A testimony about kneeling for Holy Communion and Communion rails

I found this on the blog Ecce Mater Tua:

A couple of months ago someone left a comment on Fr. Z’s blog announcing that they had decided from then onwards to kneel each time they received Holy Communion. He appealed for others to do the same. Well, one month ago I realised I could no longer bear to receive Holy Communion standing up. Since then I have knelt and pray to God I don’t ever lapse. And I pray altar rails are reintroduced to make sense of the space in each church and to give us a few moments more of motionless recollection just before and after receiving Communion.

Jesus did not insist that anyone knelt before Him. Yet the Syro-Phoenician woman did (Lk 7:25). The demon-possessed Legion did (Lk 8:28). The Samaritan leper did (Lk 17:16). Mary Magdalene did (Lk 10:39; Jn 12:3). None of these were ordered to fall at His feet, but they did it out of reverence, out of adoration, out of love. As we receive Holy Communion, we can follow the Gospel example.



A note about Communion rails and definition of the liturgical space of a church.

St. Augustine of Hippo (+430) explained that Christ speaks in every word of Scripture.  Sometime Christ is speaking with the voice of the Head of the Body which is the Church, sometimes He speaks as the Body.  At times He speaks as Christus Totus, the Body with the Head, together.

This is a useful way to understand in a healthy way something about the outward expression of "active participation" during Holy Mass.

As we have said on WDTPRS a zillion times, true "active participation" begins with our baptism, which places a new character on our soul and makes us members of the Church.  As John Paul II expressed in his letter on St. Augustine, the Church is not just Christ’s Mystical Body, it is Christ’s Mystical Person

Moreover, the true Actor of the sacred action of Holy Mass is Jesus Christ the High Priests, raising words and deeds to the Father.   Sometimes He acts and speaks in the person of the alter Christus the priest (Head), sometimes in the words and actions of the congregation (Body), sometimes when the priest and people act and speak together (Christus totus).  Christ makes our hands and voices His own in the sacred action, but He is the actor and speaker. 

It may be that the Novus Ordo manifests this reality somewhat more clearly.  The older form of Mass may demonstrate more clearly how the priest as the head of the liturgical body can himself alone speak for the whole.

However, the building of the church itself (which is a sacramental building, a sacred and consecrated place) also manifests this three-fold distinction. 

The sanctuary, at the head of the floor plan, is the place where Christ the Head of the Body speaks and acts, the nave is the place of the congregation, the Body.  Having a Communion rail is not only practical, but it defines the space.  Some might claim that the Communion rail then becomes a barrier for the laity in the congregation to keep from away from the holy of holies.  I don’t see it that way at all.  That rail helps to point out that, in the church building’s layout, the congregation has its own proper character and dignity that must not be compromised or violated by "invasion", so to speak, by the priest – except in those defined moments such as the Vidi aquam we have now in Easter season.  The congregation has its own important role and this is defined in the building.

There are some consequences. 

  • If the priest is seen this way, then his role is far more than that of a mere "presider".
  • The congregation must have its moments to speak: making good responses is important (they need not be loud, but they must be spoken).
  • Pulling lay people inappropriately into the sanctuary is really a violation of their dignity as lay people.  It is as if to say that they are not "good enough" as they are and have dignity only when they are doing what pertains to the priest.
  • Kneeling at the Communion rail is not only a sign of reverence in the Real Presence before reception of Communion, but – for that close encounter of priest (head) and congregation (body) – is a reverent acknowledgement of the Christus totus in action in the sacred mysteries.



About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. Volpius says:

    Very good points I am saving this. I am going to kneel from now on also.

  2. sigil7 says:

    I’ve always been taught that communion rails *encourage* people to come *closer*, esp. with children after Mass. With a communion rail, you know how far you can come up without feeling like you’re encroaching on somewhere you’d feel strange about being!

