Catholics at prayer: why we stand and kneel

Catholics at prayer: why we stand and kneel

Fr Sebastian Camilleri OFM

The memorable Year of the Eucharist, promulgated by the late John Paul II, gave an inspiring boost to Eucharistic Adoration. As a result, world-wide, private chapels have been built in many parishes for this specific spiritual exercise.

This attitude of quiet worship follows a long tradition of prayer and meditation, either kneeling or seated, in a peaceful atmosphere before the Blessed Sacrament exposed.

Kneeling in prayer has been as common among Catholics for the past two thousand years as it was, along with prostration, among the Jews (Numbers 14:5; 1 Kings 18:39). When the first followers of Jesus, who were Jews, prayed, they naturally knelt or prostrated themselves as well (II Chron 6; Daniel 6:10).

We know that Christians also stood in prayer, with their arms outstretched horizontally with faces turned towards the East, forming cross-like figures. This is depicted in frescoes, paintings, mosaics, tombs, monuments and even glass vessels to be found in Roman basilicas and catacombs.


As Tertullian (c. 160-200AD) wrote, "We Christians pray looking heavenwards with hands outstretched, because we have nothing to hide, and with bare heads, because we are not ashamed". He added that Christians never copied the pagans in prayer but the Lord Jesus. "Not only do we stand", he said, "but we stretch our arms out, copying the suffering death of Our Lord."

Later, Jerome (342-420) declared, "It is according to the Church custom that we genuflect to Christ", recalling St Paul's admonition that "at the Name of Jesus every knee should bend" (Philippians 2:10).

The author of De Ecclesiatica Hierarchia (500AD), commenting on the ordination of priests, wrote in terms familiar to our Rite of Ordination, that "the approach to the holy altar, and their prostrating themselves, makes clear to all who are admitted to holy orders that they must submit their personal lives entirely to God from whom they receive their consecration as priests".

The practice of kneeling at prayers, and especially at Mass, was so common in the early Church, that it came to be permitted only on weekdays. On Sundays and from Easter Sunday until the eve of Pentecost it was forbidden to kneel since kneeling was a sign of penance.

Irenaeus of Lyons (130-200AD) traced this custom back to the time of the Apostles themselves. "It is fitting", he said, "that we recall our own sinfulness and the Grace of our Christ by means of which we have risen from our fall. So our kneeling on the six days of the week (Monday to Saturday), is a sign of our sinfulness; while our not kneeling on the Lord's Day (the first day of the week) is a sign our rising again, through which by the Grace of Christ, we have been freed from our sins, and from death which has itself been done to death".

St Augustine (354-430AD) explained the Catholic custom in his day: "We pray standing and do not fast during the Easter season, as a sign of the Resurrection; and the same custom is observed at Mass every Lord's Day."

The deacon's acclamation before the petitions on Good Friday, "Let us kneel", recalls the ancient Catholic custom that reflects the belief of the Church that kneeling is a sign of humility and penance. According to John Cassian (360-435), "The bending of the knee is a token of penitence and sorrow of a penitent heart".

St Ambrose of Milan (339- 397AD), in reference to kneeling at Mass noted, "The knee has been made flexible so that by means of it, more than any other limb, our offences against the Lord may be mitigated and God's displeasure may be appeased".

The solemn blessings during Mass, such as "Bow your heads and pray for God's blessing", reflect a most ancient custom and a humble attitude in the Church in paying homage to the Almighty. Early Mass books contain various commands from, "Humble yourselves to receive the blessing" (Liturgy of St John Chrysostom), to "Bow down your heads before the Lord" and "Bow your heads to Jesus Christ" (Liturgy of St Mark).

St Caesarius

St Caesarius, Bishop of Arles (602AD) in one of his sermons, concerning the liturgical attitudes in Catholic churches in his day, said, "I entreat and urge you, dearest brethren, that as soon you hear the prayer said by the priest at the altar, or by the deacon, you faithfully bow not just your hearts, but your whole bodies. For often as I ought, I take careful note that when the deacon cries, 'Let us kneel', I see the majority of you still standing like upright columns ...

"If there is some good reason why some one cannot kneel, then let him bow profoundly, or incline his head. In the same way, dearest brethren, when the deacon warns you to bow for the blessing, I urge you to be faithful in bowing, for the blessing may come through man, but does not come from man".

As we enter the third millenium, it is good to be mindful of the liturgical treasures accumulated during the past two thousand years of our Christian history.

Fr Sebastian Camilleri OFM, after 53 years of pastoral work in Canada and Australia, has been assigned by his Superiors to a large Franciscan parish in his native Malta. He has been a regular contributor to AD2000.

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