ASK FATHER: Can a bishop forbid kneeling for Communion?

Good enough for them.
Good enough for us.

From a reader…


I have a few sincere questions and I believe answers to them may help other readers, too.

For years I have heard it said that the “universal norm” for receiving Holy Communion is kneeling and on the tongue. Therefore, even though the US Bishops obtained a rescript for communion standing and in the hand, no Catholic may be refused communion in the traditional manner.

I have three questions:

1. Where can we find the documentary evidence that the universal norm is kneeling, in case someone challenges this?

2. How do we respond to the claim that the US Bishops’ norm, because it is a “local adaptation,” trumps the universal norm?

3. If an individual, due to the universal norm, is permitted to receive kneeling, in spite of the US Bishops’ norm, could an entire community decide to kneel in preference to standing — either because the pastor decided it, or because it was a shared sentiment?

4. Could there ever be legitimate grounds for a bishop to forbid kneeling in any community?

Ad 1:

When one wants to know the “universal norm” for something, particularly a liturgical action, one should check the “universal language” – Latin.

In the Latin Institutio Generalis Missalis Romani, we read:

“160. … 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.”

Now let’s look at the English equivalent:

160…. 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.

When receiving Holy Communion, 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.


The amended text of 160 now reads: “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 (Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, Instruction, Redemptionis Sacramentum, March 25, 2004, no. 91).”

Thanks to the commentator, below.

Not exactly a translation, is it? This English version is the adaption of norm 160 for the Church in these United States. The US bishops didn’t receive a rescript to permit standing: they used the right given to them by the Institution itself to establish a norm.

Hence, the universal norm specifies that Holy Communion should be received “genuflexi vel stantes, prout Conferentia Episcoporum statuerit” – “kneeling OR standing, as the Bishops’ Conference will have determined.

In these USA, the bishops have determined that the norm is standing, but they further demand that no one be denied if he or she chooses to kneel.

Oddly… seriously oddly… the Institutio Generalis in Latin doesn’t seem to be available on the website.  Hmmm…

Ad 2:

There is a general canonical principle that particular law does trump universal law. See, for example, can. 20, which states in part, “A universal law however, does not derogate from a particular or from a special law, unless the law expressly provides otherwise.”

However, since the particular law makes provision for those who choose to kneel, this seems to be something of a moot point.

Ad 3:

A parish community in these United States could choose to kneel, as a community.  That choice of the majority of the community, with the pastor, etc., however, would not thereby prevent some people from opting to stand, as is their right according to the particular law. Moreover, were they as a community to maintain the practice of kneeling for thirty years, a case could be made that they have established a custom which is contrary to the law in accord with can. 26, provided that, during those 30 years, they do not receive any official contrary instruction from a proper authority, such as the local diocesan bishop or the Holy See.

Ad 4:

A bishop could, I suppose, instruct – beg- cajole – harangue – bully – admonish – plead with a community not to kneel, but he could not rescind Article 160 of the General Instruction, even with the American adaptations, which permits individuals – or many individuals together – to kneel with impunity.

So, over in the Diocese of Libville, the parishioners of Holy Martyrs of Islamic Terrorism Church, qua parishioners, could be instructed by their bishop, Most Rev. Fatty McButterpants, with all manner of high-falutin’, legal sounding phrases, always and only to stand for the reception of Holy Communion, but as individuals they could collectively make the decision to kneel.

I suspect that The Flexible-Knee Challenged parishioners would eventually hie their way over to the Engendering Togetherness Community of Welcome where Fr. “Just call me Bruce” Hugalot tries to drag the kneelers back to their feet before putting the white thing in their hand as a sign that everyone is, indeed, Welcome™.

Finally, the 2004 (hence, subsequent to the 2002 GIRM) Instruction Redemptionis Sacramentum states:

[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.

That applies to celebration of Holy Mass according to the Novus Ordo, the 2002 Missale Romanum.

