All this kneeling, sitting, and standing at Mass - a friend once called it "Catholic ærobics".
(The Eastern equivalent is the continual crossing of oneself and bowing - making the metanoia - at the Divine Liturgy; their continual standing is itself quite penitential, given the length of the service and the fact that no change of posture is really tolerated, apart from the Catholic practice of kneeling at the consecration, in imitation of the Western Rite; I am aware that the people may sit at certain parts such as the reading of the Epistle, particularly in Western lands where the churches are furnished with pews, but this is likewise not original.)
I got thinking about this topic last night...
Consider, firstly, the customary posture for the faithful at High Mass:
- stand for the entrance of the priest and ministers;
- kneel for the prayers at the foot of the altar;
- stand when the priest ascends to the altar;
- sit if the priest sits for the (Kyrie and) Gloria, given the length of the singing thereof;
- stand for the Collect;
- sit for the Epistle and following chants;
- stand for the Gospel;
- sit for the Homily;
- stand for the Creed (kneeling at the Incarnatus est), remain standing for the salutation Dominus vobiscum and Oremus;
- sit for the Offertory;
- stand to be censed;
- stand for the per omnia sæcula sæculorum, the ensuing Sursum corda dialogue and the Preface;
- kneel for the Sanctus and Canon;
- stand for the Pater noster, Embolism and Pax;
- kneel at the Agnus Dei and remain kneeling until the tabernacle is closed after communion (standing only to go up to the altar rails for communion and to return therefrom), after which one may sit;
- stand for the Dominus vobiscum, Postcommunion and Ite missa est;
- kneel for the blessing;
- stand for the Last Gospel (genuflecting at Et Verbum caro factum est) and for the priest's egress.
(While the above is what I am used to in Australia, Fortescue-O'Connell-Reid suggests instead that the faithful ought continue standing until the Consecration, for which they kneel, only to stand up again for the rest of the Canon! Similarly, it provides that the people remain standing until Communion, saying nothing of kneeling at the Agnus Dei. Clearly, the times for kneeling varied widely in the old rite, according to the custom of the place.)
Compare this to the far simpler arrangement for Low Mass (which, while technically overruled and conformed to the High Mass practice in 1960 or 1961, is still observed for Low Mass in most places, as Fortescue-O'Connell-Reid notes):
- stand for the priest's progress to the altar;
- kneel when he begins Mass with the sign of the cross;
- sit for the Epistle (some if not many continue kneeling, but I always sit, following the custom I learnt);
- stand for the Gospel;
- sit for the Homily if there is one;
- stand for the Creed if there is one (genuflecting in the usual place);
- sit for the offertory onwards;
- kneel at the Sanctus, and remain kneeling (but for going to and from the altar rails);
- if desired, sit after the tabernacle is closed, during the ablutions (otherwise remain kneeling);
- stand for the Last Gospel (genuflecting at the usual words);
- stand as the priest leaves.
At the modern form of the Mass, these practices are modified, and the posture observed mainly parallels that at High Mass.
There are two exceptions: the priest, ministers and people no longer kneel for the preparatory, penitential prayers - except in Ireland - and neither do the faithful kneel for the blessing at the end of Mass - again, except in Ireland, where they still do, following what their bishops decreed.
While in the Ordinary Form of Mass there is no provision made for sitting during a long sung Kyrie or Gloria, by custom (as at the Cathedral in Melbourne, and elsewhere, such as the Oxford Oratory) the clergy and people still sit at this point: one can't stay standing forever...
Liturgical scholars sometimes assert that the salutation and Oremus at the start of the offertory in the Extraordinary Form is the remnant of the old intercessory prayers at this point; as these are restored (more or less happily) in the new Mass, quite sensibly all stand for them.
As I discussed in my last post, a small rubrickal change has been recently made in the new Mass: rather than standing for the Prayer over the 'Gifts' (Oblations), now all stand at the Orate fratres - which equates to the Oremus said elsewhere.
Another change in the modern rite compared to the older form - according to the rules observed in English-speaking countries - is that the congregation kneels after the Sanctus and Agnus Dei, rather than when they start. If these are chanted, or sung to some simple modern tune, both are quite quickly over; however, if both are long-drawn-out settings, it would be sensible to kneel down, rather than stand stupidly while the choir sings on and on...
Observe that these last two rules apply only in some nations, because the universal rule in the Novus Ordo is to stand from the Orate fratres until the end of the whole Mass, excepting only to kneel at the Consecration itself (setting it off from the rest of the Eucharistic Prayer as the sacred moment of transsubstantiation and worship of Christ made present, be it noted), and to sit, if desired, during the silent pause (if any) after communion.
Clearly, the bishops of the U.S.A., of Australia, of England and Wales, and so forth, feeling that it would be cause for scandal among the faithful if they were suddenly told to stand rather than kneel at these accustomed times, obtained - as the current Roman Missal itself permits - permission from Rome for such local adaptations of the rubricks. Indeed, the current General Instruction goes so far as to say that, where it is the custom of kneeling for the whole Eucharistic Prayer, such a practice may laudably be retained - which is Rome's way of saying it were wished this pious Catholic practice be kept!
As noted above, in Ireland all fall on their knees for the Penitential Rite, directly after the Sign of the Cross and the opening salutation, and likewise observe a kneeling posture for the blessing. It would be nice, and more in continuity with the traditional practice, to do this at Mass not just in Ireland but elsewhere - I recall that in the aborted 1990's ICEL proposals for Mass in English, one suggested option was precisely to kneel for the penitential prayers (the Confiteor, Kyrie and suchlike) at least in Lent: who could disagree? When in Italy just last week, noting how there was much more freedom of posture among the different people at Mass, I happily knelt for the blessing when attending the Ordinary Form in Florence: why not!
I still want to find out, though, why it is that the posture of the faithful, both in the old and new forms of Mass, is so divergent in Scotland...