Have you ever heard the term, “Catholic calisthenics”? It’s a funny term used to describe all of the actions and postures we Catholics perform in the context of the Catholic Mass. Non-Catholics who join us at Mass can be confused (sometimes overwhelmed!) by all of our activity without knowing its purpose and, as Catholics, we can run into the problem of performing these actions in a robotic sort of way without giving much thought to what we are doing. In the first part of this two-part series, we’ll look at each of these actions and postures to get a deeper understanding of why we do them.
First, let’s consider the reason for performing any action at all. We humans are both body and spirit. Each of us has a soul, which ought to always strive to ascend to God, and we also possess corporeal bodies which exist in this world. We may try to compartmentalize these two aspects of who we are, but they are meant to be unified, so we should be mindful of how they affect each other. Thus, when we perform certain actions during prayer, we are praying with our whole and complete person and not just some part of it, like our thoughts or words alone. We communicate our prayers and beliefs through our bodies, which helps to provide unity between our body and our soul. Similarly, by performing the same actions in the context of the Mass, we create unity within the congregation that is currently at worship and unity among Catholics around the world who perform the same or similar actions at each and every Mass. Remember, we are all the members that make up the body of Christ and that body must be unified by the very definition of what it means to be a body.
Let’s begin with the most common of our physical actions as Catholics (at Mass or anywhere else): the Sign of the Cross. When we make the Sign of the Cross, we are physically declaring our belief in the Holy Trinity – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. You can see very clearly here that we reflect what we believe in our physical bodies, unifying our body and soul. We are physically declaring the Truth that the Trinity exists and that Jesus’ love for us was manifested on a physical cross, which is at the very heart of our faith. We are also making this truth visible to anyone who can see us. For example, it is one thing to pray before a meal at a restaurant, it is another thing to do so by beginning and ending that prayer with the Sign of the Cross for all to see. By declaring our beliefs with our bodies, we become visible signs of Christianity to the world. In the context of the Mass, the first time we make the Sign of the Cross is when we enter the Church and dip our fingers into a holy water font. This specifically reminds us of our baptism and the gifts we received from that sacrament.
Once we enter the Church and find a pew in which to sit, we genuflect to the tabernacle prior to sitting down. If our actions reflect what we believe, this is an extremely important gesture. The Catholic Church teaches that the Eucharist truly IS the body, blood, soul, and divinity of Jesus Christ and that He is the King of the entire universe. Given this truth, and His presence in the tabernacle, it only makes sense that we humble ourselves and drop down on one knee to greet Him upon our arrival. Think of any worldly monarchy, even up until today — kings and queens have always been, and still are, greeted with curtsies, bows, and similar gestures as signs of respect for their office and position in the hierarchy. How much more deserving of such a greeting is Jesus? This is why we genuflect any time we come into or leave His presence.
When Mass begins, we stand. This is a sign of honor and respect. By virtue of his ordination, the priest performing the sacrifice of the Holy Mass is operating in persona Christi, or “in the person of Christ.” As such, we show our respect and reflect our beliefs in these truths by standing. Also, often included in the entrance procession are a crucifix and the book containing the Holy Gospels. These also deserve our respect when entering the sacred space, as the crucifix is a symbol of God’s love for us, and the Gospels are God’s words to us by which we live. Since Jesus is the Word made flesh, we also stand during the proclamation of the Gospel passage to reflect with our bodies our respect for Jesus and the words He spoke to us during His time on Earth.
After the entrance and the initial prayers, we sit for the first and second reading and the psalms. This a posture for listening and meditating. Think of the story of Mary and Martha, where Martha is busy doing things around the house, but Mary is sitting at the feet of Jesus, hanging onto His every word. In this part of the Mass, we are to be more representative of Mary’s disposition. We should be attentive, listening, and hanging onto every word as it is the voice of God being audibly spoken to us. As we listen, we may hear how the timeless Word of God being spoken is just as relevant today as it was when it was written. In silence and stillness, we can meditate on that word so that our bodies and souls can be completely engaged with it.
After the homily, we all stand together to profess our Faith, out loud and in unison, by reciting the Nicene Creed. This Profession of Faith is a succinct summary of the fundamental beliefs we hold as Christians. By standing while we say it, we are making it apparent that we are convicted by these beliefs, rather than sheepishly sitting or speaking it quietly to ourselves. However, there is a moment in the recitation of the Creed when we are directed to bow – which is during the professed belief in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ. This truth – God becoming man and living amongst us – is the central truth of our religion. We are directed to bow as sign of our reverence and gratitude for this truth. It is important to note that this is not a simple bowing of the head. The Church calls this posture a profound bow which is a bow from the waist. A profound bow is indicative of the profound gratitude we have that God himself came to live among us out of love and for the sake of our salvation. Could there be anything else for which we should be more grateful? It is for this reason we express our gratitude in our bodies and not just in our words.
Kneeling is a very common practice for Catholics, especially during the Liturgy of the Eucharist and often before the Eucharist in Adoration. Kneeling is a sign of two things – humility and penance. When we kneel before the Blessed Sacrament, we acknowledge Who is physically present before our very eyes and we are compelled to humble ourselves before Him. How can we not? God, in the person of Jesus Christ, is the most important person to have ever lived and we are nothing in comparison. Our bodies reflect this belief by physically humbling ourselves before Him. Kneeling in recognition of our sinful nature is a form of penance for our sins. We are sorry for what we have done because He deserves better from us, and we kneel to offer a small gesture of minor discomfort to atone for those sins.
This covers most of the major actions we perform while at Mass. Next week, we’ll discuss some of the scriptural basis for these actions, illustrating that reflecting our beliefs in our bodies is not something that was invented for empty ritualistic purposes, but rather comes from the inspired word of God. This week, consider the physical and habitual actions you perform as a Catholic and how they are a means of giving honor to our very great God, while simultaneously uniting us with our fellow Christians in worship.
As a Protestant (at this time, but feeling Catholic in my heart) attending Mass with my Catholic husband…is it right for me to dip fingers in holy water, make the sign of the cross, bow before entering pew if I haven’t gone thru RCIA classes? Have been trying to get info on RCIA but not getting response from anyone in my parrish as of yet.
How wonderful that you are feeling called home to the Catholic Church! I can’t tell you how much joy this brings me. I am so sorry you are having trouble getting info on RCIA. Have you tried another parish? Please do not give up and reach out if you need any specific type of help.
As for your questions, it is absolutely ok for you to use the holy water, make the sign of the cross and genuflect before entering the pew. Let me explain. When entering a Catholic church, we dip our fingers in holy water and make the sign of the cross, we are commemorating our Baptism which I assume you were baptised as a Protestant. The sign of the cross is a visible acknowledgement of the Blessed Trinity (In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit). To genuflect or bow before the tabernacle before you enter the pew is to acknowledge that you are aware that our Lord Jesus Christ is truly presnt in the Eucharist within that tabernacle. Anyone who believes the truth of any of these things can, and ought to, demonstrate that belief in their physical actions regardless of whether or not they have been fully initiated into the Church yet. Let me put it another way. A child who has not yet received his Sacraments of first Holy Eucharist or Confirmation, will be taught by his parents to do these things because they are true even though he has not yet completed his full initiation. It is always proper and right to give God what He is due whcich is our love, honor, and respect when we fully know and understand His physical presence. You need only avoid the actual Sacrements themselves until you are full formed and prepared to receive them, but the rest is available to you. Does that help?
Thank you Jen! Yes that is a help. I so enjoy your articles in the weekly bulletin. My husband saves them all for your excellent explanations.
Thank you so much for your kind words! Let me know if I can help in any other way.