by Br. Alexis Bugnolo
Last year, on July 1 (the Feast of the Most Precious Blood of Jesus, in the traditional Roman Calendar), His Eminence Jorge A. Cardinal Medina Estévez, Prefect of the Vatican Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, issued protocol n. 1322/02/L to an unnamed Bishop, instructing him that it is a grave pastoral abuse for a sacred minister to refuse Communion to any Catholic in the USA, who kneels for Communion. The Cardinal had occasion to remark in his letter, that, "The Congregation in fact is concerned at the number of similar complaints that it has received in recent months from various places, and considers any refusal of Holy Communion to a member of the faithful on the basis of his or her kneeling posture to be a grave violation of one of the most basic rights of the Christian faithful, namely that of being assisted by their Pastors by means of the Sacraments (Codex Iuris Canonici, canon 213)."
On the very same day, the undersecretary of the same Roman Congregation, Monsignor Mario Marini, wrote to one of the lay people who had been offended, encouraging the faithful everywhere to have recourse to the Apostolic See if they should experience this or any similar grave pastoral abuse, that does not seem likely to be resolved locally.
How any Catholic priest could ever come to the state of mind or soul that he could conceive of such course of action against a communicant, let alone enact it, speaks very poignantly of the very sad state in which many clergy in our country have fallen into; having so fallen away from a self-awareness of the holiness of their office and ministry in the Lord.
I myself experienced this when I had occasion to attend daily mass in a Catholic Cathedral in the Mid-West in May of 2000. After a 20-30 minute thanksgiving after mass, during which I received kneeling, I was accosted in the vestibule of the Cathedral by the Rector, who demanded an explanation for my behavior. I cited the immemorial tradition of the Roman Church as being forever valid in all Roman Catholic Churches throughout the world; he cited the norm in the USA for Communion; I pointed out to him that no such norm had yet to be enacted; he replied by saying, "We'll see about that!"
An Ecclesiastical Tradition
What most Catholics (clergy, religious or lay) do not know is that receiving Communion while kneeling is the immemorial ecclesiastical tradition of the Roman Catholic Church. Today in your parish, during the Novus Ordo, perhaps no one receives Communion while kneeling; but 50 years ago, every Roman Catholic throughout the world did so. How did everything change so much?
Before answering that question, I think it would be more useful to explain how it came to be that every Roman Catholic in the world 50 years ago received Communion while kneeling (of course I am not referring to the priest who celebrates Mass, who has always received while standing at the altar).
We Catholics often hear of the distinction between Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition, but very infrequently do we hear of the term "ecclesiastical tradition". The Catholic Faith is based upon a treasury of spiritual truths and practices and items which have been given by the One and only True God. Some of these are inspired books, written in human language (Sacred Scripture); some of these are oral instructions that come from Moses, the Prophets, Jesus Christ and the Apostles (Sacred Tradition). Sacred Tradition is sometimes called Divine Tradition, inasmuch as it originates from a magisterial act of God; sometimes it is called Apostolic Tradition, inasmuch as it was passed on to the Church through the Apostles.
Ecclesiastical Tradition is the term used by the Second Ecumenical Council of Nicea, in 787 A.D., to speak of those pious customs of the Churches founded by the Apostles, which in some manner correctly apply the Catholic Religion to concrete practice over many generations. It does this most importantly in its 4th Anathema: "If anyone despises or rejects any written or unwritten ecclesiastical tradition, anathema sit." Some examples cited by this council of ecclesiastical tradition are the veneration of the symbol of the Cross, icons, and statues. As an unwritten practice, kneeling for Communion is an ecclesiastical tradition.
The Roots of an Ecclesiastical Tradition
No doubt to many Catholics today, receiving Communion while kneeling is just another pious custom without much value and certainly not in any manner obligatory or important today. And yet the truth is that this pious custom touches upon some very central tenets of the Catholic Faith which are most essential and inalienable to the Church. Let us, then, go in search for the roots of this Ecclesiastical Tradition to understand in a more informed manner the importance it had throughout the whole Church just 50 years ago.
