QUAERITUR: Bowing to the altar instead of genuflecting during Mass. Fr. Z rants.

From a reader:

Our new and much more traditional pastor joined us a few years ago, and within the first year he had the tabernacle moved behind the altar. (Which made me and many others very happy)I have observed the priests, deacons and various others as they walk through the space between the tabernacle and the altar. Most will turn and face the altar and bow, while just a couple actually turn to the tabernacle and genuflect. (a few just walk through like there is nothing special at all).

Why would anyone choose bowing to the altar over genuflecting toward the tabernacle? To me it appears like they are turning their back on Christ. Our pastor is one who does turn to the tabernacle and genuflect.

What are your feelings on this?

This is one of the things about the Novus Ordo/Ordinary Form that really burns me up. The General Instruction/Institution of the Roman Missal directs that once Mass begins, people passing across the sanctuary bow to the altar rather than genuflect to the Blessed Sacrament. The idea is that the altar should be the focus. This is probably associated with the preference for Communion to be distributed from Hosts consecrated during the same Mass.

I don’t want to advocate ignoring liturgical law – Say The Black and Do The Red, after all – but it find it very hard to ignore the Lord when it is obvious that the the Blessed Sacrament is reserved in a tabernacle which is clearly present and visible in the center of the sanctuary.

This winds up being a problem also when Holy Mass begins with an incensation of the altar, especially when Mass is ad orientem.  It just doesn’t make sense to me to pretend the Blessed Sacrament isn’t there when it so obviously is there!   I wonder if over time this doesn’t erode people’s reverence for the Blessed Sacrament.

The altar is surely an important symbol of Christ in our midst. However, the Blessed Sacrament actually is that which it signifies. The Blessed Sacrament is not a mere symbol of Christ’s presence, it is Christ, present.  The principle ubi maior minor cessat seems appropriate.

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Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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37 Responses to QUAERITUR: Bowing to the altar instead of genuflecting during Mass. Fr. Z rants.

  1. BaedaBenedictus says:

    Father, it seems to me that the Church understood this bit of messiness and eventually resolved it by putting the tabernacle on the altar itself. Now the “experts” thought that was a bad thing in the 1960s, but in retrospect, it makes good practical and theological sense!

  2. JohnMa says:

    Another one of these changes is that we are no longer to do a double genuflection when the Blessed Sacrament is being exposed. I honestly don’t understand why. However, I see most people still do the double genuflection while most priests now bow to the altar instead of genuflecting to the Blessed Sacrament.

  3. Roguejim says:

    Some pastors ignore the GIRM when it suits them, as by using improper vessels, for example. I simply follow their lead by always genuflecting before the tabernacle, when feasible. Do I sin? Bowing to a symbol (the altar) while ignoring the Reality (the tabernacle) seems to be a disorientation of some kind.

  4. Rellis says:

    To be fair, a genuflection is still called for when processing and recessing toward/from the sanctuary before/after Mass (see GIRM 274).

    Also in 274 (and this may be the new translation speaking), all (except the priest and sacred ministers) who pass before the Blessed Sacrament during the Mass genuflect. The only time bowing before the Blessed Sacrament is called for is when the priest, deacon, and any ministers pass before Him during the Mass itself.

    Not the end of the world.

  5. ipadre says:

    With due respect for the current rubrics. I believe some of the former rubrics of the EF will return and some of the foolish rubrics (and indults) of the OF will be supressed. We may not live to see it happen, but it’s only a matter of time.

  6. MarkJ says:

    “The Blessed Sacrament is not a mere symbol of Christ’s presence, it is Christ, present. ”

    Which is why I kneel to receive Our Lord whenever I have no choice but to go to an OF Mass. Our God in the Flesh deserves whatever feeble attempts at reverence and adoration we sinful mortals can muster. Kneeling seems to me to be the least we can do when confronted by the very Presence of the Almighty. And that goes for genuflecting before Jesus in the Tabernacle, as well.

  7. ChrisWhittle says:

    You should be genuflecting, not bowing, before the Blessed Sacrament. The tabernacle belongs on the high altar. You must genuflect when you pass the altar. There is simply no excuse not to.

