Bishop Thomas G. Doran, Diocese of Rockford, May 27, 2011
From time to time people make inquiries of the Bishop’s office that demand more than a private answer. One of the things that disturbs practicing Catholics more and more is the seeming lack of reverence and respect for our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament in our liturgy and in our devotions.
As I go about in the various parishes and observe people, a surprising number of people do not genuflect toward the Tabernacle on entering or leaving church and many more do not know how to do it (it is the right knee, not the left that touches the ground when genuflecting). Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament has almost completely disappeared because neither clergy nor laity know how to perform it, and the beautiful hymns that we used to sing on that occasion, all of them replete with deep meaning about the Holy Eucharist, are largely forgotten.
One lady recently wrote me that she had just been informed by a deacon that to receive the Holy Eucharist while kneeling was in disobedience to the Bishops’ Conference and to me as bishop directly. I am grateful for this reminder that this is a subject that we all should take to heart.
First of all, bear in mind that many people have difficulty genuflecting and would have difficulty kneeling for Holy Communion. Obviously, if doing so imperils health or wellbeing, one is not obliged to do it. Reverence for the Blessed Sacrament starts in the heart. Whether it is reflected in our posture depends on many things.
One thing that matters much to me is the practice of the Holy Father, Pope Benedict, when he gives Holy Communion. His practice is to distribute Holy Communion on the tongue of recipients who kneel as they receive communion. That should say something to all of us. I would make this personal observation that I usually do not distribute Holy Communion when I say Mass in the parishes because every parish has its own peculiar way of ordering Holy Communion and I am confused by such a variety of practices, and so since discretion is the better part of valor, I do not get involved in it.
Then there is the fact that many of us identify unity with uniformity. The two are distinct. We are bound to unity in faith, not necessarily to uniformity and how we receive Holy Communion. Now, the Third General Instruction of the Roman Missal now in force, at n. 160, permits receiving Holy Communion kneeling or standing, on the tongue or in the hand. That same instruction allows the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops to establish norms for this practice. This was done by Archbishop Wilton Gregory when he was President of the Conference in 2002. The bishops decided that standing was the normative posture.
It is, therefore, permitted to Catholics to receive Holy Communion standing, receiving the Blessed Sacrament on the tongue or in the hand, depending on their choice, and this is the usual way in which Holy Communion is to be distributed in our churches. Cardinal George asked about this in 2003 and the Holy See responded that posture at Holy Communion is not to be so rigidly regulated as to interfere with the freedom of people receiving Holy Communion. If you have to read this two or three times to understand what is being said, that is alright. The whole matter is somewhat confusing.
I am old enough to remember when, in a flurry of “me-too-ism,” communion rails were ripped out of our churches, something that was never advised, commanded or imposed. Most churches had suitable communion rails with padded cushions upon which communicants could kneel. And it seems to me looking back on the early days of my priesthood, that communion was distributed more reverently and was received more reverently when people knelt for Holy Communion. A few found it difficult and even then those who had difficulty kneeling could stand. Few did, but it was allowed. It would seem that if anyone who wanted to go back to this method of receiving Holy Communion, they would find that communion would be received more reverently, in a more orderly fashion and in less time than it now takes. But time is not the most important thing and order is not a virtue, but rather a convenience.
One thing that should be clear is that at present, to receive Holy Communion kneeling is not a sign of disrespect to all the bishops or to anyone. I would add, however, that practicing Catholics generally like to follow the reasonable requests of their pastors so that Holy Communion may be distributed reverently and in a dignified fashion. It is also true that among those in Holy Orders, bishops and priests are our teachers.