Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington
Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
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Holy Communion’s Act of Reverence
by Father Jan Larson
(From the July 2, 2009 edition of the Inland Register)
One of the principles of good liturgy is that liturgy depends on exceedingly simple things done well. Another critical principle is that the simple things we do at the liturgy we do together, not as isolated individuals praying and moving and speaking as we might prefer, but as the Church, the people of God, prefers. Liturgy is the time for communal prayer, requiring a certain discipline to set our personal prayers and pieties aside for an hour, in order to join the people of God in its universal prayer – the greatest prayer that we could possibly offer, and the prayer that makes us to be a Church.
Years ago, the liturgical directives for the celebration of the Eucharist mentioned that when people receive Communion standing (which is the liturgical norm for Roman Catholics in the United States), they should first make some appropriate gesture of reverence. The liturgical rules did not specify what this gesture should be, so those who knew about this rule simply decided upon their own gesture. Some would simply fold their hands. Others would make the sign of the cross, bow, genuflect, or even receive Communion kneeling. The result, over the last few decades, was a certain amount of visual confusion and uncertainty among people about what was appropriate at this time.
The most recent directives from the Vatican clarify this by adding that the bishops of each country are to determine what this gesture of reverence will be, so that the act of receiving Communion better appears to be a unified act of the people of God – a true liturgical gesture. The United States bishops have determined that the appropriate gesture is a simple bow of the head. Thus those receiving Communion in the hand - the most popular option and the more traditional and ancient practice – simply bow their head briefly as they approach the Communion minister, then look at the minister as he or she says “The Body of Christ,” and then respond “Amen.” After receiving the Eucharistic bread, communicants are always encouraged to receive the Eucharistic wine as well, making the act of Communion an even fuller sign of what Jesus and the apostles did at the Last Supper. When approaching the minister of the Communion cup, each communicant offers the same simple bow of the head as the appropriate sign of reverence.
For individuals to ignore the bow of the head or to substitute or add other gestures of reverence is not helpful to the liturgy and does not foster the common prayer and actions demanded by the liturgy. People who have difficulty with limiting their sign of reverence to a simple bow of the head are often not aware of the current norms, so parishes should provide all parishioners with adequate education. The new norms, for instance, state that “communicants should not be denied Holy Communion because they might kneel. Rather, such instances should be addressed pastorally, by providing the faithful with proper catechesis on the reasons for this norm.” Part of the catechesis is the reminder, also in the liturgical rules, that “greater attention needs to be paid to what is laid down in the liturgical law...rather than to personal inclination or arbitrary choice.” A brief bow of the head, and only that, is a simple act, but will go a long way in making the Communion rite a clearly unified act of the worshiping community.
(Father Larson is a priest of and liturgical consultant for the Archdiocese of Seattle.)