  3. JayneK says:

    While I haven’t gotten to kneeling yet, I have felt led to move from receiving in the hand to on the tongue. I was finding it difficult to act on these inner promptings, since the practice felt so strange and awkward. (I’m a post-Vatican 2 convert who was never taught this.) Then, oddly enough, I was in a car accident that left my hand injured so that I could not use it. At the same time, we had a guest priest who mentioned the value of receiving on the tongue in his homily. I soon reached a state of “OK, I get it already!” And then, after telling a friend about these events and my resolution to receive on the tongue, there was a dramatic improvement in my hand.

  4. Ken says:

    “The congregation must have its moments to speak…”

    Why? Are we that caught up in ourselves since the 20th century where we are unable to keep quiet for an hour?

    Mass is the only peaceful time of the week for many. I look forward to hearing the altar boys make responses to the priest and having a choir sing beautiful music. My prayer, like most of the saints knew at Mass, is interior.

  5. Ryan says:

    It’s too bad the USCCB has said that the faithful need to be educated that “standing is the proper posture.” Kneeling actually triggers a requirement that the priest “educate” you. It’s a burden on our priests imposed by our horrible bishops.

    I disagree with that vehemently, but this is not a matter of core belief–it’s ancillary. Therefore, I obey and stew in my vengeance…err, I mean “I pray for our bishops.”

    However, I do reserve the right to receive only in the tongue, and only from an ordinary minister of the Eucharist. At Extraordinary Forms, I of course use the rail.

  6. Ken: I think that on a fundamental level you did not understand what I wrote. Probably my fault for not being a better writer.

  7. Mary Rose says:

    Fr. Zuhlsdorf, I was elated by this entry. In fact, it amazingly coincided with my own thoughts as I explored the concept of a “spiritual DMZ” on my blog today. I watched a Mass on EWTN yesterday and was deeply touched by the piety of the believers as they genuflected to receive the Eucharist. There was no railing, but they all received the Eucharist on their tongue and the servers held a gold paten to prevent the Eucharist from falling.

    This is the cry of my heart, to receive Him and enter into the mysteries of our faith. I am beyond thrilled to find that the Catholic Church is starting to embrace these ancient truths once again. Thank you for your service. :-)

  8. AM says:

    I kneel to receive on the tongue if it is a priest ministering Holy Communion.

    I double-genuflect and then receive standing and in the hand when it is a layman ministering Holy Communion.

    I do this because (a) the priest stands in persona Christi and the layman doesn’t, (b) the priest has experience administering on the tongue, and (c) the priest’s hands are (traditionally) consecrated to touch the holy things, and the layman’s aren’t and neither are mine.

    I’m not very happy about my reasons. They are not very consistent. Perhaps I just am too proud to receive humbly and in adoration from a (fellow) layman.

    Comments welcome.

  9. Joseph says:

    At the other end of the spectrum a Roman Catholic church with no kneelers that doesn’t kneel at the consecration: http://byztex.blogspot.com/2008/04/odd-church.html

    Then again, as an Easterner the discussion about receiving on the hand or tongue, kneeling, etc. is very different. For us the older practice was to receive by “making a throne of our hands” with the spoon used later. As much as the poster could “no longer bear to receive Holy Communion standing up” we would no more kneel on a Sunday than you would do a “dance” (of Isaiah) during a wedding.

  10. Andrew Plasom-Scott says:

    I have received exclusively kneeling for many years now – since reflecting that if it was a Good Thing at the traditional Masses I occasionally went to, as a sign of belief, reverence and adoration, then it was a Good Thing at the New Rite too, and embarrassment was not a sufficient reason not to do so. I never receive from anyone but a priest or deacon – even if that means switching queues etc… I have never received in the hand, having found the reasons given at the time of the introduction of that innovation entirely bogus.

    My wife and kids normally stand to receive (at Ordinary Use Masses), genuflecting first (and always on the tongue and from a priest or deacon).

  11. Mac McLernon says:

    My Parish Priest (Fr Finigan of Hermeneutic of Continuity fame) restored altar rails on the back of disability discrimination legislation. Many people would like to kneel to receive Communion, but are a little unsteady when getting up and down – the altar rails provide support. People who wish to stand can do so whether the altar rails are present or not…

    I would love to kneel, but knee problems make this impossible. However, altar rails mean that I can genuflect before receiving.

    Bring back altar rails, and give people a genuine “choice” !

