by Paul Turner

Like scouts at the pledge of allegiance, we Catholics rise to our feet when we hear the words, "Let us pray." We stand a lot at church. Of course, we also sit and kneel a lot. Visitors to a Catholic parish often find that figuring out when to stand and sit poses a mystery as great as the incarnation.

Standing is key to understanding liturgical postures. A basic principle to remember is that we stand for prayer. Not everything that happens at Mass is precisely prayer. We listen to readings, we dialogue with the priest, we process to communion. But at certain times we pray to God. Often the priest prays on our behalf, as in the opening prayer. Sometimes we pray together out loud, as in the Lord's Prayer. Generally, when we pray we stand.

The largest exception, of course, is the eucharistic prayer. It is the longest single prayer at Mass and the only one which calls for kneeling. Kneeling came fairly recently in our history. When eucharistic piety grew during the Middle Ages, several customs changed - the faithful knelt for the eucharistic prayer, they rarely came to communion, and they received it in the mouth instead of in the hand. Pews were invented; prior to this time people stood for Mass. The infrequency of communion indicated that the piety had become exaggerated, so we actually legislated that people had to receive communion at least once a year. Although we praised more regular communion, centuries passed before it finally caught on again. In the beginning, though, people stood for the eucharistic prayer just as for the other prayers of Mass because they felt reverent standing, as Americans do when we pledge allegiance to the flag or sing the national anthem. A vestige of the earlier posture remains when we stand for the preface. It's just as much the eucharistic prayer as the part which follows the "Holy, Holy." Some communities around the world have maintained the custom of standing for the entire eucharistic prayer in keeping with the ancient tradition.

We stand for other occasions - the entrance rite, the Gospel, the Creed, the communion rite and the dismissal, for example. But ordinarily standing signals prayer.

(This bulletin insert originally appeared in MODERN LITURGY,23:5, copyright (c) 1996, Resource Publications, Inc. It may not be reproduced without permission. Send permission requests to

(Paul Turner, pastor of St. Munchin Parish in Cameron, MO, holds a doctorate in sacramental theology from Sant' Anselmo University.)