  8. BV says:

    My parish has a Perpetual Adoration Chapel, Christ exposed 24/7 (except from a couple hours after the mass on Holy Thursday until midnight which begins Easter Sunday) and I observe all the extremes. Some people spend an entire hour on their knees. Many give a slight bow while glancing toward the seat they are about to sit in.

    What gets me is young people who give a quick bow. I recall one time I had to stay an extra hour (the scheduled adorers after me didn’t show up). When the scheduled adorer for the NEXT hour showed up, he was an elderly man, probably in his 80′s. who clearly had slight difficulty walking. He got down to both knees – slowly & painfully – , struggled to get up, then got to his seat and then struggled to kneel on the kneeler in the pew. Now THAT was a beautiful sight! Made me happy to have spent to extra hour to observe that kind of suffering reverence that Our Lord deserves.

    “Behold this Heart which has so loved men that it has spared nothing, even to exhausting and consuming itself, in order to testify its love. In return, I receive from the greater part only ingratitude, by their irreverence and sacrileges, and by the coldness and contempt they have for me in this sacrament of love…. I come into the heart I have given you in order that through your fervor you may atone for the offenses which I have received from lukewarm and slothful hearts that dishonor me in the Blessed Sacrament”
    – Christ speaking to St. Margaret Mary Alacoque during one of the apparitions

  9. Geoffrey says:

    At my parish, the tabernacle is behind the ‘ad populum’ altar, so when someone bows to the altar, it is inevitable that they reverence the Blessed Sacrament. Happily, when we are supposed to bow during the Creed, the priests always turn a bit and bow to the Blessed Sacrament.

    And bowing to the Blessed Sacrament is always allowed when a person cannot genuflect for physical reasons.

  10. Trevor says:

    While it’s already been said, I just want to repeat that the rubrics of the Mass dictate that one should bow to the altar when Mass is in progress.

    I think people have the wrong idea about why this is done. If you read Bugnini and the Fathers of Concilium, you’ll see the goal was to emphasize that the altar is the locus of worship during the liturgy. It’s not meant to disrespect the reserved Sacrament, but all the liturgical books emphasize the importance of the Hosts consecrated at Mass.

    As for the lack of double genuflection, I’d also like to add that this isn’t in the rubrics of the new Rite for Eucharistic Exposition. The rationale is that the Sacrament doesn’t change when it’s exposed.

  11. I think it unfortunate to dogmatize about rubrics that are changeable, when various practices have been used even in the older Roman Rite and its family.

    In the traditional Dominican Rite (ever since the 1250s to this very day), the deep bow has been the proper reverence when passing before the altar during Mass, even when the Reserved Sacrament is present in a tabernacle. [Interesting.] The genuflection is used only to reverence the Reserved Sacrament on entering before and leaving after Mass (i.e. outside of Mass). There is nothing wicked, evil, or disrespectful about this practice, which has endured without objection (except from uninformed critics attending Dominican Rite Masses) to this day. Its adoption by the new Roman Rite merely restores what was the original Roman medieval practice, reflected in the Dominican Rite.

    The Mass is NOT the worship of the reserved Sacrament, that rite is called Exposition and Benediction. It is regrettable that some people seem to think that worship of the Reserved Sacrament should somehow override the attention to the Mass being celebrated itself. This is not Bugninism, it is simply bad sacramental and liturgical theology.

    And I am second to no one in my love of Exposition and Adoration of the Sacrament.

    [It think we need to use every possible occasion to rebuild belief in and reverence for the Blessed Sacrament.]

  12. AnnAsher says:

    This is illuminating. Awhile back I had this moment of realization that when I go up for Communion there is still Jesus in the tabernacle. In the modernist chapel I attend the Tabernacle is over off to the far side. My thought was that I was ignoring Jesus there as if He were somehow less present, by not genuflecting when I exit the pew/return. So I began doing so. There arent a lot of people so no one is tripping over me. So this is enlightening to me that my attention should be fully on Jesus being distributed and on the Altar – yea? So I should stop the mid-Mass genuflecting ?
    Thanks for the guidance

  13. James Joseph says:

    Perhaps good Father Z it does have something to do with the 1950′s reformers ideas about sacrament-communion rather than sacrifice-sacrament.

