Kneeling Before A Difficult Debate

I was raised in a relatively young, west-coast parish.  Its large original building, constructed within my post-Vatican II lifetime, contained pews without kneelers. It housed only one closed-screen confessional booth. I never knew a time there without female alter servers.

When I grew up and ventured out to other congregations, the “thump!” of their dropping kneelers startled me during the Eucharistic prayer, and the subsequent descent of the entire congregation initially confused me. I eventually learned: this kneeling thing was the more “traditional” posture of the congregation during the Eucharist, our genuflection symbolizing reverence for the Paschal Mystery taking place before us. Meanwhile, I learned that my home congregation’s practice of standing during the Eucharist had a theology of its own.  We stood with the priest throughout the Eucharistic prayer as a representation of our shared participation in the consecration of the bread and wine.

After learning to appreciate and practice both forms of Eucharistic posture, I did not get too involved in debates about which should take precedence in the contemporary liturgy. Even when the Archdiocese required my parish to install kneelers to the back of our well-worn pews, I didn’t think much of it. This was only an aesthetic change; we never used them.  The congregation remained on its feet.

Until this year, that is. According to second-hand reports, the bishop informed our pastor that we would need to adopt the practice of kneeling during the Eucharistic prayer. When our pastor expressed disagreement with this change, the bishop strongly encouraged the pastor to reconsider, leading to parish-wide meetings with loud opinions on both sides of the issue.  Eventually, our pastor decided that our community would, indeed, conform to the bishop’s request.

“If you are willing and able, I now invite you to kneel.” This is how our gentle pastor now reminds us of the liturgical change.  Hundreds of us subsequently drop to our knees, but a few people always remain on their feet. The weekly statement of protest made by this brave few is particularly significant because they are notable, long-time parishioners.  I kneel because, while I prefer the theology represented by standing, I do not feel strongly opposed to kneeling.  What’s more, I am not a regular member of this parish community any longer, having been absent for studies and work for the last five years, so I don’t feel it is my place to protest a decision affecting a community I am not regularly a part of.

This weekly, visible struggle over liturgical practice, community change, and intentional defiance has got me thinking a lot.  Of all things, it has got me thinking about all the Catholics dissatisfied by the liturgical changes made in Vatican II—the liturgical practices I took for granted during my upbringing.  Are these Catholics—the ones who still kneel while everyone stands, grasping at the Eucharistic posture of their pre-Vatican II upbringings—are they that different from the parishioners I sympathize with in my parish who stand in defiance to contemporary liturgical change?  Both groups want to hold onto the theologies they are accustomed too.  And, in many cases, I think both groups would acknowledge that the other’s preference is not bad, it is just not the best.  I wonder if sometimes, we want the same things through opposing means…

Jessica Coblentz is a recent graduate of Santa Clara University and an incoming graduate student at Harvard Divinity School. Follow her writing on the Web at

1 thought on “Kneeling Before A Difficult Debate

  1. That’s great Jessica, thank you! I really appreciate how your pastor addresses the kneeling, very pastoral. Although I tend to follow the norms of whatever community I am in, I argue against the idea that uniformity equals unity. I like where you’re going with the defiance idea too. What is it that we want that is the same? home? foundation? something static in this turbulent world? even a place to speak our voice?

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