of Mons. Mario Marini Undersecretary of the Congregation for Divine Worship
Theology of Kneeling
il Culto Divino e la Disciplina dei Sacramenti
Prot. n. 2390/02/L
Rome, 25 February 2003
Dear Ms. Elliot
This Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline
of the Sacraments has received \ our letter dated 9 December 2002, related
to the application of the norms approved by the Conference of Bishops
of the United States of America, with the subsequent recognitio of this
Congregation, as regards the question of the posture for receiving Holy
As the authority by virtue of whose recognitio the norm
in question has attained the force of law, this Dicastery is competent
to specify the manner in which the norm is to be understood for the sake
of a proper application. Having received more than a few letters regarding
this matter from different locations in the United States of America,
the Congregation wishes to ensure that its position on the matter is clear.
To this end, it is perhaps useful to respond to your
inquiry by repeating the content of a letter that the Congregation recently
addressed to a Bishop in the United States of America from whose Diocese
a number of pertinent letters had been received. The letter states: "...
while this Congregation gave the recognitio to the norm desired by the
Bishops' Conference of your country that people stand for Holy Communion,
this was done on the condition that communicants who choose to kneel are
not to be denied Holy Communion on these grounds. Indeed, the faithful
should not be imposed upon nor accused of disobedience and of acting illicitly
when they kneel to receive Holy Communion".
This Dicastery hopes that the citation given here will
provide an adequate answer to your letter. At the same time, please be
assured that the Congregation remains ready to be of assistance if you
should need to contact it again.
With every prayerful good wish, I am
Sincerely yours in Christ,
Mons. Mario Marini Undersecretary
Ms. Jane S. Elliot 524 Linden Drive Front Royal, VA 22630 STATI UNITI
The Theology of Kneeling
From Cardinal Ratzinger's The Spirit of the Liturgy
There are groups, of no small influence, who are trying
to talk us out of kneeling. "It doesn't suit our culture", they
say (which culture?) "It's not right for a grown man to do this —
he should face God on his feet". Or again: "It's not appropriate
for redeemed man — he has been set free by Christ and doesn't need
to kneel any more".
If we look at history, we can see that the Greeks and
Romans rejected kneeling. In view of the squabbling, partisan deities
described in mythology, this attitude was thoroughly justified. It was
only too obvious that these gods were not God, even if you were dependent
on their capricious power and had to make sure that, whenever possible,
you enjoyed their favor. And so they said that kneeling was unworthy of
a free man, unsuitable for the culture of Greece, something the barbarians
went in for. Plutarch and Theophrastus regarded kneeling as an expression
Aristotle called it a barbaric form of behavior (cf.
Rhetoric 1361 a36). Saint Augustine agreed with him in a certain respect:
the false gods were only the masks of demons, who subjected men to the
worship of money and to self-seeking, thus making them "servile"
and superstitious. He said that the humility of Christ and His love, which
went as far as the Cross, have freed us from these powers. We now kneel
before that humility. The kneeling of Christians is not a form of inculturation
into existing customs. It is quite the opposite, an expression of Christian
culture, which transforms the existing culture through a new and deeper
knowledge and experience of God.
Kneeling does not come from any culture — it comes
from the Bible and its knowledge of God. The central importance of kneeling
in the Bible can be seen in a very concrete way. The word proskynein alone
occurs fifty-nine times in the New Testament, twenty-four of which are
in the Apocalypse, the book of the heavenly Liturgy, which is presented
to the Church as the standard for her own Liturgy.
On closer inspection, we can discern three closely related
forms of posture. First there is prostratio — lying with one's face
to the ground before the overwhelming power of God; secondly, especially
in the New Testament, there is falling to one's knees before another;
and thirdly, there is kneeling. Linguistically, the three forms of posture
are not always clearly distinguished. They can be combined or merged with
For the sake of brevity, I should like to mention, in
the case of prostratio, just one text from the Old Testament and another
from the New.
In the Old Testament, there is an appearance of God to
Joshua before the taking of Jericho, an appearance that the sacred author
quite deliberately presents as a parallel to God's revelation of Himself
to Moses in the burning bush. Joshua sees "the commander of the army
of the Lord" and, having recognized who He is, throws himself to
the ground. At that moment he hears the words once spoken to Moses: "Put
off your shoes from your feet; for the place where you stand is holy"
(Josh 5:15). In the mysterious form of the "commander of the army
of the Lord", the hidden God Himself speaks to Joshua, and Joshua
throws himself down before Him.
