Genuflection 101

12 Apr

Not long ago someone posed this question to me:

I know we are always to genuflect when entering and leaving the church for Mass. But are we supposed to genuflect when coming for non-Masses, such as parent meetings for Confirmation?

This is a very good question for all of us to consider, even if we automatically genuflect whenever we enter a church. “Automatically” could mean a virtue, a godly habit. But it could also mean a mindless act that we do without considering why we do it. So, let’s look at this issue a little more closely.

Genuflection is the bending of the right knee to the floor and then rising again to a standing position as an act of reverence toward Our Lord, who is truly present, Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity, in the most Blessed Sacrament. As St. Paul wrote, even at the name of Jesus, every knee must bend (Phil. 2:10). Even more, we should bend the knee before the Lord Himself!

We genuflect upon entering a church not strictly because it’s a church building, but because Our Lord is present there in the tabernacle. Typically the tabernacle is in the center of the church, or in some other prominent place indicated by a sanctuary lamp that is kept burning. It is to this Presence that we genuflect.

A couple points. Obviously we reverence the Eucharist during Mass. You will notice, for example, that the priest genuflects immediately after the bread and wine are consecrated, as he acknowledges that Our Lord is now present on the altar.

Christ’s presence in the Eucharist doesn’t end when Mass is over. Hosts remaining after Mass are kept in the tabernacle, both for adoration of Our Lord outside of Mass, and also to give to the sick and dying as needed. Sometimes a large host is exposed in a monstrance for adoration, but even when the Eucharist is simply reserved in the tabernacle we should adore Him there, and one way we do that is by genuflecting when we come into His presence.

It follows, then, that we would genuflect upon entering the presence of the Lord when we walk into a church, regardless of whether we’re there for Mass, for private prayer before Our Lord, or for some other parish event.

The only exception to that would be in the unusual case of the Blessed Sacrament not being reserved in the church. For example, sometimes the Sacrament is removed when the church is being cleaned or renovated, or when the church building is being used for a special (non-liturgical) event such as a concert.

And of course the tabernacle is empty on Good Friday, so this past Friday if we attended Good Friday services we simply bowed to the altar as we entered the church. Whenever the Sacrament is not present in the tabernacle, the sanctuary lamp will not be burning.

Genuflecting may seem like a small thing, but this act of reverence is a building block that will leads to an ever more profound awareness of God’s presence in our midst!

8 Responses to “Genuflection 101”

  1. fpmoles April 12, 2012 at 2:20 pm #

    You mentioned Good Friday service which I am glad you did. I have taught my kids, maybe incorrectly, that after Christ is removed on Maudy Thursday there is no need to genuflect until Easter. The Misselette however mentioned genuflection at then end of one of those two services. So what is the correct answer? I hate to teach my kids wrong, let alone do it wrong myself.

    This to me is much more important to do right than the use of the orans position by the congregation during the Pater, yet I see more of that kind of topic in the blogosphere. Great post!

  2. Leon Suprenant April 12, 2012 at 2:35 pm #

    Yes and no. It is also appropriate to genuflect toward the Cross on Good Friday. What I was referring to is the case of the empty tabernacle prior to the procession with the Cross into the sanctuary. I think lots of times we just genuflect (or not) without being conscious of what–or Whom–we are genuflecting to. The General Instruction for the Roman Missal (GIRM) summarizes genuflection practices during the Mass:

    274. A genuflection, made by bending the right knee to the ground, signifies adoration, and therefore it is reserved for the Most Blessed Sacrament, as well as for the Holy Cross from the solemn adoration during the liturgical celebration on Good Friday until the beginning of the Easter Vigil.

    During Mass, three genuflections are made by the priest celebrant: namely, after the showing of the host, after the showing of the chalice, and before Communion. Certain specific features to be observed in a concelebrated Mass are noted in their proper place (cf. above, nos. 210-251).

    If, however, the tabernacle with the Most Blessed Sacrament is present in the sanctuary, the priest, the deacon, and the other ministers genuflect when they approach the altar and when they depart from it, but not during the celebration of Mass itself.

    Otherwise all who pass before the Most Blessed Sacrament genuflect, unless they are moving in procession.

    Ministers carrying the processional cross or candles bow their heads instead of genuflecting.

  3. Christy April 12, 2012 at 2:51 pm #

    So what is the appropriate course of action if you cannot genuflect? For example, in my case, my knees sometimes seize up because of some old basketball injuries and I have developed arthritis in them. What should I do? I have been just bowing, is this appropriate?

    • Leon Suprenant April 12, 2012 at 2:56 pm #

      You raise a great point, Christy. Yes, a profound bow would be totally appropriate under those circumstances. In the end, what is most important is the reverence in one’s heart, which only God can see.

      I remember a story from seminary. A new priest was harshly judged and criticized for never genuflecting. Only later did people learn that he had had two knee replacements and physically could not genuflect. That’s a good lesson for us not to judge others, but to be reverent and purposeful in our own gestures.

  4. April 13, 2012 at 12:03 am #

    Hm…understand that genuflect is bending right knee, quite often saw ppl bending left knee. Curious whether the teacher nvr teach proper one. IS it alright if bending left knee ? for as long as it is call ‘genuflect’? thk u.

  5. Leon Suprenant April 13, 2012 at 2:51 am #

    Catholics traditionally bend the right knee when they genuflect. The meaning behind it has pretty much been lost–I think in medieval times one bent their left knee to royalty but their right knee to the Lord. It’s not “wrong” to genuflect on the left knee, especially if one is physically unable to genuflect on the right knee, but we should train children the proper way to genuflect, cross themselves, etc. as part of passing on our Catholic heritage.

  6. Nicole April 18, 2012 at 2:15 am #

    I wish that the altar servers and the extra-ordinary ministers of Holy Communion knew (at the parish I attend) that when the tabernacle is empty during Mass that they should genuflect to Our Lord on the altar in the ciborium rather than genuflecting before the empty tabernacle with their backs to Our Lord.


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