Q: In my parish, people normally receive Holy Communion standing, but there have been some people who knelt down before the priest when their turn came to receive. On one occasion I noticed that the priest stopped and spoke to one of these people before giving her Communion, but I was too far away and couldn’t hear what he said. Later, a notice appeared in the parish bulletin, telling everyone that standing is the only acceptable way to receive Communion in our church, and that if anyone kneels down instead, the priest will not give that person Communion. Does a priest have the right to refuse Holy Communion to people who kneel? Isn’t that a violation of people’s right to receive a sacrament? –Martin
A: We saw in “When Can a Priest Refuse to Grant Absolution to a Penitent in the Confessional?” that Catholics have a right to receive the sacraments if they opportunely ask for them, are properly disposed, and are not prohibited by law from receiving them (c. 843.1). But in “Can the Pastor Refuse to Baptize Our Child?” we could see that it is possible to place some requirements on Catholics before they are permitted to receive the sacraments, since parents may be required to attend baptism classes before their infant is baptized in the Catholic Church. But may a priest lawfully require a Catholic to stand in order to receive Holy Communion?
First of all, it is important to note that liturgical laws—i.e., laws pertaining to the celebration of Mass and other liturgical actions—are for the most part not even addressed by the Code of Canon Law (c. 2). Church laws governing ceremonial, ritual aspects of Catholic sacramental life are therefore usually found in official documents other than the code itself.
The issue of kneeling to receive Holy Communion is a good example of this. The code provides instruction as to who is permitted to receive Holy Communion, and when one may do so (cc. 912-923), but the actual manner in which communicants are to receive the sacrament is not even mentioned. Instead, the Church’s official answer to this question is contained in the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM), which contains all the norms pertinent to the celebration of Mass, including the distribution of Holy Communion. The most recent edition of the GIRM, with some permitted local adaptations, was approved for use here in the United States in 2003 by the Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, with the authority of Pope John Paul II. Its contents constitute the Church’s approved, official liturgical norms, which are not open to interpretation or variation.
Within Chapter IV of the GIRM, “The Different Forms of Celebrating Mass,” is a subsection entitled “Mass With a Congregation,” which contains detailed instructions on the distribution of Holy Communion to the faithful. This subsection notes, “The norm for reception of Holy Communion in the dioceses of the United States is standing. Communicants should not be denied Holy Communion because they kneel. Rather, such instances should be addressed pastorally, by providing the faithful with proper catechesis on the reasons for this norm” (GIRM 160).
This statement in itself should be clear enough, and has sufficient legal weight, to refute directly any notion that a Catholic may be refused Holy Communion if he wishes to receive kneeling. Nevertheless, the Vatican subsequently reiterated this in the Instruction Redemptionis Sacramentum (On Certain Matters to be Observed or to be Avoided Regarding the Most Holy Eucharist). It was published in 2004 by the same Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, with the approval of Pope John Paul II. Like all Instructions, this document is not actually a law in itself; but it does reaffirm in an official way the Church’s current teaching on this very question, when it states, “…[I]t is not licit to deny Holy Communion to any of Christ’s faithful solely on the grounds, for example, that the person wishes to receive the Eucharist kneeling or standing” (91). This is, of course, a consistent restatement of the provisions found in the GIRM.
At the same time, however, it is important to keep in mind that in situations which are out of the ordinary, prudence may dictate that it is better for a communicant not to kneel, regardless of personal preference. Persons who are elderly or infirm, for example, may have physical difficulty in kneeling and then promptly standing up again. If the distribution of Holy Communion is thereby significantly interrupted or delayed, or if a kneeling communicant cannot seem to stand back up without stumbling into the person behind him, it may be entirely reasonable for a priest to object. Similarly, in a tiny chapel or excessive crowds, there may simply be inadequate space for communicants to kneel without causing disruption or distraction to other worshippers. A priest might discourage people from kneeling in such cases, but it is necessary to realize that the primary concern here is to maintain an orderly, commotion-free distribution of the sacrament, and not necessarily to forbid per se the reception of Holy Communion on one’s knees. In other words, this right is not absolute!
But the norm is intended to apply to the average situation, not to extraordinary ones. There is no legal justification for denying the Eucharist to a communicant simply because he kneels—even if standing is the norm for receiving the sacrament in the United States. Doing so would go against the provisions of the GIRM, and as a result it would also constitute a violation of the person’s right to receive the sacrament under the aforementioned canon 843.1.