Moses and the Prophets teach that there is only One True God, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob: "Hear O Israel: the Lord our God is one Lord." (Dt. 6:4) Our Lord Jesus Christ teaches that in this One True God there are Three Divine Persons: "Go make disciples of every nation ... baptizing them in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit" (Mt 29:19), and that He Himself is God: "I and the Father are One." (Jn 10:30) Indeed the Divinity of Jesus Christ is the central dogma of the Catholic Religion. The First Ecumenical Council, that of Nicea in 325 A.D. confessed in the Creed it promulgated to be said during every Mass on Sundays: "And in one Lord Jesus Christ, only-begotten Son of God, God from God, light from light, true God from true God, begotten not made, consubstantial with the Father, through whom all things were made."
Christ Himself teaches that God the Father has willed that the Son be worshipped equally with Himself: "Neither does the Father judge any man, but has given all judgment to the Son, that all men may honor the Son, as they honor the Father." (Jn 5:22-3) The Ecclesiastical Magisterium likewise teaches that Jesus Christ is to receive the same worship as God (Fourth Ecumenical Council of Ephesus, in 431 A.D.), and that Jesus Christ, as a Divine Person along with His Human nature is to be worshipped as God with one act of veneration (Fifth Ecumenical Council, held at Constantinople in 553 A.D).
Now Sacred Scripture expressly teaches that God alone is to be worshipped with the veneration of genuflection: God speaking through Isaiah says: "To me every knee shall bend." (Isa. 45:23) And St. Paul teaches, "for it is written: 'As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bend before me'" (Rom. 14:11). St. John in his book of revelations recounts: "And I, John, who have heard and seen these things; and after I had heard and seen, I fell down to adore before the feet of the Angel, who shewed me these things. And he said to me: See though do it not: for I am thy fellow servant, and of thy brethren the prophets, and of them that keep the words of the prophecy of this book. Adore God." (Apoc. 22:8-9)
St. Paul himself says that Jesus is to worshipped with this exterior gesture: "That in the Name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those that are in heaven, on earth, and under the earth..." (Phil. 2:10) It follows then, that it is of the Faith (de Fide) that Jesus Christ is to be worshipped by all men, with the gesture of adoration, which is kneeling before Him in His Sacred Humanity.
Now the Fathers of the Church testify that Jesus Christ in the Eucharist is to be thus worshipped. St. Augustine in his commentary on Psalm 98:5, "Exalt ye the Lord our God, and adore His footstool, for it is holy" (according to the Vulgate's enumeration), explains this in reference to the Sacred Humanity of Christ present in the Eucharist: "I ask what is His footstool? and the Scripture tells me, 'the earth is My footstool.' In hesitation I turn unto Christ, since I am herein seeking Himself; and I discover how the earth may be worshipped without impiety, how His footstool may be worshipped without impiety. For He took upon Himself earth from earth; because flesh is from the earth, and He received flesh from Mary. And because He walked here in very flesh, and gave that very Flesh to us to eat for our salvation; and no one eats that Flesh, unless he has first worshipped It, but that we sin in not worshipping." St. Cyril of Jerusalem taught the faithful at Communion to, "Bow down and in adoration and veneration say Amen!" (Cat. Myst. 5, 22) And the Council of Trent re-echoed this teaching, when it cursed those who fail in this: "If anyone will have said, that the Only-Begotten Son of God is not to be adored in the Holy Sacrament of the Eucharist with the cult of latria, even externally, anathema sit." (Denzinger 888)
Likewise the many Saints of the Church teach the same: to cite St. Francis of Assisi, whom Christ alone sent to restore the Catholic Church, as but one example: "when He is sacrificed by a priest upon the altar and borne about in any region, that all nations, upon bended knees, are to render praise, glory and honor to the Lord God living and true." (First Letter to the Custodes of the Order of Friars Minor) St. Robert Bellarmine, revisiting Ps. 98:5, writes in his commentary: "According to the latter sense, the Prophet exhorts all to adore the Human Nature of Christ, which is the footstool of the Divinity in a far more noble manner, than the Ark of wood. For in the former the word of God was written on stone tablets, but in this there is God the Word Himself: to the former the tablets of the Law were had been conjoined only in the union of a vessel; to the latter has the Word been hypostatically united, so that truly there has been said by John, chapter 1, 'The Word has been made flesh.' Nor is only the Humanity of Christ to be adored: as it is in its proper form, but also as it lies hidden under the sacramental species in the Eucharist." Hence the ancient practice of kneeling as the Blessed Sacrament passes by, whether in public during Corpus Christi processions or in the Church, or when Viaticum is brought to the dying.