For Masses with the 1962 Missale Romanum, one should kneel if one is able.  If one can’t, no problem.  Tradition is flexible.

I trust that that helps.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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  1. Matt R says:

    The citation above is from the GIRM as modified immediately after the 2002 Missale Romanum came into force. The text of 160 now reads: “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 (Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, Instruction, Redemptionis Sacramentum, March 25, 2004, no. 91).”

    It makes it easier for individuals to get their friends to do it and increase pressure on pastors to accomodate this, i.e. by using the rail.

    [And yet the English version on the Vatican site, clearly for these USA, isn’t updated with that. But should we be surprised?]

    Fr. Z's Gold Star Award

  2. un-ionized says:

    The norm at both parishes I’ve been to most recently is to kneel. I can’t any more so I stand along with people with walkers and broken legs. I can kneel in the pews which are cushy but the altar rail appears to be padded and isn’t very so the first time I knelt there I limped for a few days.

  3. Kent Wendler says:

    I suppose I am a kind of “Flexible-Knee Challenged” Catholic, but that is due to arthritis and balance difficulty. A Communion rail would be most welcome to me – but our parish removed those back in the 80’s with the church refurbishment. Part of them was used to construct a “table altar”.

  4. Sawyer says:

    At St. Michael’s Abbey (Norbertines) in Orange County, CA Mass is celebrated novus ordo in Latin. For Holy Communion the faithful process forward, kneel along either side on the first step of the sanctuary (there is no altar rail, but there is a cushion on that first step), and receive on the tongue. Only once did I see someone opt to receive Communion in the hand while kneeling at the Abbey. The priest did place the host in the communicant’s hand, and he waited and watched until the communicant put the host in his mouth before proceeding to the next kneeling communicant. So the Abbey is an example of a whole novus ordo community opting to receive Communion while kneeling and on the tongue. Excellent novus ordo Masses celebrated there, with outstanding preaching.

  5. JesusFreak84 says:

    Literally got into an argument with my best friend’s husband over this a few months ago. Pro-tip if you’re arguing in favor of standing: don’t be sanctimonious towards those who kneel.

  6. chantgirl says:

    To think that in some places you would be welcome to receive communion as a divorced/not annulled/civilly remarried person, but those who wanted to kneel would be denied.

  7. Elizabeth D says:

    My bishop prefers/encourages us to kneel, and I am very consistent in my Mass habits so I do regardless if I am somewhere where they use a step or a rail or where they do not, but it must be said that even though I am not old nor have bad knees, it is not entirely easy to get up without a rail, I have to pivot away from the priest and put a foot on the ground, and lurch to my feet, and it all has to be rapid because you are single file in line. Single file line-up Communion and kneeling do not work well together, there needs to be use of a step or rail for it to be suitably practical. Kneeling on a step is definitely easier than on the level floor, but unless someone has bad knees I am not fond of a cushion on the step where you are on something squishy and your upper body tends to be a little unstable without a rail. Really I want a step and a rail.

