When the Ukrainian invasion by Russia first occurred six months ago, the prayers of many rightfully begged God for a swift and safe resolution to this unhappy conflict. The neighborhood Ukrainian Orthodox parish welcomed the public to join in communal prayer for their ancestral homeland. The church was full of earnest petitioners seeking peace and justice for the eastern European nation. The congregation stood for one hour as Scripture was intoned, prayers ascended, incense rose, and the tinkling of bells filled the air. Western Christians tend to kneel much more if they are Catholic and to sit much more if they are Protestant. Standing for an hour throughout an entire worship service is indeed unusual both for Roman Catholics and for Reformed Christians. And I suspect both communities are grateful for this difference.
As Roman Catholics, however, a closer look at the importance and significance of standing in church during Mass is both important and instructive. Even after a half century of attempted liturgical renewal, most Catholics still treat the Mass as if it were a private devotion. Catholics seat themselves in church as far apart from each other as possible. They are clearly present there as individuals hoping for communion with their Savior; they are not there as a body bearing witness to their common redemption in Christ. Yet Pope Pius XII in his 1947 encyclical “Mediator Dei” clearly defines the Mass as a public exercise: “The sacred liturgy is, consequently, the public worship which our Redeemer as Head of the Church renders to the Father, as well as the worship which the community of the faithful renders to its Founder, and through Him to the heavenly Father. It is, in short, the worship rendered by the Mystical Body of Christ in the entirety of its Head and members.” The corporate nature of the liturgy is therefore especially visible when an entire Catholic community stands together as a body bearing witness to the notable truths of the Catholic faith celebrated at different times during the celebration of Mass .
American Catholics stand for the opening rite of the Mass, stand for the Gospel, Creed, and General Intercessions, stand for the prayer over the gifts and the preface, and then stand for the Lord’s Prayer and remain standing until the end of Mass in some dioceses or in other dioceses stand for the Lord’s Prayer and the Sign of Peace and then stand again for final prayers and blessing. The times for standing determined by the general liturgical directive are instructive. They are all times when the Christian community as a whole is bearing witness to a vital aspect of the Catholic faith. As in civil life, citizens stand proudly for their national anthems and pledges of allegiance. So standing is an expression of corporate unity.
Catholics stand during the examination of conscience, Confiteor and opening prayer as an acknowledgment of mankind’s common sinful heritage. All stand as a body during the Gospel reading professing our common faith in the Word of God. All stand during the Creed and General intercessions again admitting a common allegiance to the shared faith and to a common need for Divine help. American Catholics stand briefly before the canon of the Mass as a sign of solidarity with the priestly action about to take place. The congregation stands for the Lord’s Prayer and in a number of locales remains standing until the end of Mass, even during and after the reception of Holy Communion. Such a standing ritual at Communion emphasizes that “we are the Body of Christ receiving the Body of Christ,” as one observer noted. Standing together as one during Communion joins the Mystical Body of Christ with the sacramental Body of Christ.
Generally speaking it is the mind of the Church that standing bears corporate witness to truths the whole community is professing. Humanity’s sinfulness, the Gospel’s excellence, the Creed’s profundity, the Intercessions’ universality, the common priesthood shared by all the baptized while the priest consecrates, the sacramental communion of Christ’s Risen humanity with the community’s redeemed humanity: these are the stuff of Christianity. Standing truly highlights the community nature of the Mass as the Second Vatican Council taught in its decree on the liturgy: ‘Liturgical services are not private functions, but are celebrations of the Church, which is the “sacrament of unity,’ namely, the holy people united and ordered under their bishops. Therefore liturgical services pertain to the whole body of the Church; they manifest it and have effects upon it.” The Mass by its very nature is never a celebration that is individual. The Mass rather is always a communal celebration involving the presence and active participation of the faithful. Appropriate standing as a Christian body is certainly a prime expression of the Church’s corporate unity in Christ.