In a previous article, I discussed the issue of kneeling (or rather, not kneeling) at Mass, criticizing those who don’t kneel at all, or (even worse), those who only kneel when comfortable kneelers are available. I wrote:
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”.
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?
Based on my observations concerning a seeming unwillingness to kneel among even churchgoing Catholics, I concluded:
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.
I return to this subject because of something incredible I observed as I attended Mass last Sunday. It was the 5 PM Solemn High Mass at St. Mary Mother of God in Washington DC, the capital’s parish church for the Traditional Roman liturgy. Among the congregants (overwhelmingly composed of high school age kids and young married couples) was one young man certainly no older than 25, afflicted with a terrible condition (muscular dystrophy, were I to guess), whose mobility is possible only through his electric wheelchair. He attended Mass alone.
As most people know, in the Extraordinary Form, one receives communion in the traditional Roman manner, that is, directly on the tongue while kneeling before the altar rail. Obviously, for the aged and infirm, prudence and compassion allows them to receive the Eucharist in a manner appropriate to their condition.
The wheelchaired man I mentioned above could have remained at his place as the priest brought the Eucharist to him. He could have driven his wheelchair toward the sanctuary and receive the Eucharist sitting down. He did neither of these.
To my amazement and admiration, this afflicted young man drove his wheelchair to the altar rail, and after applying the brakes, incredibly and painstakingly pushed himself out of the chair. With every reserve of strength in his weak body, he reached toward the altar rail, pulling himself closer and closer until he could lean upon the marble barrier marking the sancta sanctorum. I feared he might fall and injure himself, but falling on his knees on the sanctuary steps, he piously received the most holy Body and Blood of the Lord in the traditional manner. Mounting once more his chair with some help from another parishioner, he turned his chair around and went back to his place. Neither pomp or nor affected attempts to gain pity characterized this young man. He simply went on with the Mass in silent prayer.
Through his silent testimony, this young man puts to shame every single Latin Rite Catholic* who shows even the slightest hesitancy to kneel before Christ our God, especially when He becomes present in the Most Holy Sacrament. After witnessing this moving sight, I can think of no excuse as to why any healthy, able-bodied Catholic who takes the faith seriously should not kneel, not only during the Eucharistic prayer, but especially when receiving the Eucharist. Once again, I echo the sentiments of the great Francis Cardinal Arinze: “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?”
[*]I know that the Eastern rites take as their gesture of adoration not kneeling/genuflecting, but the profound bow. Yet in the case of the Eastern faithful, the profound bow is a more forceful witness to the faith than the lukewarm gestures of many Latin Rite faithful, who kneel only when kneelers are present, or who weakly nod their heads during the Creed at the appointed time (et incarnatus est…). The profound bow as done by the Eastern rites is truly profound, a 90 degree bend at the waist, a gesture made almost impossible by the proximity of pews in many Latin Rite churches (hence why most Eastern Rite churches have no pews or chairs). Furthermore, the Easterns execute this profound bow literally dozens of times in the course of one Divine Liturgy, in a frequency that would boggle the minds and dizzy the heads of most Roman Catholics.