Stand, Sit, Kneel, Repeat… Why Catholics Do the Things They Do

If you’re a non-Catholic attending the Catholic Mass for the first time, chances are you notice this:  

By Rembrandt ( [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
By Rembrandt ( [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
On cue, people stand up; they sit back down; they kneel; then they stand…. The curious onlooker might wonder what is the Secret Code that Catholics flash to one another, to achieve such uniformity in such complex circumstances.

My Irish aunt used to joke about it, her irreverent but good-natured banter extracting humor from our Sunday ritual. “They learned precision in the marching band,” she once told me, speaking of churchgoers who led the pack, standing before the priest could raise his arms to signal the start of the gospel, kneeling as the Eucharistic prayer was about to begin.

But do all of these postures have meaning?  

Well, yes. When we stand, or kneel, or make the sign of the cross on our foreheads, lips and hearts, we are saying something about who we are, and who God is, and what we believe. Let’s talk about some of them:

STANDING has been a common posture for prayer since the early Christians.  It’s a sign of respect, and can also be a wordless symbol for the Resurrection.  Catholics may sit while the two readings from the Old Testament and from the New Testament Epistles are read; but we always stand for a reading of the Gospel, in which are found the words of Christ Himself.

KNEELING is a sign of humility. It’s a common posture for personal prayer and worship.  Catholics kneel during the Eucharistic Prayer, that central point during the Mass when God comes down to us, when the Eucharist is transformed into the Body and Blood of Christ.

There are a few instances when kneeling is not convenient during the Consecration–say, when it’s an outdoor Mass and the rain is falling and the ground is a muddy mess; or when a particular parish has not made provision for the comfort of worshippers by installing kneelers.  In those cases, it may be appropriate to stand through the Eucharistic Prayer, especially the Consecration.

BOWING is a sign of profound reverence.  We stand during the recitation of the Nicene Creed, which is a profession of our faith; but we add a bow of the head when we remember the Incarnation, saying:

and by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary and became man.

We also bow when we go forward to receive Holy Communion.  The Church asks that we express our reverence at this time with an outward symbol.  That can be kneeling (if there is a communion rail), genuflecting (dropping onto one knee) or, in most cases, a profound bow of the head as one approaches the priest or extraordinary minister of the Eucharist to receive the Body and the Blood of Christ.

THE SIGN OF THE CROSS is a simple ritual which expresses our prayer that the Trinity–God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit–will be with us.  We sign ourselves at the beginning of a prayer, and again at the end.  We dip our fingers into the holy water font, then make the Sign of the Cross with the blessed water.  At the beginning of the Gospel, we use our thumbs to make a small sign of the cross on our foreheads (asking God to help us understand His Word), on our lips (that we might speak his Word), and on our hearts (where we will store His Word and ponder it).

STRIKING THE BREAST. We strike our breasts as we recite the Confiteor (the “I Confess”), near the beginning of Mass. We ask God’s forgiveness for our sins, asking him to cleanse our hearts before we listen to His Word and before we receive Him in the Eucharist. As we say the words

through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault

we strike our fists against our chests in a gesture of penitence and surrender.  Although the rubric for the current translation doesn’t specify how many times to strike our breasts, many repeat the gesture three times.

There are other actions which are performed by the priest or deacon, and which also express what we as Catholics believe:

THE LITURGICAL KISS.   The priest and deacon kiss the altar at the beginning of Mass because it symbolizes Jesus Himself.   The same with the text of the Gospel:  After the priest or, if present, the deacon reads the Gospel, he kisses the text.  Kisses show up at other times:  during Good Friday services, for example, when the faithful process forward to kiss the feet of Jesus on the crucifix.

LYING PROSTRATE or face-down on the floor is a sign of complete surrender to God.  During the liturgy of Ordination, candidates about to be ordained to the priesthood lie prostrate in the aisle as the Litany of the Saints is recited or sung, invoking the prayers of all the saints for their ministry.  On Good Friday, the dramatic gesture is used by the priest and deacon, who lie before the altar.

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  • David J. White

    A friend of mine once jokingly referred to the coordinated physical movements during Mass as “popaerobics”. 😉

  • This is a nice little handout as to our rituals. In contrast, from what I understand the Eastern Orthodox stand throughout the entire service. Yikes, that’s hard on the back.

