Postures, gestures at Mass unite Catholics in prayer, adoration - Catholic Courier
A woman kneels in prayer.

Tamara Guest kneels in prayer at Fairport’s Church of the Assumption Dec. 20. (Courier photo by Jeff Witherow)

Postures, gestures at Mass unite Catholics in prayer, adoration

Some Catholics and non-Catholics alike jokingly refer to the sit-stand-kneel rhythm at Mass as “Catholic calisthenics.”

Although some of the movements may seem arbitrary, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops affirmed in its 2010 document “Praying with Body, Mind, and Voice” that the postures and gestures Catholics make at Mass have “profound meaning and, when done with understanding, can enhance our participation in the Mass.”

This is true, according to the document, because “we are creatures of body as well as spirit, so our prayer is not confined to our minds and hearts. … Using our entire being in prayer helps us to pray with greater attentiveness.” Thus, the document stated, “joining in an action through common postures and gestures” is an essential part of worshiping at holy Mass.

Meaningful postures enhance attentive worship at Mass

Catholics are to sit during the pre-Gospel readings, the homily, preparation of the gifts, and a period of meditation following Communion, the document notes. Yet this seated position is one of listening, meditation and attentiveness, rather than merely one of rest.

Catholics stand during Mass as a sign of respect and honor, the document explains, noting that from the earliest days of the church, standing has been understood as the posture of those who have risen with Christ and who seek the things above. Catholics stand for the proclamation of the Gospel as well as when the priest celebrant, representing Christ, enters and leaves the assembly.

The USCCB document notes that when Catholics stand to pray, “we assume our full stature before God, not in pride but in humble gratitude for the marvelous things God has done in creating and redeeming each one of us.”

Kneeling and genuflecting show adoration and reverence for the Holy Eucharist

The understanding of kneeling as a posture at Mass has changed over the centuries, according to “Praying with Body, Mind, and Voice.” The document explains that kneeling has signified penance and homage and, in more recent times, expresses adoration, particularly in the presence of Christ’s Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity in the Holy Eucharist.

As such, the U.S. bishops have chosen kneeling as the appropriate posture during the entire Eucharistic Prayer.

St. Pope John Paul II addressed the importance of postures and gestures before the Eucharist in Mane Nobiscum Domine (“Stay With Us, Lord”), the apostolic letter he wrote to open the Year of the Eucharist in 2004.

“There is a particular need to cultivate a lively awareness of Christ’s real presence, both in the celebration of Mass and in the worship of the Eucharist outside Mass. Care should be taken to show that awareness through tone of voice, gestures, posture and bearing,” he wrote.

Similarly, genuflecting is a similar sign of adoration when entering and leaving church and before the tabernacle or monstrance containing the Blessed Sacrament, as the U.S. bishops’ document stated.

Those who cannot kneel may bow or make some other sign of humility and adoration

The General Instruction of the Roman Missal, which is the church document governing the celebration of Mass, says that people who cannot kneel due to “reasons of health … ought to make a profound bow when the priest genuflects after the consecration.”

Number 1378 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church states that bowing deeply is a worthy sign of adoration: “We express our faith in the real presence of Christ … genuflecting or bowing deeply as a sign of adoration of the Lord.”

“Just as Jesus said, ‘The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath’ (Mk 2:27),’ so also should we say that the postures are made for the faithful, not the faithful for the postures,” Father William “Mickey” McGrath observed in an email to the Catholic Courier.

“The spirit of the posture is humility,” added Father McGrath, pastor of Fairport’s Church of the Assumption and Church of the Resurrection. “If the person cannot kneel, they are simply to conform themselves to the proper disposition, which is humility. The Lord honors the virtue much more than the posture.

“Think of the parable of the Publican and the Pharisee,” he continued. “The Publican (tax collector) shows humility, while the Pharisee ‘prays’ with pride.”

Silence at Mass is a time for reflection and deeper communion

Silence also is an important part of the Mass, the GIRM notes.

“Thus within the Act of Penitence and again after the invitation to pray, all recollect themselves … at the conclusion of a reading or the homily, all meditate briefly on what they have heard; then after Communion, they praise and pray to God in their hearts,” it states.

In an essay, Father Boniface Hicks, a Benedictine monk, wrote that “silence in the Mass carries a meaning of a shared, hidden fullness with God, a form of divine communion and intimacy … in the same spirit as Jesus’ exhortation for us to go into our inner room and pray to the Father in secret where the Father who sees in secret will reward us (Mt 6:6).”

Pope Francis: Common postures and gestures are signs and means of Catholic unity

All of these aspects of worship are signs and means of Catholic unity, according to Pope Francis’ 2022 apostolic letter on the sacred liturgy, Desiderio Desideravi (“I have earnestly desired”).

“Indeed, they (Catholics) form one body, whether by hearing the word of God, or by joining in the prayers and the singing, or above all by the common offering of Sacrifice and by a common partaking at the Lord’s table. This unity is beautifully apparent from the gestures and postures observed in common by the faithful,” Pope Francis wrote.

Likewise, the U.S. bishops’ 2010 document stated that, “When we stand, kneel, sit, bow, and sign ourselves in common action, we give unambiguous witness that we are indeed the Body of Christ, united in body, mind, and voice.”

Tags: Priests, Why do Catholics?
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