Turning Catholics into a Stiff-Kneed People
THE NEW OXFORD REVIEW
In July-August 1999, J.A. Gray was Deputy Editor of the NOR.
Ed. Note: Throughout 2017, in commemoration of our fortieth year of publication, we are featuring one article per issue from past eras of the NOR. This article originally appeared in our July-August 1999 issue (volume LXVI, number 7) and is presented here unabridged. Copyright © 1999.
The Lord told Moses, “I will send an angel before you to the land flowing with milk and honey. But I myself will not go up in your company, because you are a stiff-kneed people; otherwise I might exterminate you on the way. When the people heard this bad news, they went into mourning.” — after Exodus 33:1-4
There are many perceived divisions among Catholics in America. And there is one division that has not, so far as I know, been perceived at all. Whether it warrants attention, you may judge for yourself. I refer to the split between Pedalists and Manualists. Picture an ordinary Catholic who comes into church, enters a pew, and prepares to kneel. If the kneeler in the pew has been swung up off the floor, it must be brought down into the ready position. Some worshipers achieve this manually, by reaching down, grasping the kneeler in one hand, and lowering it to the floor. Others proceed pedally: They stand straight up, place one foot beneath the kneeler, lift, and swing the kneeler gently down.
I’ve seen no editorials in the conservative Catholic press praising Pedalism, no articles in liberal Catholic magazines maligning Manualism. The lack of Catholic punditry on the matter is understandable, for it’s not clear where the usual labels or libels (Traditionalist, Modernist, Liberal, Restorationist) would apply. Both Pedalism and Manualism can be observed in practice within a single parish community — in fact, within a single family in a single pew — with no signs of friction, or even of awareness.
My impression is that among American Catholics, Pedalists outnumber Manualists, but this is just a guess, and without data from Fr. Andrew Greeley I wouldn’t dare to engage in further quantitative speculation. Personally, I practice Pedalism. I mean no offense to Manualists, but I have tried Manualism and it has its drawbacks. Manualism requires bending forward, which could mean clunking your head on the pew in front of you. It also involves grasping the kneeler with the bare hand, which means a chance of touching some child’s old chewing gum or a smear of unmentionable matter deposited by someone’s shoes. Therefore I am Pedalist by preference, though I can worship in Manual mode if necessary.
It’s probably safe to conclude provisionally that the split between Pedalist and Manualist is just a charming difference in customs — akin to the way Catholics are divided, without recrimination, over the sainted bishop of old Hippo, with some calling him UhGUStin and others AWEgusteen; or the way some Catholics end the Sign of the Cross by bringing the thumbnail to their lips, while others end it at the shoulder. In any case, I’ve grown used to the piquant diversity of worshiping with both Manualists and Pedalists, and I have privately added this minor division to the major divisions (Jew/Greek, slave/free, man/woman) that St. Paul says the One Body of Christ holds, heals, and overcomes in Baptism.
So imagine my shock when I was vouchsafed a vision of the Church of Our Possible Future in which neither Pedalism nor Manualism would exist. It was a Sunday morning not long ago, in the parish of which I had just become a member. The parish’s little stucco church had been under renovation for months, and now at last it was open again. A few minutes before Mass, I walked through the doors into a remodeled interior that smelled of fresh paint and gleamed with new varnish. I was relieved to see that the basic layout had been kept, with the sanctuary at one end and the pews in straight rows before it. The modest rectangular structure had not been forced to become a pocket amphitheater or a mini-multipurpose gathering space. Still, the makeover was thorough, with earth-toned paint and terra-cotta tile, a baptismal font in pinkish stone, dark hardwood floors, and new arched windows. Where the old sanctuary and altar had been, there was a thrust-forward platform holding a massive table and chair of some gorgeous, glowing wood. I found an empty pew and genuflected as usual — though I had to shift my aim when I registered that the tabernacle had been moved off into an alcove. (I don’t like that architectural fad, but in response to it I have developed genuflections of wall-penetrating power, and surely this one reached its target.)
Gazing around at the candles flickering in new sconces and the golden light bathing everything, I entered the pew. Preparing to kneel, I performed the usual Pedalist maneuver, stiffening one foot and sending it upward. It kept going up, meeting nothing but air. I bent slightly and looked down, preparing to switch to Manual mode. There was no kneeler. I bent further and looked up under the pew for maybe a sleek new kneeler on hydraulic lifts, with a push-button to send it purring downward — a kneeler for the third millennium. Nothing. I straightened up and looked about me. No kneeler in my pew, none in the next pew, no kneeler in any pew in view.
And no people kneeling. In the rapidly filling church, no one was kneeling; everyone was sitting. I hesitated a long moment, stunned. Then I knelt, sinking down, way down, to the cold hard floor. The pew in front of me came up to my throat, and the people in it were sitting back with their collars in my eyeballs. A solid row of Catholics shoulder to shoulder in front of you can be a good thing, I guess. If you were playing quarterback for Notre Dame, it would be highly desirable. But all I wanted was to fold my hands in prayer without rearranging somebody’s hair. And I wanted to see the new altar — I mean, table — while I knelt. I tried peeping between shoulders, but the gaps would close without warning as the people turned to one another chatting, and I had to lean far back to keep my nose from being pinched.