    • Dan13

      I’m trying to imagine how tough it would be to stand for the readings and the homily.

      I moved a few months ago and the parish I currently go to doesn’t have kneelers (it’s one of the newish suburban “round churches”) so most people stand through the Eucharistic prayer. It reminds me of Catholic school masses in the gym when I was a kid. Even though I like the pastor, I’m really thinking of parish-hopping merely because of the church aesthetics.

      • No kneelers? I can’t imagine mass without them. As to standing the entire service, I bet no one falls asleep. 😉

        • Dan13

          I don’t know. Back in 9th grade, we took a class trip to Montreal for a weekend (I don’t think schools now do overnight field trips much anymore). Since it was a Catholic school, we went to the Cathedral Saturday night for Mass. Some of the boys in my class had stayed up late the night before (after ordering naughty movies from the hotel TV) and combined with a Mass in French, I really think one or two fell asleep standing up.

          The Cathedral was really pretty though, even though I didn’t understand what was being said (this is also why I’ve never gone to a Latin mass).

          • I’ve gone to one Latin Mass in my life and I know this might sacrilidgous to some, but I didn’t like it. Language puts a barrier between people.

          • kathyschiffer
          • Thanks. I left a commnet, though the post was a few years old. Here’s what I said that it sort of applies to this discussion:

            ” I prefer the Ordinary Form. Language should be direct to the heart and not be obscured by a different language. And I’ve never understood why it must be Latin. Christ spoke in Aramaic, the NT and early Church fathers wrote and spoke in Greek, and only later did it move west to Rome. And if the west used Latin and the East used Greek, and the Middle East used Aramaic, then the language of use in the first centuries was the vernacular to the location.”

          • mad2002mad

            Manny: Good point. I was raised in the old Latin rite and was an altar boy. As a result, to this day, I can recite by rote all the responses. I even have my mass card the nuns gave us while teaching the responses. Following the end of mass, we walked into the sacristy and the priest would say something and we’d respond, “..omnibus to St. Louis” whatever the heck that meant!! We never understood what we were saying so it was just words. Today, in the vernacular, we understand and can absorb the meaning of the words connected to the ritual. I prefer modernity to old style tradition that has lost its meaning.

          • Klaus Michael Adam

            You were poorly trained, what a pity. As an Altar Boy in the ’50s I learned all the Latin of the Holy Mass and knew what each meant in English. We also periodically had “Dialogue Masses” where the congregation responded in lieu of the Altar Boys. Each parishioner had a Missal with the Latin words on one side and the English version beside that.

  • Will

    I am in our choir. The choir loft has no kneelers and no room to reasonably kneel (we kneel sideways on Good Friday). Those of us that can stand instead of kneel until we receive communion.

    Many of the cathedrals, plus St. Peters Basilica, in Europe have no kneelers except at side altars. Some are configured in the shape of a Roman or Greek cross with people on four sides of the altar.

  • mad2002mad

    As an after thought, I would add that many old style priests expected us to “bow, knee and grovel.” In the old days, we also called BINGO numbers in Latin so only Catholics could win.

  • d marino

    The Muslims do the bow of the Bible. Read it some time and see for yourself. You are supposed to be prostrate on the ground, or kneeling with your face to the ground. Not the Catholic kneeling made up version. The entire pathetic Catholic rituals have no meaning whatsoever. They are there to make the person believe he is participating in something of which he knows nothing about.

    • Jason Wills

      As if you would know.

  • Bagehot

    You know, Jews—at least the Conservative and Orthodox ones—practice all kinds of prescribed gestures as well. Numerous ones. So do Orthodox Christians. For aught I know, Hindus and Buddhists might have analogous sets of required behavior at different times. I think it has something to do with whether one’s religious practices are liturgical or not. There is nothing peculiar about Catholics in this respect: it is simply the distinction between liturgical practice and the spontaneous ad-hoc practices of many branches of Protestantism.

  • Glen Olives

    I’m an atheist teaching at a Catholic university (deep in the closet – don’t tell), and sometimes find myself in the awkward position of attending mass. The ritualistic medeival genuflections in the 21st Century just seem so weird.