  8. Fr. Kelly says:

    Here is a sampling of recent and not so recent texts documenting the privileged position of receiving Holy Communion kneeling: (in addition to the GIRM which Fr. Z. mentioned above)
    naestimabile Donum 1980 11. The Church has always required from the faithful respect and reverence for the Eucharist at the moment of receiving it.
    With regard to the manner of going to Communion, the faithful can receive it either kneeling or standing, in accordance with the norms laid down by the episcopal conference: “When the faithful communicate kneeling, no other sign of reverence towards the Blessed Sacrament is required, since kneeling is itself a sign of adoration. When they receive Communion standing, it is strongly recommended that, coming up in procession, they should make a sign of reverence before receiving the Sacrament. This should be done at the right time and place, so that the order of people going to and from Communion is not disrupted.”[21]
    The Amen said by the faithful when receiving Communion is an act of personal faith in the presence of Christ.
    Eucharisticum Mysterium Sacred Congregation of Rites on May 25, 1967
    34. The Way of Receiving Communion
    a) In accordance with the custom of the Church, Communion may be received by the faithful either kneeling or standing. One or the other way is to be chosen, according to the decision of the episcopal conference, bearing in mind all the circumstances, above all the number of the faithful and the arrangement of the churches. The faithful should willingly adopt the method indicated by their pastors, so that Communion may truly be a sign of the brotherly union of all those who share in the same table of the Lord.
    b) When the faithful communicate kneeling, no other sign of reverence toward the Blessed Sacrament is required, since kneeling is itself a sign of adoration.
    When they receive Communion standing, it is strongly recommended that, coming up in procession, they should make a sign of reverence before receiving the Blessed Sacrament. This should be done at the right time and place, so that the order of people going to and from Communion may not be disrupted.
    Tres abhinc annos May 4, 1967 Sacred Congregation of Rites
    13. The communion rite for priest and people is to have the following arrangement: after he says Panem caelestem accipiam, the celebrant takes the host and, facing the people, raises it, saying the Ecce Agnus Dei, then adding three times with the people the Domine, non sum dignus. He then communicates himself with the host and chalice and immediately distributes communion in the usual way to the people.
    What is the usual way at that time? Check out the Rituale Romanum of 1964:
    Rituale Romanum 1964

    4. If he gives holy communion to priests or other members of the clergy, they receive first, kneeling at the altar steps, or if more convenient, on the floor of the sanctuary, separate from the laity. (Pries and deacons who receive wear a white stole or one of the same color worn by the ministrant.) He then proceeds to the faithful and begins the distribution at the epistle side.*
    * At the moment the priest gives the communicants the sacrament, they hold the paten below their chin (Instruction of S. C. S., dated March 2, 1929).
    11. During Mass communion of the people ought to follow immediately after that of the celebrant (although for a valid reason it may happen occasionally at a Mass said privately that it be distributed right before or after Mass), since the prayers which follow communion in Mass are not intended for the priest alone but apply to the other communicants as well.
    12. Therefore, if some are to communicate during Mass, the priest having consumed the Precious Blood and before taking the final ablutions, places the consecrated particles in the ciborium, or on the paten when only a few will communicate, unless they have been in the ciborium or another chalice from the beginning. In the meantime the assistant extends the communion cloth before the communicants. If the ciborium is in the tabernacle, the priest genuflects after he has opened the tabernacle door. Then with the ciborium in his left hand, he holds a host just above it with his right, turns to the people squarely in the center, and says: See the Lamb of God, etc., as explained above He then gives the Eucharist to the communicants, beginning with the ministrants at the altar if they wish to receive. When the distribution is finished, he returns to the altar, without saying anything, neither does he give the blessing because he will impart it at the end of the Mass. Lastly he says the prayers of ablution as given in the Missal, consumes the final ablutions, and concludes the Mass.
    13. Should it happen that some occasionally communicate immediately before or after a Mass said privately, then the priest will administer holy communion vested in the Mass vestments, in the same manner as is done outside of Mass as explained above; yet always omitting the Alleluia and the blessing at the end if black vestments are worn.

    From Mediator Dei of 1947 (The Communion Rail is presumed)
    119. May God grant that all accept these invitations of the Church freely and with spontaneity. May He grant that they participate even every day, if possible, in the divine sacrifice, not only in a spiritual manner, but also by reception of the august sacrament, receiving the body of Jesus Christ which has been offered for all to the eternal Father. Arouse Venerable Brethren, in the hearts of those committed to your care, a great and insatiable hunger for Jesus Christ. Under your guidance let the children and youth crowd to the altar rails to offer themselves, their innocence and their works of zeal to the divine Redeemer. Let husbands and wives approach the holy table so that nourished on this food they may learn to make the children entrusted to them conformed to the mind and heart of Jesus Christ.