    I am reading a book right now written in the 1920′s by Abbot Vonier. In it he speaks some about how some of his brethren are emerging with heretical and dangerous notions of the holy Mass and the Eucharist. He calls them modern superstitions that need to be gotten rid of pronto.

  14. jflare says:

    If I recall correctly, the operating directive in our parish is that when one passes in front of the altar when crossing, one bows to the altar; when one passes behind the altar, one genuflects to the tabernacle. I get why they do it that way, but I think it’s a tad goofy.

    It looks weird because the people coming in from the back and side of the church will genuflect, but the folks crossing in front of the altar–often much, much closer to the tabernacle, will bow.

    ..’Course I think most of us bow toward the altar if we’re crossing the center of the church regardless of how far back we are. Looks a little strange if you watch for some time.

  15. Mike says:

    James Joseph–I’ve read Vonier’s book. It’s excellent; mostly, I think, Thomist.

    In regards to this post:

    1. Laity in my NO parish give a little bow before the Tabernacle. At least a solid third don’t even recognize it’s there. We need massive re-catechesis on this one.

    2.Our priests genuflect. Although a newly ordained priest don’t genuflect when opening the Tabernacle during Mass for extra consecrated Hosts. That bothers me.

    3. I like the practice of putting an Icon of Our Lady in front of the Tabernacle during Mass. A slight nod of reverence, and we move on. Our Lord is there, behind the Icon, but it’s better than nothing.

  16. Mr. P says:

    With the metal, screws and pins that are in my left leg, I still genuflect to the Tabernacle. I must admit whenever I serve the NO, I always violate that particular rubric, I will genuflect to the Tabernacle until I can no longer do so.

    The priest at my parish only bows to the altar instead of genuflecting to the Tabernacle (but does to both species when celebrating Mass)…I generally give the benefit of the doubt, assuming some can’t genuflect without help. Unless the priest is young, I give the benefit of the doubt to those that don’t genuflect. I try not to read souls.

  17. jesusthroughmary says:

    “I think people have the wrong idea about why this is done. If you read Bugnini and the Fathers of Concilium, you’ll see the goal was to emphasize that the altar is the locus of worship during the liturgy. It’s not meant to disrespect the reserved Sacrament, but all the liturgical books emphasize the importance of the Hosts consecrated at Mass.”

    I think a lot of us understand that that was their intention and disagree that it is a good idea, especially in these times where belief in the Real Presence is at an all-time low.

  18. Fr. CK says:

    I am a recently ordained priest at my first assignment and recently dealt with this in my parish because there was no consistency which was driving me crazy. In seminary we were clearly told that during the Mass, our reverence is toward the altar as the altar is where Christ is made present during the Sacrifice of the Mass. Obviously we genuflect in and out and when I have a direct interaction with the tabernacle. I try to say the black and do the red to the best of my ability and my read is exactly how Fr Z put it….
    “The General Instruction/Institution of the Roman Missal directs that once Mass begins, people passing across the sanctuary bow to the altar rather than genuflect to the Blessed Sacrament. The idea is that the altar should be the focus.”

    Regardless of my personal opinion, I try to do what the Rites imply or express.

  19. Ben Yanke says:

    This is something I’m also very torn about. But as a very solid priest explained to me about the double knee genuflections, going above and beyond is certainly still ok. It would seem to me that a genuflection is the next step “up” from a bow, in the same way that a double genuflection is the next step “up” from a single knee genuflection. Not to mention the long, long, long tradition in the Roman Rite…
    Summed up in two lines:
    1) Going “above and beyond” is not bad
    2) There’s a long tradition for it

    I wonder if these points apply here?

    I’m seriously thinking about instituting this at the Masses at which I am master of ceremonies… I totally could with no resistance. I don’t know…

  20. Ben Yanke says:

    “It’s not meant to disrespect the reserved Sacrament, but all the liturgical books emphasize the importance of the Hosts consecrated at Mass.”

