged as it appears to have been in the 2002 GIRM, but neither is it recommended. In effect, bringing kneelers encourages the faithful to adopt non-normative behavior.

Do you have any background in how that “unless” clause got inserted in the 2011 US GIRM?  I think it is a poorly-worded liturgical law, and I’m trying to make sense of it.

Thanks for any insight you can provide.


A:  I don’t know how or why the instruction in GIRM 160 got reworded in the US, but looking back on the earlier norm, it recommended pastorally giving the proper catechesis. That’s all well and good, but just what is that catechesis? GIRM 160 has never said. I like to quote Basil the Great on standing as a posture that expresses belief in the resurrection, but the USCCB never included such an inspiring interpretation. I think it would have helped.

FWIW, here’s how GIRM 160 is worded in England and Wales: “In the dioceses of England and Wales Holy Communion is to be received standing, though individual members of the faithful may choose to receive Communion while kneeling.” I think that’s clearer than what our conference has written.

One possibility is that in approving the revised translations in 2011, the CDWDS wanted to keep such statements as uniform as possible and put a hand to the final wording. But I really don’t know for sure.