  12. Mary says:

    “Pulling lay people inappropriately into the sanctuary is really a violation of their dignity as lay people. It is as if to say that they are not “good enough” as they are and have dignity only when they are doing what pertains to the priest.”


  13. Will says:

    AM: It seems to me that if one’s focus is properly on the real presence of Christ in communion, one’s posture should not change based on the minister.

  14. Very well said Father, I also see the Altar rails as the transendence between heaven and earth, since the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is “Heaven on Earth” CCC 1186 screams altar rail to me. Fotunately at my Church they haven’t been destryoed. I always kneel for Communion, and never recieve from an EOMHC. The posture has helped increase my Faith in he Eucharist.

  15. Ryan says:

    Not to belabor the point, but kneeling is actually an act of disobedience to the bishops, who have said that we should stand. It also creates a burden on the priest, who is forced to “educate us.”

    Do we need to fall on our swords over everything? I would think receiving from an ordinary minister on the tongue is all we’re really able to do until the Holy Spirit gives us some more orthodox bishops.

    The alternative is disobedience over a minor matter.

  16. Jane says:

    Dear AM,

    If I may offer a comment to your post: the Summa states, “Out of reverence for this Sacrament, nothing touches it but the consecrated hands of a priest.” Follow the advice of the saintly and brilliant mind of St. Thomas Aquinas, whose writings were so favored by Christ and His Church.

    Our Lord is Our Lord whether you receive Him at the NO or the TLM. Since He is consistent with you, be consistent in your reception of Him. Receive Him from the consecrated hands of a priest, and on your knees, for the Holy Spirit instructs us: “At the name of Jesus, every knee shall bend.” We can then easily surmise what our posture out to be when receiving His Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity.

    God bless you.

  17. Ryan:  Please consult Redemptionis Sacramentum:

    [90.] “The faithful should receive Communion kneeling or standing, as the Conference of Bishops will have determined”, with its acts having received the recognitio of the Apostolic See. “However, if they receive Communion standing, it is recommended that they give due reverence before the reception of the Sacrament, as set forth in the same norms”.

    [91.] In distributing Holy Communion it is to be remembered that “sacred ministers may not deny the sacraments to those who seek them in a reasonable manner, are rightly disposed, and are not prohibited by law from receiving them”. Hence any baptized Catholic who is not prevented by law must be admitted to Holy Communion. Therefore, 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.

    I think I would like the opinion also of a canonists whose competence I know but I am struck by the statement that it is not licit to deny Communion to someone kneeling, whatever the conference says.

    First, I am pretty sure that kneeling to receive is actually the norm, just as receiving on the tongue is the norm.  Standing and in the hand are exceptions.

    Second, if it is not licit to deny Communion to person kneeling, it must be lict to receive kneeling, regardless of the provisions of conferences.  This rather seems to reinforce that conferences are able to grant, and even give preference to standing, but not in such a way that the normative way of receiving can be forbidden. 

    Again, I would want a canonist to comment on this.  So, if you are not a canonist, then it would be better to stay silent until one can verify or correct my observations.

  18. Ryan says:

    Fr. Z:

    Here is what the USCCB has (unfortunately) said. Reluctantly, I obey:

    The norm for the 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
    the proper catechesis on the reasons for this norm.

    When receiving Holy Communion standing, 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. The consecrated
    host may be received either on the tongue or in the hand at the
    discretion of each communicant. When Holy Communion is received
    under both kinds, the sign of reverence is also made before receiving the
    Precious Blood.

  19. Thomas says:

    I wish my parish reinstalled an altar rail. Until then, I’ll have to remain standing. It’s simply to awkward and “attention-grabbing” to make a show of kneeling while everyone else stands. I’m also reluctant to receive on the toungue, not out of ideology or lack of reverence, but because I know how nerve-wracking it can be to administer the Host on the tongue. It’s the reason, along with a general disenchantment with extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion, that led me to abandon that role that I accepted when originally invited.

    Just give me an altar rail and a priest to administer on the tongue and I’ll be happy.

    …oh, yeah, and ad orientum, too.

    …and more Latin.