Origen gives a beautiful interpretation of this text:
"Is there any other commander of the powers of the Lord than our
Lord Jesus Christ?" According to this view, Joshua is worshipping
the One who is to come — the coming of Christ.
In the case of the New Testament, from the Fathers onward,
Jesus' prayer on the Mount of Olives was especially important. According
to Saint Matthew (22:39) and Saint Mark (14:35), Jesus throws Himself
to the ground; indeed, He falls to the earth (according to Matthew). However,
Saint Luke, who in his whole work (both the Gospel and the Acts of the
Apostles) is in a special way the theologian of kneeling prayer, tells
us that Jesus prayed on His knees. This prayer, the prayer by which Jesus
enters into His Passion, is an example for us, both as a gesture and in
its context. The gesture: Jesus assumes, as it were, the fall of man,
lets himself fall into man's fallenness, prays to the Father out of the
lowest depths of human dereliction and anguish. He lays His will in the
will of the Father's: "Not my will but yours be done". He lays
the human will in the divine. He takes up all the hesitation of the human
will and endures it. It is this very conforming of the human will to the
divine that is the heart of redemption. For the fall of man depends on
the contradiction of wills, on the opposition of the human will to the
divine, which the tempter leads man to think is the condition of his freedom.
Only one's own autonomous will, subject to no other will, is freedom.
"Not my will, but yours . . ." — those are the words of
truth, for God's will is not in opposition to our own, but the ground
and condition of its possibility. Only when our will rests in the will
of God does it become truly will and truly free.
The suffering and struggle of Gethsemane is the struggle
for this redemptive truth, for this uniting of what is divided, for the
uniting that is communion with God. Now we understand why the Son's loving
way of addressing the Father, "Abba", is found in this place
(cf. Mk 14:36). Saint Paul sees in this cry the prayer that the Holy Spirit
places on our lips (cf. Rom 8:15; Gal 4:6) and thus anchors our Spirit-filled
prayer in the Lord's prayer in Gethsemane.
In the Church's Liturgy today, prostration appears on
two occasions: on Good Friday and at ordinations. On Good Friday, the
day of the Lord's crucifixion, it is the fitting expression of our sense
of shock at the fact that we by our sins share in the responsibility for
the death of Christ. We throw ourselves down and participate in His shock,
in His descent into the depths of anguish. We throw ourselves down and
so acknowledge where we are and who we are: fallen creatures whom only
He can set on their feet. We throw ourselves down, as Jesus did, before
the mystery of God's power present to us, knowing that the Cross is the
true burning bush, the place of the flame of God's love, which burns but
does not destroy.
At ordinations prostration comes from the awareness of
our absolute incapacity, by our own powers, to take on the priestly mission
of Jesus Christ, to speak with His "I". While the ordinands
are lying on the ground, the whole congregation sings the Litany of the
Saints. I shall never forget lying on the ground at the time of my own
priestly and episcopal ordination. When I was ordained bishop, my intense
feeling of inadequacy, incapacity, in the face of the greatness of the
task was even stronger than at my priestly ordination. The fact that the
praying Church was calling upon all the saints, that the prayer of the
Church really was enveloping and embracing me, was a wonderful consolation.
In my incapacity, which had to be expressed in the bodily posture of prostration,
this prayer, this presence of all the saints, of the living and the dead,
was a wonderful strength — it was the only thing that could, as
it were, lift me up. Only the presence of the saints with me made possible
the path that lay before me.
Kneeling Before Another
Secondly, we must mention the gesture of falling to one's
knees before another, which is described four times in the Gospels (cf.
Mk 1:40; 10:17; Mt 17:14; 27:29) by means of the word gonypetein. Let
us single out Mark 1:40. A leper comes to Jesus and begs Him for help.
He falls to his knees before Him and says: "If you will, you can
make me clean". It is hard to assess the significance of the gesture.
What we have here is surely not a proper act of adoration, but rater a
supplication expressed fervently in bodily form, while showing a trust
in a power beyond the merely human.
