August 25, 2006


To kneel or to stand

The debate over whether the congregation should stand or kneel during various parts of the Mass, especially during the Eucharistic Prayer, has gone on for a long time. But the controversy got out of hand at a parish in the Diocese of Orange, Calif.

Bishop Tod D. Brown of the Orange Diocese decided that Catholics in his diocese should not kneel after the Agnus Dei (Lamb of God) of the Mass because “standing reflects our human dignity. It’s not that we think we’re equal to God, but we recognize that we are made in the image and likeness of God.”

Parishioners at St. Mary’s by the Sea Church disagreed, and about a third of them continued to kneel at the point during Mass when the priest holds up the consecrated host and chalice, and says, “Behold the Lamb of God.”

The pastor, Father Martin Tran, then used the parish bulletin to explain the reasons for standing. When parishioners continued to kneel, he issued a series of statements condemning what he called “despising the authority of the local bishop” by refusing his order to stand. He wrote that kneeling “is clearly rebellion, grave disobedience and mortal sin.”

When some parishioners still continued to kneel, he dismissed some from membership on the parish council and wouldn’t allow them to serve as lectors or extraordinary ministers of holy Communion.

Then he sent letters to 55 parishioners “inviting” them to leave the parish and the diocese for “creating misleading confusion, division and chaos in the parish by intentional disobedience and opposition to the current liturgical norms.”

After the controversy reached the media, Father Joseph Fenton, spokesman for the diocese, said that Bishop Brown supports Father Tran. As for the statement that disobeying the kneeling edict is a mortal sin, he said, “That’s Father Tran’s interpretation and he’s the pastor. We stand behind Father Tran.” We understand, though, that Father Tran later retracted the part about mortal sin.

There’s no doubt that Bishop Brown has the authority to decide that the people should stand. The current liturgical instructions say, “The faithful kneel after the Agnus Dei unless the diocesan bishop determines otherwise,” and this bishop has determined otherwise. But we believe that inviting people to leave the parish and the diocese is much too drastic, especially in an age when politicians who support abortion are not so “invited.”

The two sides in the “stand vs. kneel” controversy both have good arguments.

Yes, it’s true that we usually stand when someone with authority enters the room, and it’s true that the earliest Christians stood during the liturgy. And yes, it’s true that kneeling is more reverential and the more traditional way of worshiping God.

It’s also true that postures of respect and adoration differ from one culture to another. Nobody is going to win the argument over which posture is better. That’s why the Holy See’s Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments leaves such decisions to bishops’ conferences or to the diocesan bishop.

In the case in Orange, it was those who favor kneeling who disobeyed. Sometimes it’s those who favor standing who disobey the instruction in the United States that the congregation should kneel during the Eucharistic Prayer. Admittedly, before the U.S. bishops made that determination, the Church itself caused confusion when some churches were built, and others renovated, without kneelers.

Frankly, we believe that some people take this matter too seriously. Of course, we should take instructions regarding the rubrics seriously, but posture shouldn’t be so important that people are rebelling against the pastor and bishop, or that a pastor is drumming people out of the Church.

In general, we believe that people should follow the guidelines. Obey the rules that exist where you’re attending Mass, whether or not you agree with them. Avoid calling attention to yourself by doing something different from the rest of the congregation.

Perhaps that is most difficult for older Catholics who have their own ideas about what is right and proper. That obviously is true in that parish in Orange, where parishioners experienced a conflict between Bishop Brown’s new directive and their ideas about the proper posture in the presence of God in the Eucharist.

— John F. Fink


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