In the celebration of Mass we raise our hearts, minds and voices to God, but we are creatures composed of
body as well as spirit and so our prayer is not confined to our minds, hearts and voices, but is expressed by our bodies as
well. When our bodies participate in our prayer we pray with our whole person, as the embodied spirits God created us to be,
and this engagement of our entire being in prayer helps us to pray with greater attention
During Mass we assume different postures: standing, kneeling, sitting, and we are also invited to make a
variety of gestures. These postures and gestures are not merely ceremonial. They have profound meaning and, when done with
understanding, can enhance our personal participation in Mass. In fact, these actions are the way in which we engage our bodies
in the prayer that is the Mass.
Each posture we assume at Mass underlines and reinforces the meaning of the action in which we are taking
part at that moment in our worship. Standing is a sign of respect and honor, so we stand as the celebrant who represents Christ
enters and leaves the assembly. This posture, from the earliest days of the Church, has been understood as the stance of those
who are risen with Christ and seek the things that are above. When we stand for prayer we assume our full stature before God,
not in pride, but in humble gratitude for the marvelous thing God has done in creating and redeeming each one of us. By Baptism
we have been given a share in the life of God, and the posture of standing is an acknowledgment of this wonderful gift. We
stand for the Gospel, the pinnacle of revelation, the words and deeds of the Lord, and the bishops of the United States have
chosen standing as the posture to be observed in this country for the reception of Communion, the sacrament which unites us
in the most profound way possible with Christ who, now gloriously risen from the dead, is the cause of our salvation.
The posture of kneeling signified penance in the early Church: the awareness of sin casts us to the ground!
So thoroughly was kneeling identified with penance that the early Christians were forbidden to kneel on Sundays and during
the Easter Season when the prevailing spirit of the liturgy was that of joy and thanksgiving. In the Middle Ages kneeling
came to signify the homage of a vassal to his lord, and more recently this posture has come to signify adoration. It is for
this reason that the bishops of this country have chosen the posture of kneeling for the Eucharistic Prayer, after the Sanctus.
Sitting is the posture of listening and meditation, so the congregation sits for the pre-Gospel readings
and may also sit for the period of meditation following Communion.
Gestures too involve our bodies in prayer. The most familiar of these is the Sign of the Cross with which
we begin Mass and with which, in the form of a blessing, the Mass concludes. Because it was by his death on the cross that
Christ redeemed humankind, we trace the sign of the cross on our foreheads, lips and hearts at the beginning of the Gospel.
Fr. Romano Guardini, a scholar and professor of liturgy wrote of this gesture:
When we cross ourselves, let it be with a real sign of the cross. Instead of a small, cramped gesture that
gives no notion of its meaning, let us make a large, unhurried sign, from forehead to breast, from shoulder to shoulder, consciously
feeling how it includes the whole of us, our thoughts, our attitudes, our body and soul, every part of us all at once, how
it consecrates and sanctifies us ... (Sacred Signs, 1927)
But there are other gestures that intensify our prayer at Mass. During the Confiteor the action of striking
our breasts at the words through my own fault can strengthen my awareness that my sin is my fault. In the Creed we are invited
to bow at the words which commemorate the Incarnation: by the power of the Holy Spirit he was born of the Virgin Mary and
became man. This gesture signifies our profound respect and gratitude to Christ who, though God, did not hesitate to come
among us as a human being, sharing our human condition in order to save us from sin and restore us to friendship with God.
This gratitude is expressed with even greater solemnity on the Feast of the Annunciation of the Lord and on Christmas when
we genuflect at these words.
The Our Father is followed by the Exchange of Peace, the gesture by which we express, through our handclasp
and the prayerful greeting of peace that accompanies it, that we are at peace, not enmity, with others. This exchange is symbolic.
The persons near me with whom I share the peace signify for me, as I do for them, the broader community of the Church and
Finally, with the new General Instruction, we are asked to make a sign of reverence, to be determined by
the bishops of each country or region, before receiving Communion standing. The bishops of this country have determined that
the sign which we will give before Communion is to be a bow, a gesture through which we express our reverence and give honor
to Christ who comes to us as our spiritual food.
In addition to serving as a vehicle for the prayer of beings composed of body and spirit, the postures and
gestures in which we engage at Mass have another very important function. The Church sees in these common postures and gestures
both a symbol of the unity of those who have come together to worship and a means of fostering that unity. We are not free
to change these postures to suit our own individual piety, for the Church makes it clear that our unity of posture and gesture
is an expression of our participation in the one Body formed by the baptized with Christ, our head. When we stand, kneel,
sit, bow and sign ourselves in common action, we given unambiguous witness that we are indeed the Body of Christ, united in
heart, mind and spirit.
Committee on the Liturgy
United States Conference of Catholic Bishops
3211 4th Street, N.E., Washington,