It is noticeable that never in the history of the Church has anyone taught that bowing the head, nodding or even a simple sign of the cross before receiving Communion, was a sufficient act of adoration. At the same time, though it is often argued that the Catholics of the Eastern Rites stand while receiving Communion; few inquire to discover that the more ancient and proper manner of receiving Communion in the so-called Byzantine Rites, is to make a full prostration on the ground or make the sign of the cross and touch the ground, bowing several times before receiving. And thus have Catholics in all places and times before Vatican II worshipped Jesus Christ in the Most Blessed Sacrament, with their bodies, at the time of receiving Communion. This is why "To preserve and defend the reverence, dignity and holiness due to the greatest treasure in the Church, only kneeling, not standing, to receive Holy Communion, always on the tongue, was allowed." (Pope Paul VI, Memoriale Domini,1969)
An Alien Tradition
What many Catholics also do not realize is that the omission of an act of adoration at Communion time is a novelty of Protestants who denied the Real Presence and who sought to teach the faithful not to render the worship due to Jesus Christ to the Most Blessed Sacrament of the Altar. The noted Catholic Historian, Father Phillip Hughes cites the logic of one of the English reformers against this ecclesiastical tradition: "The outward behavior and gesture of the receiver should want all kind of suspicion, shew, or inclination of idolatry. Wherefore seeing kneeling is a shew and external sign of honouring and worshipping, and heretofore hath grievous and damnable idolatry been committed by the honouring of the Sacrament, I would wish it were commanded by the magistrates that the communicators and receivers should do it standing or sitting..." (Reformation in England. London: Hollis Carter, 1953, p. 197). Indeed, all other reformers who denied the presence of Christ in the Sacrament hold the same position. If you ever happen to see a Protestant Communion service anywhere, you will see this amply verified. Indeed before Vatican II, you could easily and quickly discern, in those churches in Europe which after the reformation are used on Sundays by both Protestants and Catholics, which service was which by the posture of the communicants.
Some recent authors have pointed out the profound error of omitting this gesture of adoration:
"Once more, the act of bending the knee before Jesus Christ is not just a relative act, or an act that is based on culture. Rather it transcends culture because it is an act that has scriptural, traditional, and cosmic significance...When Catholics 'worship' by 'bending the knee' in eucharistic adoration, they strengthen belief in the doctrine of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, for themselves and for the entire Church. And when they can and do not, they weaken it. ... Kneeling, as an act of latria (adoration) of Jesus Christ ... testifies to all four fundamental doctrines better than the act of standing ... if a person deliberately, and with full knowledge, discourages kneeling at the Consecration or genuflection before the Blessed Sacrament, he or she is 'anathema'" C.T.(cf.n.878) (Fr. Scanlan, Homiletic & Pastoral Review. Aug.,1994)
Indeed the current Pope Himself has in the past publicly decried the practice of receiving Communion while standing:
"I did not revoke what one of my predecessors has said about this...here: my dear priests and my dear brothers and sisters, only Communion on the tongue and kneeling is allowed...I say this to you as your bishop!" (John Paul II, Sermon, March 1,1989, Church of SS. Nome Di Maria)
Some Considerations regarding Law, Obedience, Prudence and Faith
Now that the Apostolic See has approved the "norm" for standing while receiving Communion in the USA during the Novus Ordo, is it a question of disobedience for a Catholic to receive kneeling? Some Catholics, even prominent ones, are confused on this issue; and the reason for this is at once an ignorance of the principles of law and a super-scrupulosity regarding external uniformitarianism.