  9. Grant M says:

    This is why I now receive communion only at the TLM. I’m too nervous to kneel and attempt to receive on the tongue at the NO. In theory I’m free to kneel at the NO and open my mouth. In practice I would break the quick flow of the queue, and one never knows how the “Eucharistic Minister” will react. I have attempted to receive on the tongue on rare occasions at the NO (while standing) and it hasn’t always gone well. On one occasion the minister dropped the Host, on another, the priest pressed the Host into my palm anyway. In the worst case scenario one would “make a scene” to no purpose. You can’t prepare yourself for communion if you are fretting about what is going to happen.

    I note from the interview with Bishop Schneider that he is very opposed to communion in the hand, so that encourages me to avoid communion at the NO.

  10. Alaskamama says:

    My knees are fine, but as someone perpetually blessed by babies (either in utero or in arms), I receive in a genuflecting position so I can push off my raised knee to get back to a standing position. I also receive the Precious Blood the same way. (Novus Ordo only Mass available.)
    The permanent deacon at our parish has reprimanded me, saying the GIRM requires kneeling NOT genuflecting. He also said it requires standing for reception of the wine.
    I know some who receive the host kneeling forego the Precious Blood. But I stand in line at the hardware store for a free hot dog, why would I not get in line for the blood of my Lord? And if I kneel as best I am able to receive the host, then why would I not kneel for the blood?
    Several in our parish have petitioned for a kneeler, but we have been denied.
    I continue to genuflect with a squirming baby in my arms.
    Our parish is very far from following the GIRM on many fronts, but are upset by the way I receive communion. Any suggestions, solutions, advice?

  11. ServusChristi says:

    Along with many other practices introduced in the post-concilliar period, most younger Catholics I encounter think that Holy Communion was always received standing and on the hand, and mind you, by “lay extraordinary Eucharistic ministers” too. I can ramble on about how much the millennial Catholics including myself was robbed of tradition to the extent that I had to do some digging myself to find out that what we did wasn’t always how it was.

  12. TonyO says:

    With regard to the manner of going to Communion, the faithful can receive it either kneeling or standing, in accordance with the norms laid down by the episcopal conference

    Hence, the universal norm specifies that Holy Communion should be received “genuflexi vel stantes, prout Conferentia Episcoporum statuerit” – “kneeling OR standing, as the Bishops’ Conference will have determined.

    I truly do not understand what the Church thinks about the role of an episcopal conference. On the one hand, there are all sorts of texts in canon law and other places that indicate that, for the sacred liturgy, the person with the authority to decide is the bishop – no, let me re-state that: THE person who receives from God the authority, in virtue of his consecration, is the bishop. As a result, so it would seem, anything not decided by the Pope and left lower down for the lower authorities is ipso facto left to the bishop. Nobody consecrates an episcopal conference. And, in many, many circumstances the episcopal conferences only have advisory capacity, they cannot actually mandate the local ordinary do X because they all think it’s best.

    But here in this instruction the general law lands the authority DIRECTLY with the conference, and (seemingly) allows no discretion over it with the local ordinary. Which seems to imply that the conference itself is an entity naturally capable of wielding authority.

    I get that higher authority (i.e. a pope) can erect delegates who, because they have been so formed , can wield limited authority on behalf of the pope. But there is (at a minimum) a real tension in constructing an intermediary delegate who is going to wield authority over a so-called “subordinate” who gets his authority directly from God and not from the pope.

    What compounds the confusion is that the matter at hand is one of immemorial custom and tradition. Admittedly, the pope has authority to change an immemorial custom for good reason, but (a) the liturgy – the life-blood of Catholics – is largely composed of immemorial custom, so changing this is far more serious; (b) there is no possible argument (and none plausibly claimed) that the pope had good reason here, and (c) even if there was, leaving the decision up to a man-made advisory committee rather than granting it to consecrated bishops who by their divine office have authority over the liturgy in their sees, has GOT to be something fraught with problems.