No kneelers. Is this what they call a paradigm shift? As I moved my weight from knee to aching knee, I found myself searching for analogies to the weirdness I felt. What if you were a long-time baseball fan and you went to the first game after they’d put in the designated-hitter rule — and you hadn’t heard about it? Imagine the pitcher not batting for himself! Imagine Catholics not kneeling in church! No, that didn’t catch the quality of this dislocation. It was more intimate. It was as if I had sat down for dinner in my own dining room and found that ten inches or so had been cut off the legs of my dining room chairs.
The strangest part was that I felt so ostentatious. As the only person kneeling in the kneelerless church, I had become, precisely, egregious. In the corporeal lexicon taught me by the Church, kneeling had always meant self-abnegation and self-forgetfulness: To kneel in church was to blend in utterly, to be one more duck in a pond of ducks. Now I felt as if I were showing off. Had my bended knees changed their meaning from one week to the next? Was I now a pious prig of the sort that Jesus pointed out to His disciples? What did He say, something like: When you pray, don’t kneel as the hypocrites do; they’ve had their reward, which is to be seen by men; lounge back in your pew and chat, for your Father in Heaven wants you to relax.
I knelt there, waiting for Mass to start, feeling that this brought home to me the controversy over kneeling during the Eucharistic Prayer, of which I had been only vaguely aware. I knew that cool, cutting-edge Catholics have been making a point of standing during the Eucharistic Prayer, even during the Consecration itself, for a while now. I had heard the slogan “Stand Up for Your Rites” and had grasped that the latest idea was that we should never go to our knees during Mass. I knew I didn’t like the idea, but I didn’t know exactly why. I’m no liturgist, and I like to go along with the community. I had heard reassurances that while kneeling is not right for the Eucharistic Prayer, it remains appropriate for private devotions of all kinds. But already now, on Day One A.K. (After Kneelers), it was clear that there might never again be any kneeling in this church.
When and where would you kneel? You can’t kneel on returning from Communion to the pew, since the people in front of you will be sitting back in your face, just as they do before Mass starts. Unless you’re a spiritual athlete with patellae of iron, you can’t kneel painlessly on the hard floor when you drop in to pray, or while waiting your turn for Confession, or during a Rosary, or at a wedding or funeral or at Benediction or Exposition. What about the parishioners who are most frequently in the church, the older ladies and men who open the doors and lock the doors, who dress the altar, arrange the flowers, and act as sacristans and lectors, who come for daily Mass, pray before the Blessed Sacrament, stay after Mass to say the Rosary, and carry Communion to the sick: Are they prepared to sit before the Sacrament and recline for the Rosary?
Such were the thoughts that distracted me as the Mass began and crawled along. I conformed to the new deportment — standing, sitting, standing, sitting. The true oddity of it came to me finally: The odd thing was that we were doing nothing odd. We were using only standard secular body language, the language our bodies speak at the office, at home, at the movies, at the ball game. The Church was now offering me only the same postures that the world offers. Standing and sitting are workaday. Kneeling is a holiday — in the root sense of holyday.
I began to think resentfully of other liturgical body language that had been taken away. They took away beating of the breast at Mea culpa and Agnus Dei. They took away bending of the knee at Homo factus est. They took away kneeling to receive Communion. They’ve moved the tabernacle out of genuflection-range. Now they’re taking away kneeling not only during the Consecration but perforce at all times and seasons. For reasons that escape me, they (who?) want me to sit easefully before God most of the time, and at the most solemn moment of the Mass they want me to stand boldly upright. This makes me uneasy. I seem to recall that the believers whom Jesus lectured most severely were the upright believers. Didn’t He say more than once, You upright people don’t need me; it’s the others I’ve come for?
The Mass rolled along. The Consecration arrived. The celebrant stood. We all stood. I opened my heart to the mystery. I didn’t kneel, because no one around me was kneeling. This is, after all, the People of God, the community of which I wish to be a co-operative member. I stood before the Lord among His upright followers. I felt very uncomfortable.
But there’s a happy ending. Or at least there’s a reassuring middle.
Next day I phoned the parish office. I said I was new in the parish and I had seen that the renovated church had no kneelers. Were they gone forever? No, said the secretary, they’ll go back in when they’re finished. Finished? She said there was a team of volunteers working on them. I got the number, called the man in charge, and was told I could show up on Saturday to help. On Saturday I went to the parish hall, where a couple of cafeteria tables were set up on the linoleum floor and kneelers were stacked up in a corner. Tom, Ted, George, nice to meet you. We put the kneelers on the tables one by one and worked them over. Two of us stretched upholstery fabric over the old pads and stapled it, one guy trimmed and finished the ends, one worked on the hardware.