The situation is different, though, with the classical
word for adoration on one's knees — proskynein. I shall give two
examples in order to clarify the question that faces the translator.
First there is the account of how, after the multiplication
of the loaves, Jesus stays with the Father on the mountain, while the
disciples struggle in vain on the lake with the wind and the waves. Jesus
comes to them across the water. Peter hurries toward Him and is saved
from sinking by the Lord. Then Jesus climbs into the boat, and the wind
lets up. The text continues: "And the ship's crew came and said,
falling at His feet, 'Thou are indeed the Son of God'" (Mt 14:33,
Knox version). Other translations say: "[The disciples] in the boat
worshiped [Jesus], saying . . ." (RSV). Both translations are correct.
Each emphasizes one aspect of what is going on. The Knox version brings
out the bodily expression, while the RSV shows what is happening interiorly.
It is perfectly clear from the structure of the narrative that the gesture
of acknowledging Jesus as the Son of God is an act of worship.
We encounter a similar set of problems in Saint John's
Gospel when we read the account of the healing of the man born blind.
This narrative, which is structured in a truly "theo-dramatic"
way, ends with a dialogue between Jesus and the man He has healed. It
serves as a model for the dialogue of conversion, for the whole narrative
must also be seen as a profound exposition of the existential and theological
significance of Baptism.
In the dialogue, Jesus asks the man whether he believes
in the Son of Man. The man born blind replies: "Tell me who He is,
Lord". When Jesus says, "It is He who is speaking to you",
the man makes a confession of faith: "I do believe, Lord", and
then he "[falls] down to worship Him" (Jn 9:35-38, Knox version,
adapted). Earlier translations said: "He worshiped Him". In
fact, the whole scene is directed toward the act of faith and the worship
of Jesus, which follows from it. Now the eyes of the heart, as well as
of the body, are opened. The man has in truth begun to see.
For the exegesis of the text it is important to note
that the word proskynein occurs eleven times in Saint John's Gospel, of
which nine occurrences are found in Jesus' conversation with the Samaritan
woman by Jacob's well (Jn 4:19-24). This conversation is entirely devoted
to the theme of worship, and it is indisputable that here, as elsewhere
in Saint John's Gospel, the word always has the meaning of "worship".
Incidentally, this conversation, too, ends — like that of the healing
of the man born blind — with Jesus' revealing Himself: "I who
speak to you am He" (Jn 4:26).
I have lingered over these texts, because they bring
to light something important. In the two passages that we looked at most
closely, the spiritual and bodily meanings of proskynein are really inseparable.
The bodily gesture itself is the bearer of the spiritual meaning, which
is precisely that of worship. Without the worship, the bodily gesture
would be meaningless, which the spiritual act must of its very nature,
because of the psychosomatic unity of man, express itself in the bodily
The two aspects are united in the one word, because in
a very profound way they belong together. When kneeling becomes merely
external, a merely physical act, it becomes meaningless. On the other
hand, when someone tries to take worship back into the purely spiritual
realm and refuses to give it embodied form, the act of worship evaporates,
for what is purely spiritual is inappropriate to the nature of man. Worship
is one of those fundamental acts that affect the whole man. That is why
bending the knee before the presence of the living God is something we
In saying this, we come to the typical gesture of kneeling
on one or both knees. In the Hebrew of the Old Testament, the verb barak,
"to kneel", is cognate with the word berek, "knee".
The Hebrews regarded the knees as a symbol of strength, to bend the knee
is, therefore, to bend our strength before the living God, an acknowledgment
of the fact that all that we are we receive from Him. In important passages
of the Old Testament, this gesture appears as an expression of worship.
At the dedication of the Temple, Solomon kneels "in
the presence of all the assembly of Israel" (II Chron 6:13). After
the Exile, in the afflictions of the returned Israel, which is still without
a Temple, Ezra repeats this gesture at the time of the evening sacrifice:
"I . . . fell upon my knees and spread out my hands to the Lord my
God" (Ezra 9:5). The great psalm of the Passion, Psalm 22 ("My
God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"), ends with the promise:
"Yes, to Him shall all the proud of the earth fall down; before Him
all who go down to the dust shall throw themselves down" (v. 29,
RSV adapted). The related passage Isaiah 45:23 we shall have to consider
in the context of the New Testament. The Acts of the Apostles tells us
how Saint Peter (9:40), Saint Paul (20:36), and the whole Christian community
(21:5) pray on their knees.