    …and no altar girls.

    …or lectors.


  20. Ryan: The Holy See seems to be saying another thing… but if you are not interested in that, that’s okay. I urge you to follow your conscience in this matter. You are not violating the Church’s law by not kneeling.

  21. Ken says:

    Or, the problem could be solved by simply attending the traditional Mass. In fact, that is the solution to everything.

  22. Ryan says:

    Fr. Z:

    Here’s where I see a problem with the kneeling:

    “The faithful should receive Communion kneeling or standing, as the Conference of Bishops will have determined…” (this is the Holy See’s position)

    The USCCB position is, “The norm for the 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
    the proper catechesis on the reasons for this norm.”

    It seems pretty clear that the Holy See has given the bishops conference the right to make a call, and they have. I’m not at all happy about it, but I don’t see the alternative.

  23. Jane says:

    Dear Father Zuhlsdorf,

    I am providing here for everyone’s benefit an exact transcript of a letter I received from the Congregation for Divine Worship on the matter of kneeling for Communion. It is very clear in this letter that kneeling is not to be considered an act of disobedience.


    Congregatio de Cultu Divino
    Et Disciplina Sacramentorum

    Rome, 25 February 2003

    Prot. N. 2390/02/L

    Dear Ms. Elliot,

    This Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments has received your letter dated 9 December 2002, related to the application of the norms approved by the Conference of Bishops of the United States of America, with the subsequent recognitio of this Congregation, as regards the question of the posture for receiving Holy Communion.

    As the authority by virtue of whose recognition in question has attained the force of law, this Dicastery is competent to specify the manner in which the norm is to be understood for the sake of a proper application. Having received more than a few letters regarding this matter from different locations in the United States of America, the Congregation wishes to ensure that its position on the matter is clear.

    To this end, it is perhaps useful to respond to your inquiry by repeating the content of a letter that the Congregation recently addressed to a Bishop in the United States of America from whose Diocese a number of pertinent letters had been received. The letter states: “…while this Congregation gave the recognitio to the norm desired by the Bishops’ Conference of your country that people stand for Holy Communion, this was done on the condition that communicants who choose to kneel are not to be denied Holy Communion on these grounds. Indeed, the faithful should not be imposed upon nor accused of disobedience and of acting illicitly when they kneel to receive Holy Communion.”

    This Dicastery hopes that the citation given here will provide an adequate answer to your letter. At the same time, please be assured that the Congregation remains ready to be of assistance if you should need to contact it again.

    With every prayerful good wish, I am
    Sincerely yours in Christ,
    Mons. Mario Marini

  24. Geoffrey says:

    I would love to kneel to receive Holy Communion, but I too shy away from drawing attention to myself. I follow the “norm” and bow profoundly, and then receive on the tongue. Does anyone genuflect before receiving? I know this is a legitimate “option” but I only see it done at the Ordinary Form Masses on EWTN.

  25. Adam says:

    Geoffrey: I genuflect before receiving standing. It has gotten me a lot of sneers but I persist. You must be careful in this practice that-you aren’t really genuflecting to the person in front of you but at the same time do not take up so much time as to draw attention to yourself, or “hold up the line”. After a while, those giving Holy Communion, whether Ordinary or Extraordinary Ministers, will adjust to you based on the practice if they see you are going to persist with it.

  26. a cubs fan says:

    I’m surprised that nobody so far has hit on the word “liminal.” The altar rail is the “threshold” of the sanctuary, and having a physical threshold helps reinforce in our minds the fact that receiving Communion really is a liminal experience–that we are on the threshold of Heaven.

  27. Josiah says:

    I always receive kneeling, altar rail or not.My parish priest is gracious enough to use the altar rail at mass,(and communion plates!) and he also make sit obvious that he prefers communion on the tongue and kneeling. I’m extremely lucky, because when we have daily mass during the week in our chapel which is too small for an altar rail, many people kneel. I would even say the majority.
    I have’nt had any problems from anyone, I don’t intend to ever receive standing on or the tongue.

  28. cubs fan: I wrote without using the word! Good catch!

