The Tradition of Genuflection
Question: Why do Catholics genuflect?
Answer: Genuflection is an act of devotion that literally means “to bend the knee.” For many Catholics, it’s an almost automatic gesture that we perform before entering our pew or row of seats at Mass. But, like many of the symbols and gestures of our faith tradition, genuflecting can also be an invitation for deeper reflection.
The practice of “bending the knee” is an ancient way of recognizing the presence of someone greater than we are. It has been said that the practice dates back to the time of Alexander the Great, but it became a common part of etiquette in the royal courts of the Middle Ages. From throne rooms and palaces, it was a small step to genuflecting becoming part of the devotional lives of Christians, who used this secular gesture as a way of recognizing the presence of the One who is King of Kings, especially in the Eucharist.
Today, Catholics are asked to genuflect in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament (whether in the tabernacle or exposed on the altar during eucharistic adoration). So, while it has become second nature to genuflect before entering your seat in church, we should pay attention to where the Blessed Sacrament is kept in each church or chapel that we visit, and genuflect in the direction of the tabernacle where the Blessed Sacrament is kept. In churches or chapels in which the tabernacle is in a separate space, we are invited to simply bow toward the altar.
In addition to genuflecting before the Blessed Sacrament, we are also instructed to genuflect before the cross used for veneration on Good Friday (during the solemn celebrations of the Lord’s Passion) and any time a relic of the True Cross is displayed for veneration. This long-standing tradition is a way of honoring the cross as the great sign of our salvation and of showing devotion to the passion of Jesus.