    If some future pope really wants to make an organizational improvement, he can undertake to improve upon our understanding of the nature of the conferences, what they “really are” and thus their proper roles.

  13. Suburbanbanshee says:

    I think our female Byzantine maternal friends are in the habit of receiving the Precious Blood with babies in arms, but they receive by way of somebody else giving them a spoonful.

    In past ages in the West, I do not think this was really envisaged. The Precious Blood was for weddings only, when it came to laypeople, and the bride and groom received. (Or maybe viaticum for the dying, received at home while flat on the back.) You would have to go back pretty far or look at liturgical straws/eyedroppers. Heck, most women with small kids did not attend Mass much – they were dispensed – and they did not receive Communion more than as the Easter duty, or at the time of being churched after recovering from giving birth. Just being there with babies was super-pious.

    Our fellow laypeople can be a pain in the butt. However, it is also true that what you are doing is a “kludge” — something cobbled together that only kinda works, looks ugly, and goes against the manual. That does not necessarily matter… And you are within your rights.

    The big question is whether it is safe for your kids. If you can carry them and kneel without breaking anybody’s neck, fine. But it seems a bit precarious. Maybe carry them in a carrier, set it down, kneel, receive, and then pick them up in the carrier again? Maybe let somebody else carry them?

  14. Suburbanbanshee says:

    What I am envisioning is one of those basket-like carriers with a handle, the kind that can be lifted in one hand and set on the ground. A really bulky one obviously would not work.

  15. Suburbanbanshee says:

    Heh — apparently there are secure harnesses to strap baby to your body. They even have them for twins, although that seems like turning parents into packhorse trains. :)

  16. Sword40 says:

    Like Grant M, I no longer attend Mass at my local NO parish, opting to drive the 80 miles north to the FSSP. On those occasions when I do attend the NO (funerals or marriages) I just skip communion as there is no requirement to receive at every Mass.

  17. Sue in soCal says:

    Ad 3 reminds me of a funny story.
    My previous parish had a wonderful pastor for over 30 years. He was a very devout, humble man who modeled his spirituality after St. Therese of Lisieux and St. John Vianney. The spiritual foundation of the parish was such that there were 3 daily Masses. My best memory of him was a standing room only crowd for Holy Thursday Mass where, surveying the wall to wall bodies, with tears in his eyes said, “I have prayed and sacrificed for this day for years. I will now have to start working on Good Friday.”
    When he retired, the new pastor was very “happening”. Suddenly the parish had a homosexual community spring up. The new associate pastor was definitely a part of that community, along with lectors and choir members. The pastor fired the choir director of many years and replaced him with a Quaker music director who was also in charge of the liturgy. (Wait; the funny part is coming.)
    The pastor then began working on the conservative, if not traditional, sizable group that attended 6:30 AM daily and Sunday Mass. He kept trying to bring them “up to date”. They respectfully but persistently refused to modernize. The pastor then decided to cancel 6:30 AM Mass. There were no audible complaints from the faithful attendees. They just, as a group, started showing up at the 8:30 daily Mass, continuing to kneel at the non-approved parts, kneel for communion, receive on the tongue, and not wander all over the church for the sign of peace in spite of the pastor’s constant direction to do otherwise. Finally, in desperation, the pastor reinstated the 6:30 AM Mass because this group was contaminating the other Masses. It seems it was better to quarantine the contagion rather than try to get the rest of the parish to build an immunity or, worse, imitate them and become his worst nightmare! The pastor left them alone from then on, never instructing them in modernity again.

  18. Grant M says:

    Sword40: I still attend my parish NO Mass if the TLM is not available. I just stay in my pew and make a spiritual communion. After all, we are only required to receive communion once a year, but the TLM is available in my part of the world two or three Sundays a month.

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