Eucharistic Piety: A Strong Recommendation

Author: Fr. Regis Scanlon, OFM Cap.


Fr. Regis Scanlon, O.F.M., Cap.

Today, more than ever, an individual act of latria immediately prior to Holy Communion would give our Liturgy proper proportionality of devotion.

The doctrine of the Real Presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist is one of those wonderful truths by which Christianity shines forth as a religion of mysteries far exceeding the capacity of the human mind. [1] The Catholic Church has defined the dogma of the Real Presence by stating that Jesus Christ is present whole and entire under the appearances of bread and wine following the words of consecration at the Eucharist. [2] In his encyclical Mysterium Fidei (1965), Paul VI explained that Christ's Eucharistic presence is far greater than merely a spiritual presence or a "so-called 'pneumatic' nature of the glorious body of Christ that would be present everywhere." [3] More than this, he said, the Eucharistic presence is the highest presence where following the consecration at the Liturgy "Christ is present, whole and entire in His physical 'reality', corporeally present, although not in a manner in which bodies are present in a place." [4] How a physical reality can be "bodily" present and not be limited or restricted to one place, like all miracles, will be an apparent contradiction to our modern scientific mentality. Paul VI recognized this when he said, " can something like this exist when it seems to contradict the known laws of physics and biology?" [5] The solution for Paul VI was quite simple.

"And so we must approach this mystery in particular with humility and reverence, not relying on human reasoning, which ought to hold its peace, but rather adhering firmly to divine Revelation." [6]

This sacred dogma of the Catholic Faith accounts for the tremendous reverence and solemnity which has traditionally accompanied the celebration of the Eucharist, reception of Holy Communion, and Benediction of the Most Blessed Sacrament. One has only to recall the ringing of the bells, the kneeling and incense in the presence of the Eucharistic Lord, along with the meditative and reverential silence which pervaded most Catholic churches and chapels. These symbols communicated in a practical manner, even to the unschooled and to children, what words often failed to make clear to students of Sacred Studies.

A piety void has set in

Today, the toning down, and in some cases the deletion, of these symbols and signs of adoration and reverence regarding the Eucharist has resulted in a piety void in the life of a number of Catholics. This lessening or absence of concrete symbols of adoration is no doubt also retarding the transmission of the dogma of the Real Presence among Catholics. In places where these concrete symbols have been diminished, the Church has been left with merely a theoretical approach to teaching the doctrine of the Real Presence. Tremendous mysteries are difficult to communicate even to the scholarly by means of precise terminology, and nearly impossible to the theologically uneducated and children. Phrases like "the physical reality of Christ is bodily present" can hardly be pronounced by the young, let alone be grasped in abstract terms. Yet from the age of seven children approach the Eucharistic table today, often with little better demeanor than they have in the school lunch line. This casual and nonchalant manner with which many youngsters come to Holy Communion would seem to have its roots in a foggy grasp of the doctrine of the Real Presence.

Recovery from this piety void and from youth's doctrinal haziness about the Real Presence will hopefully come about with the full and complete implementation of the Eucharistic doctrine of the Second Vatican Council. In fact, Paul VI, while reflecting upon the purpose of the Second Vatican Council's Eucharistic doctrine, stated that the Council intended "that a new wave of Eucharistic devotion will sweep over the Church." [7] One document, issued on May 25, 1967, by the Sacred Congregation of Rites, which was intended to implement the Conciliar decree on the Liturgy and Worship of the Eucharist, is Eucharisticum Mysterium. In this document is found a recommendation which has since been repeated on April 3, 1980, in Inaestimabile Donum, a document by the Sacred Congregation for Sacraments and Divine Worship, the publication of which was ordered by John Paul II himself. [8] While the point is brief, it is still significant since it touches upon a central dogma of the Catholic Faith. I believe this strong and repeated recommendation will be of at least some help to the Church in the transmission of the doctrine of the Real Presence. The recommendation, which refers to the two possible ways of receiving Holy Communion, is as follows:

"When the faithful communicate kneeling, no other sign of reverence towards the Blessed Sacrament is required, since kneeling is itself a sign of adoration.

When they receive Communion standing, it is strongly recommended that, coming up in procession, they should make a sign of reverence before receiving the Blessed Sacrament. This should be done at the right time and place, so that the order of people going to and from Communion should not be disrupted." [9]

The act of reverence strongly recommended by the Sacred Congregations here appears to be more than a mere reverential act toward holy things like bowing the head, folding of the hands, or the sign of the Cross. It seems most likely that what is being recommended here is the traditional form of worship or adoration called latria reserved to God alone. [10] In the Latin Rite the traditional act of latria is the genuflection, and similar to it is the profound bow of the Eastern Rites. That the Congregations are recommending a genuflection can be argued from the context of the recommendation, which has previously referred to kneeling as a sign of adoration, and from the caution that this act of reverence not be done out of place or at the wrong time, to interfere with the free flow of communicants, which caution would be meaningless if a simple bow of the head, folding of the hands, or sign of the Cross were meant.