A little group quietly working without recompense in the church hall on a Saturday: This felt like the Catholic Church I was used to. After that surreal Mass-sans-kneelers, I was soothed. My stapling partner had been on the renovation committee. He told me, yes, there had been a small anti-kneeler faction that made known its wish to jettison the things, but the campaign had never gathered steam. If the kneelers had been another job for the contractor, thus adding mightily to the cost of the renovation, they might have become a target for elimination. But the labor of fixing up the kneelers, it was decided, would be done by volunteers. And here we were.
Weeks passed, and there were more Saturday work parties, and the refurbished kneelers were put back into the church, a few at a time. By this writing almost the entire church has been re-kneelered. And that’s where the reassuring middle of the story stops. Who knows how it will end? The fact is that not many people kneel on the renovated kneelers during the Eucharistic Prayer. It’s said that old habits die hard, but the Catholic knee-joint seems to have learned quite rapidly to stay stiff throughout the Mass. The long months without kneelers — with Masses in the parish hall and then in the kneelerless church — seem to have had an effect. I haven’t heard any priest pronounce on the matter or offer instruction from the altar — or, table. I notice that the new missalettes no longer say “Kneel” in the margin at the beginning of the Eucharistic Prayer. In short, congregational uprightness during the Eucharistic Prayer seems to be not only accepted but fast becoming customary.
And yet I see no sign that the congregation is boldly asserting the priesthood of the faithful, or whatever the theory is. They aren’t asserting much of anything. They don’t bounce to their feet with alacrity at the Preface. They rise sluggishly, glancing around to see what others are doing, waiting for cues that don’t come. They seem to be a bewildered audience. But most manage to struggle to their feet and stay there, so when I kneel after the Sanctus, I can no longer see the celebrant for all the Catholics towering over me. With nothing to look at but backs and legs, I am able to observe that some of the knees around me wobble uncertainly for a moment or two, vibrating in sympathy as knee-joint calleth unto knee-joint. But few knees bend and few worshipers descend. At this rate, the renovated kneelers will last forever. (And I’ll never know if my stapling was competent, because it will never be put to the test.)
Out of curiosity, I phoned the diocese and spoke to a woman who is a liturgy specialist. She was very pleasant. I asked if many parishes were getting rid of kneelers. She said she knows of no parishes that don’t have kneelers, but said some are not using them during Mass. So I’ve noticed, I said, and why is kneeling unpopular? She told me that the Vatican says the congregation is to stand during the whole Communion rite, from the Preface on, though kneeling is customary during the Consecration itself. That’s the universal rite. But when the American bishops composed the Sacramentary in English in 1969 they let Americans keep kneeling from the Sanctus through the Great Amen, so Americans are really doing more kneeling than Rome recommends. Wow, I said, so is kneeling on its way out? She said there’s a place for kneeling in penitence and in adoration, but the Mass is something else, so why kneel during Mass?
I leave it to liturgists and historians to argue the particulars. My unschooled contribution to the debate is simply this: I need to kneel. Jesus makes me weak in the knees, as weak as St. Peter felt when that awesome catch of fish nearly swamped the boats. “When Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, ‘Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord’” (Lk. 5:8). I’m not sure that Peter at that moment was capable of sorting out penitence, adoration, and the rest with the aplomb of a diocesan liturgy specialist. But what Peter felt there is what I feel at Mass. Peter had only the dank bottom of a fishing boat on which to fling himself down; we have upholstered kneelers. Our kneelers make our gesture of worship an obeisance without making it a physical punishment. That seems legitimate. If Jesus’ yoke is easy and His burden light, I suppose His kneelers can be padded. If we kneel at Mass, symbolically and in moderate comfort imitating Peter’s transport of humility, we may begin to share something of Peter’s insight.
Going to our knees together at Mass, we might also feel something of what St. Paul felt. As he told the Ephesians (3:14-19): “For this reason I kneel before the Father,…that he may grant you in accord with the riches of his glory to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in the inner self, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; that you, rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the holy ones what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses all knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.” If Paul got all that when he knelt, I want to kneel too.
Is kneeling inadvisable for a congregation at Mass? I would like to hear a liturgist make that case to the Psalmist who exclaimed, “O come, let us worship and bow down, let us kneel before the Lord, our Maker! For he is our God, and we are the people of His pasture…” (Psalm 95). I know little about rubrics and canons and less about liturgical theory. But I can’t help recalling Jesus’ description of the two worshipers in the temple (Lk. 18:10-14). The publican, Jesus said, hung back and beat his breast and hardly dared to raise his eyes to God. When I kneel at Mass I feel I am following the publican — frankly begging, abashed but determined, awed at the privilege of being in God’s presence, utterly at His mercy. The self-confident Pharisee, Jesus said, stood forthrightly before God, sure of his own righteousness, claiming his due place in God’s house, not overawed a bit. To take away from us American Catholics our kneeling and our kneelers is to encourage us to act like the Pharisee, not like the publican. I don’t think that’s what Jesus had in mind.
To what can I liken this generation of liturgical innovators? They are like children from the marketplace now playing in the sanctuary and calling to me: We told you kneeling is uncool, and you knelt anyway; we took the kneelers away, and you would not proudly stand.