Peter Kwasniewski

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At St. Peter’s Basilica on November 3, 2008, Pope Benedict XVI distributes Holy Communion on the tongue to the kneeling faithful.

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Why receiving the Eucharist kneeling is always permissible

Peter Kwasniewski Peter Kwasniewski Follow Dr. Peter

January 17, 2019 (LifeSiteNews) – Fairly often, I receive notes from Catholics around the world who are troubled because of the opposition they encounter when, at a Mass in the Ordinary Form or Novus Ordo, they try to receive the Lord Jesus Christ in the traditional manner – namely, in the posture of kneeling and on the tongue. They ask me if their pastor is right in telling them they shouldn't do this, or if their bishop is right in "forbidding" it and insisting that everyone follow the "norm" (which, tragically, is usually that the faithful should stand, which in turn encourages reception in the hand).

Although this ground has been covered many times, it is always worth covering it again to reassure faithful Catholics that, in seeking to follow the old custom, they are not being "disobedient," or risking "private judgment," or any other such nonsense that is thrown at them. Indeed, in regard to this issue, the pushback from Catholics tired of being browbeaten was so strong that it led to a favorable relaxation of earlier norms in the United States, as I will show.

In the 2003 edition of the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (the governing document for how to celebrate the so-called "Ordinary Form" of the Roman Rite), there was a grudging admission that the faithful could receive kneeling:

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.  (GIRM [2003], n. 160)

Due to a deluge of complaints that had reached the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments from U.S. Catholics, the USCCB was required to change this paragraph in the 2011 edition, where it 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. (GIRM [2011], n. 160)

That's it – nothing else! So the idea that Catholics should be "catechized" about the norm of standing in order to make them conform to it has been dropped altogether. It is now simply left up to the individual Catholic whether he wishes to stand or kneel. (The same is true of whether to receive in the hand or on the tongue, about which there has never been the same level of controversy.)

The 2011 GIRM cites at this point the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments' Instruction Redemptionis Sacramentum (March 25, 2004), no. 91, which reads:

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.

The Vatican website, which unfortunately is often out of date, still has on it the now superseded 2003 GIRM, whereas the USCCB's website has the 2011 GIRM, which is the version currently in force.

GIRM 2011 does raise the interesting question of whether a local community can adopt kneeling as its own norm. Given that the USCCB has adopted standing as a national norm, and given that the individual Catholic may choose to kneel instead, I think the answer is no, an alternative norm could not be devised except by the USCCB itself.

However, if the vast majority of the members of a parish or chapel prefer to receive kneeling, it would be appropriate to make some allowance for their choice, by supplying a kneeler, a pad to kneel on, or a communion rail. By so doing, one is not creating an alternative norm, but merely responding to a pastoral situation. One is, so to speak, "accommodating" the faithful in their needs.

Now, it is true that traditionally-minded Catholics don't think highly of the current discipline, which allows for the customs of standing for communion as well as communion in the hand – practices that wisely lapsed a millennium ago and were reintroduced in the 1960s in rebellion against the devotional piety characteristic of the old rites. Nevertheless, the current discipline, imperfect as it is, plays into our favor in two ways.

First, a bishop could never override the legislation of the GIRM, which allows for kneeling and receiving on the tongue, and which does not place any limitations on who may so receive, or when, or under what circumstances. Second, a bishop may not ask a parish or chapel to discontinue the use of a communion rail, kneelers, or kneeling pads, because this is a purely practical consideration, comparable to having kneelers in the pews or cushions on seats, or any other accommodation to the weaknesses of the flesh. In short, aids to kneeling are kindly provided for those who choose to exercise their right to receive kneeling.

For those interested in reading more, Fr. Zuhlsdorf has a more detailed post at his site.



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Peter Kwasniewski

Peter Kwasniewski holds a B.A. in Liberal Arts from Thomas Aquinas College and an M.A. and Ph.D. in Philosophy from The Catholic University of America. After teaching at the International Theological Institute in Austria and for the Franciscan University of Steubenville’s Austrian Program, he joined the founding team of Wyoming Catholic College in Lander, Wyoming, where he taught theology, philosophy, music, and art history, and directed the choir and schola. He is now a full-time author, speaker, editor, publisher, and composer.

Dr. Kwasniewski has published seven books, including Sacred Choral Works (Corpus Christi Watershed, 2014); Resurgent in the Midst of Crisis (Angelico, 2014); Noble Beauty, Transcendent Holiness (Angelico, 2017); A Reader in Catholic Social Teaching (Cluny, 2017); and Tradition and Sanity (Angelico, 2018). Resurgent in the Midst of Crisis has been published in Czech, Polish, German, and Portuguese, and will soon appear in Spanish and Belarusian.

Kwasniewski is a scholar of The Aquinas Institute in Green Bay, which is publishing the Opera Omnia of the Angelic Doctor, a Fellow of the Albertus Magnus Center for Scholastic Studies, and a Senior Fellow of the St. Paul Center. He has published over 750 articles on Thomistic thought, sacramental and liturgical theology, the history and aesthetics of music, and the social doctrine of the Church. 

For news, information, article links, sacred music, and the home of Os Justi Press, please visit his personal website, www.peterkwasniewski.com.