  29. James Stubbs says:

    I genuflect, then receive standing if there are no communion rails. I used to kneel but two different parish priests asked me not to, so I obeyed. At other times I found that I was anxiously focusing on the act of kneeling, and not on the act of receiving the Holy Eucharist. I almost always receive from the priest, but I refuse to run around the church looking for one if EM’s are in use. I don’t go to Holy Mass to campaign on certain issues, this can be a grave distraction.

  30. As quoted above by Fr. Z, with different emphasis:

    “Therefore, 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*.”

    So I have done, even at Masses in the Extraordinary form.

  31. Eire says:

    Please see St Louis De Montefort

    There is a section on ‘FALSE SERVILITY’

    Remember it was the FRENCH BISHOPS who REFUSED to OBEY Pope John PaulII by distributing Holy Communion in
    the hand. Pope John Paul II had to relent so as not to have one rule for France and another for the rest
    of the world. I disagree with him on this point.

    A Famous Saint once said Our salvation is worked out on TREMBLING Knees so if we truely believe in the
    Divine Presence I believe we should Kneel.

    I have come to this conclusion over a period of two years discernment and agony about how awkward it is
    to receive kneeling in our churches.

    When I’m at Novus Ordo I request a Spiritual Communion whilst kneeling because I cannot bear it
    standing. I’m sure this is not wise but what can I do as everyone stands, I don’t wish to
    create a scene as it is a small community.

    I have asked for a Kneeler in an inconspicuous place but this was refused. My daughter who must
    receive her first Holy Communion shortly must do it standing to my horror.
    I will endure it and then run to my local licit Tridentine Mass.

    Our Posture should reflect our belief.

  32. RBrown says:

    Not to belabor the point, but kneeling is actually an act of disobedience to the bishops, who have said that we should stand.

    So what? I’m not in the Marine Corps.

    It also creates a burden on the priest, who is forced to “educate us.”

    I agree that the priest is stuck in the middle. To a certain extent this is a consequence of Vat II and post Vat II policy, which strengthened the position of the bishop (and laity) but weakened that of the priest.

    Do we need to fall on our swords over everything? I would think receiving from an ordinary minister on the tongue is all we’re really able to do until the Holy Spirit gives us some more orthodox bishops.

    Of course, the same could be said for any priest who makes a big deal out of a Communicant kneeling. If anyone approaches, then kneels for Communion, the obvious MO is to give it to him, then wait for him to rise and move one.

    I have seen a local priest giving Communion from someone who wants to kneel. It takes maybe 10 seconds longer than giving Communion to someone kneeling.

    The alternative is disobedience over a minor matter.
    Comment by Ryan

    If Rome says it’s OK to receive kneeling, then no bishop or priest can say otherwise. If we slavishly follow their illegal proscription, then we are participating in and encouraging their disobedience.

  33. I have always, even from parochial grade school in the late 1950s, understood the Communion rail as representing the “table” around which we gathered for the “banquet”, and never as a “fence” to keep everyone out of the Sanctuary.

    Back in the 1990s I built some of the pieces in the Sanctuary at Our Lady of Walsingham in Houston, TX. This was for the building that is now the Parish Hall, but some of the pieces have been used in the new church. The architecture of the old church was simple, and the materials “organic” – wooden structure was white pine, furniture was light oak. Fr. Moore and I agreed that the Crucifix, Tabernacle and Communion rail should be different in order to bring them out. I chose teak, a foreign wood to the USA, but native to the middle-east. I wouldn’t be surprised if Jesus and Joseph actully worked with some teak! So here is what I did, with symbolism:

    Cross – symbol of our Faith: quarter-sawn teak, constructed with no meal fasteners, only glued and clamped.

    Tabernacle – symbol of Christ’s Presence and therefore our Hope in the life hereafter: teak solids and veneers festened from inside to the re-table which was part of the structure of the building, with a precious metal safe with polished door, also mounted to the teak from inside.

    Communion rail – symbol of Christ’s love for us, and ours for Him: constructed of oak on the floor, oak with inset teak panels for the columns, and teak for the actual “rail” which was more than 6″ wide.

    I’ve never heard of this symbolism anywhere else, but it works for me.

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