You see, what the Apostolic See has approved as a continued licit practice (that of kneeling while receiving Communion) can never be of itself the grounds for the accusation of disobedience. It is common sense to admit that one is no less obedient to the Catholic Bishops of the United States when one obeys a Pope, when the latter grants an exemption from a current liturgical norm.
But on a deeper level we must all recognize that is it not a sin to be traditional, to want to express more visibly our faith in Jesus Christ, to choose a practice which we personally believe, based on the objective evidence, is more harmonious with the Catholic Faith, more able to express it clearly and unambiguously, more effective in teaching crucial truths of the faith to future generations, and which after all is not but an external act which God Himself and the Church have commanded the faithful to show Jesus Christ in the Most Blessed Sacrament.
On the other hand, it is clear that a law which harms the common good has not the force of law; because by definition, a law is an ordinance of right reason for the sake of the common good. And at the same time, it is obvious that Christ gave the Apostles and their successors authority to upbuild the Church, not to destroy it (cf. St. Paul's Letters to the Corinthians), and hence no pastor, Pope, Bishop, or priest has any authority to command the faithful not to fulfill their sacred duties, not least of which is the worship of Jesus Christ as God in the Eucharist at the time of Communion. Similarly, if you ask the clergy who regularly assist at Communion in the Traditional Roman Rite, they will all tell you that distributing Communion is much easier and secure when the faithful remain kneeling in their places along a Communion rail, than when they approach in line standing.
In present times, the Church throughout the Roman Rite is experiencing an undeniable and very often reported loss of Faith in the divinity of Jesus Christ and His Presence in the Most Blessed Sacrament. Part of the reason, I submit, for this loss is that Catholics do not have a regular opportunity to adore Jesus in the Eucharist by this simple act of genuflection. Indeed, if Catholics do not kneel to receive Our Lord at Communion, when will they ever kneel before Him? We greet relatives, spouses and in some countries even friends with a kiss; will we not greet Our God with an adoring kneel?
For all these reasons, is it not reasonable and pious that the faithful should retain the traditional and sacred practice of receiving Communion on their knees? I submit that this one practice, combined with receiving on the tongue, is an excellent manner for the faithful lay people to do their part in giving a good example of faith to a fast becoming faithless world, and to "preach without words," as St. Francis exhorted his own friars; to encourage even the clergy in the One, True Faith.
A Worldwide Movement
Some years ago, a consecrated virgin in the Diocese of Toronto, Canada, was inspired to found a worldwide movement for the restoration of the practices of receiving Communion kneeling and on the tongue. This movement is known as OMNE GENU FLECTATUR, and is headquartered at P.O. Box 489, Station U, Toronto, ON, Canada M8Z 5Y8. I joined this movement several years ago; and though what I write here is wholly my own responsibility, it reflects the truths and beliefs to which this movement has inspired me to hold fast.
I would add this one point: since receiving Communion while kneeling and on the tongue is such a ancient and thoroughly Catholic practice of adoration of Jesus Christ, and since it can do so much to restore the Church in the modern world; while at the same time it is under so many attacks by misguided clergy and religious and lay people, I believe Catholics who want to act in the very best manner, should make a private vow to always receive in this manner, in accord with the universal right to promise God a good and holy work, granted in canon 1191 of the 1983 Code of Canon Law for the Roman Catholic Church. What is promised by a vow multiplies the merit of the act promised; and the fact of the vow will fortify the one who makes it in the Faith and in the virtues necessary to witness publicly to the Divinity of Our Most High Lord, Jesus Christ, "to whom every knee must bow and every tongue confess."