Gesture and Courtesy at Church

Have you ever asked yourself why we ritualize certain things in church? As Catholics, we praise and thank God with body and soul. We have an “incarnational” theology of worship based upon the great truth that our Savior is both fully human and fully divine. That is why Catholic liturgy is spiritual, physical, intellectual, and tactile. Our rites enact what we believe, namely that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the Son of Mary, and that he saves us both in our flesh and in our spirit.

So how we act in church matters, because our respect signifies and strengthens our faith.

We should come to church on time because worship is a grave obligation that we owe to Almighty God. We should dress modestly and appropriately because we are in a sacred space set apart for worship and where the Most Holy Eucharist is reserved. Before we enter church we should turn off our cell phones and the buzzer function on our pagers. We should carefully teach our children reverence and respect for what is sacred.

When we enter church, we sign ourselves with the holy water and so recall the grace of our Baptism and the invincible power of the Cross.
In the presence of the Eucharist, we genuflect in adoration of the real presence of the Risen Christ. Before the altar, we bow profoundly out of respect for the Table of the Lord.

As a holy assembly, we are all participants rather than spectators. We sign and pray with enthusiasm and listen to the Word of God with attention. We stand, we sit, we bow, and we kneel, and so express with our body the devotion of our soul.

At the Holy Name of Jesus, we bow our heads, because the Lord’s name must always be reverenced in heaven, on earth, and under the earth.

At the Gospel, we sign our foreheads, our lips, and our hearts praying that Christ might be present to all our faculties through the proclamation of his word.

At the Profession of Faith, we bow profoundly when we say “he was born of the Virgin Mary,” because Christ is our hope and our salvation.

Throughout the Eucharistic Prayer we kneel in adoration and unite our worship with the praise and thanks of Jesus our High Priest, whose one perfect sacrifice is renewed in our midst.

At the Lord’s Prayer, we may lift up our hands in the orans, the ancient Christian gesture of surrender and intercession.

Before receiving Holy Communion, we sign ourselves, or bow, or genuflect, while the person ahead of us is receiving. We avoid any singularities that might draw attention to ourselves rather than to the sacrament we share.

We say “Amen,” as a confession of faith, after the minister of Communion says: “The Body of Christ.”

If we receive in the hand, we make “a throne of our hands,” with one hand under the other. We never reach out to take the Host with our fingers. We move a step to the side and receive, and then return to our place. If we receive on the tongue, we open our mouths and extend our tongue.

If we receive from the chalice, we say “Amen,” and take the cup into our hands.

If we are not receiving Holy Communion, we ask for a blessing by crossing our arms over our chest. We teach this gesture to our children who have not yet made their first Holy Communion.

Out of reverence for God, we never leave early, except in an emergency. When the Mass is ended, we might remain in church for a time to extend our thanksgiving. When we leave, we go in silence as a courtesy to those still praying.

Our cathedral, our churches, and our chapels are specifically dedicated as sacred space and should never be used for any purely secular use. The God we praise is awesome and holy, and his “House” must always be a house of prayer. The care we give to the church building and attention we give to every aspect of the liturgy should deepen our Catholic identity and energize our commitment to the generous service of God and neighbor. –

Most Rev. Daniel R. Jenky, CSC, Bishop of Peoria