Particularly important for our question is the account
of the martyrdom of Saint Stephen. The first man to witness to Christ
with his blood is described in his suffering as a perfect image of Christ,
whose Passion is repeated in the martyrdom of the witness, even in small
details. One of these is that Stephen, on his knees, takes up the petition
of the crucified Christ: "Lord, do not hold this sin against them"
(7:60). We should remember that Luke, unlike Matthew and Mark, speaks
of the Lord kneeling in Gethsemane, which shows that Luke wants the kneeling
of the first martyr to be seen as his entry into the prayer of Jesus.
Kneeling is not only a Christian gesture, but a christological one.
The Name Above All Names
For me, the most important passages for the theology
of kneeling will always be the great hymn of Christ in Philippians 2:6-11.
In this pre-Pauline hymn, we hear and see the prayer of the apostolic
Church and can discern within it her confession of faith in Christ. However,
we also hear the voice of the Apostle, who enters into this prayer and
hands it on to us, and, ultimately, we perceive here both the profound
inner unity of the Old and New Testaments and the cosmic breadth of Christian
The hymn presents Christ as the antitype of the First
Adam. While the latter high-handedly grasped at likeness to God, Christ
does not count equality with God, which is His by nature, "a thing
to be grasped", but humbles Himself unto death, even death on the
Cross. It is precisely this humility, which comes from love, that is the
truly divine reality and procures for Him the "name which is above
every other name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in
heaven and on earth and under the earth" (Phil 2:5-10).
Here the hymn of the apostolic Church takes up the words
of promise in Isaiah 45:23: "By myself I have sworn, from my mouth
has gone forth in righteousness a word that shall not return: 'To me every
knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear'". In the interweaving of
Old and New Testaments, it becomes clear that, even as crucified, Jesus
bears that "name above every name" — the name of the Most
High — and is Himself God by nature. Through Him, through the Crucified,
the bold promise of the Old Testament is now fulfilled: all bend the knee
before Jesus, the One who descended, and bow to Him precisely as the one
true God above all gods. The Cross has become the world-embracing sign
of God's presence, and all that we have previously heard about the historic
and cosmic Christ should now, in this passage, come back into our minds.
The Christian Liturgy is a cosmic Liturgy precisely because
it bends the knee before the crucified and exalted Lord. Here is the center
of authentic culture — the culture of truth. The humble gesture
by which we fall at the feet of the Lord inserts us into the true path
of life of the cosmos.
There is much more that we might add. For example, there
is the touching story told by Eusebius in his history of the Church as
a tradition going back to Hegesippus in the second century. Apparently,
Saint James, the "brother of the Lord", the first bishop of
Jerusalem and "head" of the Jewish Christian Church, had a kind
of callous on his knees, because he was always on his knees worshipping
God and begging forgiveness for his people (2, 23, 6). Again, there is
a story that comes from the sayings of the Desert Fathers, according to
which the devil was compelled by God to show himself to a certain Abba
Apollo. He looked black and ugly, with frighteningly thin limbs, but most
strikingly, he had no knees. The inability to kneel is seen as the very
essence of the diabolical.
But I do not want to go into more detail. I should like
to make just one more remark. The expression used by Saint Luke to describe
the kneeling of Christians (theis ta gonata) is unknown in classical Greek.
We are dealing here with a specifically Christian word. With that remark,
our reflections turn full circle to where they began. It may well be that
kneeling is alien to modern culture — insofar as it is a culture,
for this culture has turned away from the faith and no longer knows the
one before whom kneeling is the right, indeed the intrinsically necessary
gesture. The man who learns to believe learns also to kneel, and a faith
or a liturgy no longer familiar with kneeling would be sick at the core.
Where it has been lost, kneeling must be rediscovered, so that, in our
prayer, we remain in fellowship with the apostles and martyrs, in fellowship
with the whole cosmos, indeed in union with Jesus Christ Himself.
© 2002 Adoremus: Society for the Renewal of the Sacred