A more immediate act is desired

The interpretation of this strong recommendation as a request for a genuflection prior to the reception of Holy Communion would also receive support form both Sacred Tradition and Holy Scripture. The fifth-century Doctor of the Church, St. Augustine, clearly expressed the necessity of making an act of adoration prior to the reception of the Eucharist when he stated:

"It was in His flesh that Christ walked among us and it is His flesh that He has given us to eat for our salvation; but no one eats of this flesh without having first adored it ... and not only do we not sin in thus adoring it, but we would be sinning if we did not do so!" [11]

While it is true that the communal act of worship at the "Lord, I am not worthy" minimally fulfills this act of faith, there is such a great lapse between this act and the individual reception of the Eucharist due to the number of communicants, that an individual act of adoration, more personal and more immediate to the reception, is desired. It is also true that a private interior act of worship would suffice to fulfill this act of faith, but good liturgy by its very nature should be a public expression of one's Faith.

If one grants the desire for public, individual acts of latria prior to the reception of the Eucharist, then there is no more appropriate clear symbol of adoration than the genuflection for the Latin Rite Catholic today. While powerful monarchs often welcomed kneeling in the past as a sign of fealty, I doubt whether even the Pope wants to promote this symbol of reverence to his person today. Few would deny that the traditional sign of Eucharistic adoration in the Latin Rite has been kneeling or the genuflection. However, "the bending of the knee" is also the most Scripturally appropriate gesture to be made to both God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. The Lord God, speaking through Isaiah the prophet, says: "To Me every knee must bend" (Isaiah 45:23). And St. Paul points out that "at Jesus' name every knee must bend in the heavens, on the earth, and under the earth" (Phil. 2:10). Even when Scripture records a mockery of Christ's divine Person, it records the act of a mock bending on the knee. "They genuflected before Him and pretended to pay Him homage" (Mark 15:19). Undoubtedly, there is no other sign today for the Latin Rite Catholic that conveys so clearly adoration toward the Eucharist or is more scripturally and Traditionally appropriate than the "bending of the knee".

Today, more than ever, an individual act of latria immediately prior to Holy Communion would give our Liturgy proper proportionality of devotion. Do we not risk imbalancing the Liturgy of the Communion Rite by deleting the traditional and individual public act of adoration at Holy Communion (an expression of the first and greatest commandment), while others emphasize the kiss of peace with enthusiastic handshakes and embraces (an expression of the second greatest commandment? (Mark 12:28-31)

A sign of reverence is desired

While both methods of receiving Communion, kneeling or standing, are now in use throughout the United States, most pastors have opted for standing over the old way of kneeling to receive Communion. Possibly many pastors felt that the new way, because it was new, would be automatically better than the old way. What is noticeably absent, however, with the standing method, is this recommended sign of reverence immediately prior to the reception of the Eucharist. It is true that this act of reverence is recommended rather than legislated, but it is "strongly" recommended, and this recommendation itself has been repeated by the highest authority in ritual matters in the Church. One would expect that a strong recommendation like this, even though not commanded, would be followed by the faithful in the spirit of the Second Vatican Council. Hopefully, the Council has taken us beyond the minimal observance of the Law or commands! It appears that most pastors and people are not even aware that when one is about to receive Holy Communion standing, a sign of reverence is the desire of the Church.

Make known the instruction to all

As this strong recommendation of the Church gradually becomes implemented, it will have to be done in a true response of the Spirit. It must not be forced upon anyone! If this act of reverence is interpreted as a genuflection, care must be taken that those who do not make this exterior sign of adoration are not judged as less holy. First of all, there are elderly and injured people for whom a genuflection may be difficult. Secondly, the genuflection, as a sign, demonstrates the holiness of the Eucharist and not the sanctity of the communicant. Today, however, a possibility far greater than these is that this sign of reverence strongly recommended by the Church will not be implemented by pastors and congregations, out of a false respect for the feelings of those who cannot or will not make this recommended act of homage to the Eucharistic Lord. Care must especially be taken, therefore, that the faithful are told clearly what the Church prefers. When the Church's complete instruction on the reception of Holy Communion is made known to all, and the freedom of everyone is respected, then I am sure we shall see a true response from the spirit of the faithful which will certainly benefit the entire Church.


[1] Msgr. Joseph Pohle, The Sacraments, ed. Arthur Press, St. Louis: B. Herder Bk. Co., 1917, vol. 2, p.5.

[2] Denzinger, no. 874 and no. 878, in The Church Teaches, ed. by Jesuit Fathers of St. Mary's College, St. Mary's, Kansas, St. Louis: B. Herder Bk. Co., 1955, pp. 281-283.

[3] Paul VI, Mysterium Fidei, no. 39, in The Pope Speaks, 10 (4th Qtr. 1964), p. 319

[4] Paul VI, Mysterium Fidei, no. 46, p. 321.

[5] Paul VI, Siamo lietissimi, in The Pope Speaks, 10 (1st Qtr. 1964), p. 10.

[6] Paul VI, Mysterium Fidei, no. 16, p.312.

[7] Paul VI, Mysterium Fidei, no. 4, p. 312.

[8] Sacred Congregation for the Sacraments and Divine Worship, Inaestimabile Donum, no. 11, in The Pope Speaks, 25 (3rd Qtr. 1980), p. 201.

[9] Sacred Congregation of Rites, Eucharisticum Mysterium, May 25, 1967, in Vatican Council II: The Conciliar and Post-Conciliar Documents, ed. Austin Flannery, O.P., Northport, NY: Costello Publishing Co., 1975, p.122.

[10] Denzinger, no. 878, in The Church Teaches, p. 283.

[11] Paul VI, Mysterium Fidei, no. 55, p. 323.

This article originally appeared in Theotokos, the newsletter of the Auraria Catholic Club, Denver, Colorado.

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