Corpus Christi Blog

Why do Catholics… have specific postures and gestures during Mass and what do they mean?


Source: Praying with Body, Mind, and Voice, via Copyright © 2010 United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Washington, D.C. Used with permission. All rights reserved.

In the celebration of Mass we raise our hearts and minds to God. We are creatures of body as well as spirit, so our prayer is not confined to our minds and hearts. It is expressed by our bodies as well. When our bodies are engaged in our prayer, we pray with our whole person. Using our entire being in prayer helps us to praywith greater attentiveness.

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 participation in the Mass.


Standing is a sign of respect and honor, so we stand as the celebrant who represents Christ enters and leaves the assembly. From the earliest days of the Church, this posture has been understood as the stance of those who have 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 things 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 proclamation of the Gospel, which recounts the words and deeds of the Lord. The bishops of the United States have chosen standing as the posture to be observed for the reception ofCommunion.


In the early Church, kneeling signified penance. So thoroughly was kneeling identified with penance that the early Christians were for bi dden to kneel on Sundays and during the Easter season, when the prevailing spirit of the Liturgy was one of joy and thanksgiving. In the Middle Ages kneeling came to signify homage, and more recently this posture has come to signify adoration, especially before the presence of Christ in the Eucharist. It is for this reason that the bishops of this country have chosen the posture of kneeling for the entireEucharistic Prayer.


Sitting is the posture of listening and meditation, so the congregation sits for the pre-Gospel readings and the homily and may also sit for the period of meditation following Communion. All should strive to assume a seated posture during the Mass that is attentive rather thanmerely at rest.


Every procession in the Liturgy is a sign of the pilgrim Church, the body of those who believe in Christ, on their way to the Heavenly Jerusalem. The Mass begins with the procession of the priest and ministers to the altar. The Book of the Gospels is carried in procession to the ambo. The gifts of bread and wine are brought forward to the altar. Members of the assembly come forward in procession — eagerly, attentively, and devoutly — to receive Holy Communion. We who believe in Christ are moving in time toward that moment whenwe will leave this world and enter into the joy of the Lord in the eternalKingdom he has prepared for us.

The Sign of the Cross

We begin and end Mass by marking ourselves with the Sign of the Cross. 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, praying that the Word of God may be always in our minds, on our lips, and in our hearts. The cross reminds us in a physical way of the Paschal Mystery we celebrate: the death and Resurrection of our SaviorJesus Christ.


Bowing signifies reverence, respect, and gratitude. In the Creed we bow at the words that commemorate the Incarnation. We also bow as a sign of reverence before we receive Communion. The priest and other ministers bow to the altar, a symbol of Christ, when entering or leaving the sanctuary. As a sign of respect and reverence even in our speech, we bow our heads at the name of Jesus, at the mention of the Three Persons of the Trinity, at the name of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and at the name of the saint whose particular feast or memorial is being observed(see GIRM, no. 275).


As a sign of adoration, we genuflect by bringing our right knee to the floor. Many people also make the Sign of the Cross as they bend their knee. Traditionally, Catholics genuflect on entering and leaving church if the Blessed Sacrament is present in the sanctuary of the Church. The priest and deacon genuflect to the tabernacle on entering and leaving the sanctuary. The priest also genuflects in adoration after he shows the Body and Blood of Christ to the people after the consecration and again before inviting the people to Holy Communion.


The priest frequently uses this ancient prayer posture, extending his hands to his sides, slightly elevated. Orans means "praying." Early Christian art frequently depicts the saints and others standing in this posture, offering their prayers and surrendering themselves, with hands uplifted to the Lord, in a gesture that echoes Christ's outstretched arms as he offeredhimself on the Cross.


In this rarely used posture, an individual lies full-length on the floor, face to the ground. A posture of deep humility, it signifies our willingness to share in Christ's death so as to share in his Resurrection (see Romans 6). It is used at thebeginning of the Celebration of the Lord's Passion on Good Fridayand also during the Litany of theSaints in the Rite of Ordination,when those to be ordained deacons, priests, and bishops prostrate themselves in humble prayer andsubmission to Christ.


"By its very nature song has both an individual and a communal dimension. Thus, it is no wonder that singing together in church expresses so well the sacramental presence of God to his people," (United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Sing to the Lord, no. 2). As we raise our voices as one in the prayers, dialogues, and chants Prayer, as well as the other hymnsand songs, we each lend our individual voices to the great hymn of praise and thanksgiving to the TriuneGod.

Praying in Unison

In the Mass, the worshiping assembly prays in one voice, speaking or singing together the words of the prayers. By saying the same words at the same time, we act as what we truly are—one Body united in Christ through the Sacrament ofBaptism.

Being Silent

"Silence in the Liturgy allows the community to reflect on what it has heard and experienced, and to open its heart to the mystery celebrated," (Sing to the Lord, no.118). We gather in silence, taking time to separate ourselves from theconcerns of the world and enterinto the sacred action. We reflecton the readings in silence. We maytake time for silent reflection andprayer after Holy Communion.These times of silence are notmerely times when nothing happens;rather, they are opportunities for usto enter more deeply in what Godis doing in the Mass, and, likeMary, to keep "all these things,reflecting on them" in our hearts(Lk 2:19).


The Church sees in these common postures and gestures both a symbol of the unity of those who have come together to worship and also 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 give unambiguous witness that we are indeed the Body of Christ, united in body,mind, and voice.