    So you still don’t geuflect when the hosts consecrated at the current Mass are on the Altar, such as during communion?

  21. Norah says:

    Considering how secular Australia is we have permission for the double genuflection when the Blessed Sacrament is exposed.

    When our Assistant Priest instructed those who approached the altar to read or distribute Holy Communion that they were not to genuflect but to bow, over time, the majority of the congregation stopped genuflecting (or dipping) and simply nodded or just walked into the pew.

    Our parish priest genuflects at the beginning and after Mass but the altar girls bow.

  22. Fr. CK says: I am a recently ordained priest at my first assignment and recently dealt with this in my parish because there was no consistency which was driving me crazy. In seminary we were clearly told that during the Mass, our reverence is toward the altar as the altar is where Christ is made present during the Sacrifice of the Mass.

    And when the tabernacle is on the altar, and the priest faces east during Mass…how easy and simple it all becomes!

  23. JKnott says:

    [It think we need to use every possible occasion to rebuild belief in and reverence for the Blessed Sacrament.] Yes Father!
    When I was living in Dallas, the Pastor (a Msgr) would make his morning meditation for about an hour before Mass in the darkened sanctuary right before the Blessed Sacrament. It was a silent and very powerful witness.
    In a local NO parish the tabernacle is to the side and I have never seen any of the priests ever go near it except when one of the Legionaries of Christ help out. with Mass. They enter and kneel and pray before the Blessed Sacrament for about 10 minutes before going back to the sacristy. The people present all see this. It speaks volumes.
    I think this is also the kind of priestly example that could attract men to the priesthood, not to mention causing lay people to be more reverently aware of the Real Presence.

  24. pjsandstrom says:

    On the question of having the Tabernacle placed at the center on the altar or perhaps in the reredos behind the altar, one should look a bit more closely into the history of tabernacles, and the practices for the reservation of the Eucharist. Having the Tabernacle on the center of the main altar or within the reredos behind the altar was one of the results of the application of the Council of Trent by St. Charles Borromeo in his Archdiocese of Milan toward the end of the 16th century. Before that the customs included: Doves (or other small containers) hanging over the altar, aumbries (closets) in the wall of the apse of the Church, and Sacrament Houses (often a Gothic style construction near a pillar) somewhere in the sanctuary. The reason given for the Tabernacle (a sort of ‘holy safe’) on the altar given at the time of Saint Charles was for security for the Blessed Sacrament — that is, preventing it being stolen by ‘protestant reformers’ or ‘thieves in general’. It was not to emphasize the ‘reserved Sacrament’ over against the celebration of the Mass. This was a ‘natural development’ of the physical presence of the Tabernacle and the practice of ‘spiritual Communion’.

  25. pjsandstrom says:

    On the question of having the Tabernacle placed at the center on the altar or perhaps in the reredos behind the altar, one should look a bit more closely into the history of tabernacles, and the practices for the reservation of the Eucharist. Having the Tabernacle on the center of the main altar or within the reredos behind the altar was one of the results of the application of the Council of Trent by St. Charles Borromeo in his Archdiocese of Milan toward the end of the 16th century. Before that the customs included: Doves (or other small containers) hanging over the altar, aumbries (closets) in the wall of the apse of the Church, and Sacrament Houses (often a Gothic style construction near a pillar) somewhere in the sanctuary. The reason given for the Tabernacle (a sort of ‘holy safe’) on the altar given at the time of Saint Charles was for security for the Blessed Sacrament — that is, preventing it being stolen by ‘protestant reformers’ or ‘thieves in general’. It was not to emphasize the ‘reserved Sacrament’ over against the celebration of the Mass. This latter situation/practice was a ‘natural development’ of the physical presence of the Tabernacle and the practice of ‘spiritual Communion’.

  26. pjsandstrom says:

    Please excuse the repetition. The second is the ‘final revision’. I do not know how to remove the ‘first version’ — perhaps Fr. Z can do that. Thanks.

  27. Glen M says:

    Miss Anita Moore said: “And when the tabernacle is on the altar, and the priest faces east during Mass…how easy and simple it all becomes!”

    Precisely.

