Since moving back to the United States, the closest parish to my current place of residence enjoys such a large number of faithful that it holds four Sunday Masses in order to accommodate the vibrant Catholic population. Every weekend, Mass is completely full; the ushers are seen frantically gesturing to those in the pews to scoot and squeeze ever more tightly in order to seat as many people as possible. When the pews are filled beyond capacity, those who arrive later must stand in the back for the duration of Mass. Even if I arrive early enough to find a seat, I readily take my place standing in the back so that the multitude of elderly people and families with children can participate at Mass more comfortably. In the back, I am joined with an ever-changing cast of latecomers. Some are late due to negligence, others due to the limited parking, and others still because they have the difficult yet beautiful blessing of many children; but all have nevertheless come to worship the Lord according to his command.
Despite that the people to my immediate left and right change each week, there is a noticeable unity of gesture which binds them all. By this I mean that when the last note of the Sanctus has been struck and the priest begins the Eucharistic prayer, all fall to their knees except those standing in the back. One of the parishioners next to me suggested, “it’s OK if you don’t kneel back here”. I asked, “Why?”. He answered, “You don’t have to kneel without a kneeler.” Still, as much by habit as by piety, I feel impelled to fall on my knees at that time, whether or not I have the luxury of a kneeler before me.
Yes, a kneeler is a luxury. Kneelers, along with pews, are a relatively late development in all forms of liturgy. Christian antiquity knew not their use, and even in St. Peter’s Basilica, the use of physical chairs during Papal Masses were unknown until the latter half of the 20th Century (see footage of this Mass celebrated by the Servant of God Pius XII; the central aisle is obviously closed, but all other spaces are standing room only). In the great basilicas and cathedrals built in antiquity or in the medieval era, one will not find pews and kneelers as is common today in Catholic churches– and still, people knelt, not only for the Eucharistic prayer, but even for the final blessing from a simple priest. The fact is, the faithful of the Roman Church readily knelt on floors of wood and stone for centuries before the advent of the kneeler. The pain and discomfort of kneeling on such harsh, uncushioned surfaces was precisely the point. It signals an attitude of profound humility in presence of the very God who humbles himself as food and drink. If God could descend from the heights of eternity and divinity and take the lowly form of a crying baby, the form of a crucified man, the form of a broken loaf of bread, is it really too much to kneel for a few minutes in His presence?
While I lived in Europe, I frequently visited the Eternal City. Since I knew our beloved Urbs so well, I would often take friends and family, many of whom had never been to Rome, on a tour of the famous and not-so-famous landmarks and holy places. After a customary visit to St. John Lateran, my tours would inevitably lead just across the street to the chapel of the Scala Sancta (the Holy Steps). These were the stairs of the ancient Praetorium of Jerusalem, which Christ ascended on his way to meet Pilate, brought to Rome in the 4th Century by St. Helena along with the other relics of the Passion. Since the Scala Sancta’s arrival in Rome, pilgrims have always gone up the steps on their knees in prayer as a pious devotion in honor of Christ’s suffering. From personal experience I can say: even with the wooden outer surface which protects the original marble stairs, ascending the Scala’s 28 steps on one’s knees is a most rigorous experience. To see the hundreds of pilgrims of all ages, sexes and conditions who, each and every day, undertake to ascend the Scala Sancta in ginocchio is a humbling, moving, and impressive experience. The same could be said of those Hispanic pilgrims who travel great distances on their knees to the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe. And we cannot but think it appropriate when, in the Holy Land, Christians from every corner of the globe prostrate themselves in the places where our salvation was won.
Back in Rome, among the non-religious landmarks where I led people included, of course, the Trevi Fountain. As one of the most romantic sights in the most romantic city on earth, it’s a place where many men from around the world take their girlfriends and ask for their hand in marriage. The ritual is always the same: the man takes out a ring from his pocket, and falling on his knees before his beloved, nervously pronounces those four words– four difficult, nerve-wracking, beautiful words: “will you marry me?”. Despite any cultural barriers, everybody at the fountain knows what is happening, and they all erupt in applause when she says “yes”. (In 28 trips to Rome, I’ve yet to see a refusal.)
We all feel a warmness in our hearts when we see somebody kneeling in front of his beloved as he presents her a ring. We are impressed with the faith and piety of those pilgrims in Mexico, Lourdes, Fatima, Rome, and Jerusalem, as they scrape their knees on the cobblestone paths en route to the holy places. But how little faith do we show in the True Presence of Christ Himself when, as the priest pronounces those other four beautiful words– “this is my Body”– we kneel only if we have the luxury of a kneeler?
Taking up the text of an early Christian hymn, St. Paul reminds the Philippians (2:6-11) that Christ, “though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross. Because of this, God greatly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name; that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
Thus, Scripture tells us that even the angels in heaven and the demons in hell tremble before the very name of Jesus. If their knees should bend at the mere mention of his name, how much more should we humble ourselves when he becomes fully present– body, blood, soul, and divinity– in the Eucharist? The great straight-shooting Cardinal Arinze, when asked about kneeling at Mass, (while reaffirming the licitness of standing to receive communion), replied in his characteristically blunt manner, “If you believe that Christ is our God and that he is present, why don’t you kneel? Why don’t you crawl? Why not show respect?”
The sad fact is that most Catholics, even those who attend Mass weekly, have lost sight of the True Presence of Jesus. To them, kneeling seems like an external imposition by the Church on the faithful. The very existence of cushioned kneelers, ironically, sends the message that kneeling should not be painful. Yet, discomfort is of the essence. Many of the people who went to morning Mass are US Soldiers; later that day, I see them at the gym bench pressing 200+ pounds; yet to kneel for five minutes on a carpeted floor is too difficult? Christ himself knelt and lay prostrate in fervent prayer before the Father on Gethsemane’s rocky slopes; if that is good enough for the Son of God, it is certainly good enough for us.
If one recognizes and believes that Christ really comes to us in the Eucharist, why don’t we kneel? Why don’t we crawl? If we are all too ready to kneel for our beloved, so much more should we hasten to kneel before Him who loved us before all eternity. If we must kneel on bare stone or wood, let us accept it as penitential mortification– “for whoever exalts himself shall be humbled, but whoever humbles himself will be exalted”.