    If the secondary/forward altar wasn’t there in the first place there wouldn’t be this gap between the two to caused confusion and division.

    As others have pointed out there needs to be a return to reverence in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament whether reserved in the Tabernacle or during the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.

  28. Mariana says:

    “once Mass begins, people passing across the sanctuary bow to the altar rather than genuflect to the Blessed Sacrament. ”

    Thank you, Father, that was really helpful! I’ve been sitting in my pew, with the Tabernacle to my left and the altar in front, not knowing on which to concentrate!

  29. Mariana says:

    JohnMa,

    What is a double genuflection, please?

  30. Mike says:

    On both knees, with a slight bow of the head. For when the Blessed Sarament is in a monstrance on the Altar for Adoration.

  31. mpolo says:

    @Mariana: Double Genuflection is genuflecting on both knees, usually with a profound bow after getting onto both knees. It used to be prescribed for the exposed Blessed Sacrament, where the current rubrics specify only genuflection.

    I tend to “take the long way around” when I’m going to cross in front of a centrally-placed tabernacle, so that my bow to the altar is also a bow to the tabernacle. I add a genuflection when reposing the Blessed Sacrament during Mass, reasoning that this action is “outside” of Mass, and that the rubric requiring a genuflection before closing the tabernacle is not suspended by the other rubric. Similarly, if I open the tabernacle before communion, I also genuflect.

  32. Supertradmum says:

    If there are no pews, I have a hard time getting up and down, which is why I cannot kneel for Communion, as there are no rails. In some churches, with just light weight chairs, I can’t easily genuflect and merely bow.

  33. Mariana says:

    Mike, mpolo,

    Thank you!!

  34. worm says:

    I was trying to find the instructions in the GIRM and all I could find was the reference to genuflection at the beginning and end of Mass. I could not find specifically what should be done in between (at least after searching separately for genuflect, bow, and tabernacle on EWTNs posted GIRM). I personally find it very difficult not to genuflect when approaching the altar as an EMHC as Our Lord is right there. Back in grade school, I was taught to genuflect when I came up to read as well, but back then the nuns also taught us to bow to the presider on the way over to the lectern (we had a lectern and a pulpit).

  35. bdchatfi says:

    An interesting practice here in Korea is that during the consecration of the Blessed Eucharist everyone gives a full bow (bending at the waist) while standing (although I did see one parishioner move out to the aisle to give a profound bow). However, during the exposition of the Eucharist in a chapel all people go down on their knees and give a profound bow by touching their foreheads to the floor each time they enter or leave the Eucharistic Chapel. Most parishioners only give a profound bow once, some three times each time they enter and leave. It is easy to do this in the chapel because there are no chairs. You can sit or kneel on the floor (and the Eucharist is eye level). Personally I feel that we should get rid of pews (especially in Korea); they constantly get in the way. Our medieval brethren, before the Dominicans and Franciscans, had no pews. I have been to Orthodox Divine Liturgies with profound bows during the consecration (it was a weekday), crossing and bowing by touching the floor with your fingers, and full bow were the norm. Also what are your thoughts on Cannon 20 of the 1st Ecumenical Council?

  36. Mrs. Bear says:

    The Auxilliary Zone bishop instructed our new pastor that no one who is in the sanctuary should bow/genuflect or acknowledge the Blessed Sacrament in the tabernacle, the priest/Persona In Christi or the altar during mass.
    Meaning no lector can go to the ambo and bow or a server going back and forth to the altar or after holding the Roman Missal or after incensing the people etc.. can acknowledge anyone or thing.
    My husband is now no longer a lector.
    It was difficult enough for our former pastor to get reverence and devotion of the Blessed Sacrament into this parish – this just turned things around and this has made the sanctuary seem less important – especially in the minds of the servers.
    Very sad.

  37. rhhenry says:

    Many priests in my parish do both. The Blessed Sacrament is reserved in a tabernacle at some distance (10 feet?) from the altar. Many priests — at both the start and end of Mass — turn and genuflect to Our Lord in the tabernacle, then bow in respect to the altar. A bit messy, but also kind of endearing, because it emphasizes how different the Blessed Sacrament and the altar are . . .