QUAERITUR: a proper genuflection

From a reader:

I happened to note in O’Connell, II, 1940, p. 23: "… the Celebrant, when genuflecting at the foot of the altar (especially when genuflecting on the step), must not turn sideways, but directly face the tabernacle."
There seems to become a "rule" in many places for a priest to genuflect turning toward the North-East. Not a very attractive view from pews. And not all that reverent. Could you consider writing about it ? 

This came with the subject line "Important".   I am not sure I agree.

My first comment is that this O’Connell’s opinion.  It is a good one, but it is an opinion.  Sometimes people mistake opinions of sound authorities for the discipline legislated by the Church.  In a similar way, various Pope’s had to issue clarifications over the centuries that St. Augustine’s writings, though venerable in a degree hard to parallel, were not the same as the Magisterium of the Church.

Second, I was not able to find this description of the genuflection in the new edition of Fortescue-O’Connell-Reid, which I reviewed HERE. If I missed it, I hope someone will let me know.

Third, O’Connell presents an ideal.  In reality, some days it is easier to genuflect that others.  Age and injury can make it harder to genuflect in the perfect manner described.  That is certainly my situation.  I have had some bad knee injuries from sports and my knees aren’t happy every day.

It is possible that the young who are in the sanctuary might be learning to genuflect to the "north-east" as you put it, from watching older men doing their best to continue to genuflect at all.   Also, it is a little easier to shift to the "north-east" when genuflecting on steps or where there is a kneeler. 

Yes… I think that sacred ministers and those who serve, as well as the faithful, should pay attention to how they genuflect, lest their signs of due reverence become sloppy through the distraction.  This can become habitual.  We should take care to teach children good habits.

Therefore, it is good to be reminded that an authoritative source offers such an idea.

At the same time, this is really not something I would fume about or pick on.  For example, I can imagine a scene in which a priest has been striving to implement Summorum Pontificum, perhaps taking a lot of flack for it.  I can imagine him trying to calm certain factions in the parish, train servers, get singers, struggle with the Latin every week, etc., only to be confronted in the sacristy be some indignant know-it-all who starts in on the priest’s taking off his biretta as he rises rather than before he rises, or genuflecting at the altar step slightly turned to the liturgical "north-east", or not having buckles on his shoes, or having some unpicked nits on the hem of his cassock…. which by the way is too short.

I can imagine it very well, because I have been the recipient of such comments in years past and I can assure you that they are not always as welcome as you might imagine.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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  1. Alice says:

    This reminds me of a story I heard when an abbot preached our parish mission one year.

    One day after Mass, a woman who was making a retreat at his abbey, came up to him and asked him if he knew that he was the chief liturgist at the monastery. When he said yes, she asked him if he knew what the word “genuflect” meant. He told her yes, the first part comes from the Latin word for knee and the second comes from the Latin word for bend. (He had taught Latin in the high school at some point before becoming the abbot.) She then told him that he needed to make the priest who offered Mass that morning genuflect. The abbot was quite taken aback by her manner. Finally, he told the woman, “Father X has had 5 knee surgeries. He can’t genuflect”.

    As the abbot then told us, he can deal with saints and sinners, but save us from “good” people!

  2. our previous pastor got on a snit one Sunday after Mass about genuflecting toward the Blessed Sacrament, off on the St Joesph altar, kind of awkward really, old Romanesque church and all. One oldtimer replied, I can’t help it you youngsters don’t seem to remember that Christ belongs front and center, not shunted off the to the side or in the pantry somewhere, put him back were he belongs! The look on Fr undies-in-a-knot’s face was priceless

  3. Frank H. says:

    And then there are the multitudes who, on Good Friday, genuflect towards the obviously empty Tabernacle.

  4. P.S. that old timer, now deceased, used to hobble in on a cane, hang it on the pew, grasp the end o the pew with both hands and you could hear his knees creek going down and up, we have young kids in our parish who can’t be bothered to barely bend the knee, and priest in question rerely genuflected, usually just bowed

  5. an alumna says:

    I am grateful for the multitudes that are there on Good Friday and that they are in the habit of genuflecting… and that it is such a strong habit that they slip up on occasion.

  6. dcs says:

    Another thing keeping one from a “proper” genuflection might be the amount of space in the sanctuary! I have assisted at Mass at one mission church where a somewhat sideways genuflection is the only option if one is facing the altar when offering Mass.

    And then there are the multitudes who, on Good Friday, genuflect towards the obviously empty Tabernacle.

    They are genuflecting toward the crucifix on the altar rather than toward the Blessed Sacrament.

  7. Clement says:

    Reverend Zuhlsdorf,

    This article brings to mind a question that I have.

    What authority and weight does Fr Fortescue’s book,”The Ceremonies of the Roman Rite Described”, hold? [If you read my entry, you will find my opinion.]

    In other words, is the book based on the official teaching of the Church on the rubrics and setting up of the offering of Holy Mass?

    For Instance: in one part of the book Father Fortescue states that there MUST always be 3 cloths on the altar during Mass.
    In another I see that he says that beeswax candles must be used for Mass. [Some things were legislated. When you read the book you can determine which things were a matter of decree from the Holy See and which were matters of opinion. The manner of genuflecting was opinion. The matter of altar cloths was legislated. If the book cites the documents, well… that is pretty clear.]

    I have seen, in many churches, both of these directives not observed.
    Are they required?

    I would never nitpick and mention this to a priest at Mass, rather I am just curious why father says these things in the book.
    Thank you

  8. fxavier says:

    On Good Friday and other occasions when the Blessed Sacrament is not reserved on the Altar, people genuflect towards the Crucifix and the Altar (which also symbolizes Christ, who is the Priest, the Altar, and the Sacrifice).

    In the Traditional Mass, acolytes must genuflect towards the Crucifix and Altar, even when the Sacrament is not present.

  9. Ron says:

    Thank you Fr. Z for posting this because I often wonder who made every Tom, Dick and Harry the liturgical police for the entire church. Don’t we go to Holy Mass to adore, love and worship God? How can we do that if we’re on red alert for every little thing wrong? Now if something is blatant and smacks you in the face even without looking for it, maybe, but to go around looking at every detail when it is not their place makes me wonder.

    A little humility and charity, it seems to me, goes a long way. I get tired of the nitpicking of some “traditionalists.”

    Pax Christi tecum.

  10. I can understand for those physically able to genuflect, (which I hammer on my teens for not doing so properly)

    To those that usually don’t genuflect there’s for the most part a physical problem (ignoring the Eastern Reverence). I know that for myself I have trouble genuflecting some days (half metal leg) and others I don’t.

  11. ssoldie says:

    Thank you Fr.Z I am 73 and have a hard time being able to genuflect as correctly and devoutly as I use to,( although our 88 year old Fr. Art Hoppe has no problem) and as far as kneeling to recieve my Lord, the alter rails are wonderful. I had always wondered at the N.O.M. why was there not even Prie-dieu so the laity who want to kneel to recieve could, as both kneeling and standing are both right. ‘just wonderin’

  12. Fr. Angel says:

    In the seminary, we thought it was odd that a certain elderly priest would go for a walk before the morning Mass, “to be able to genuflect and get the stiffness out of the joints.”

    When a person is young and fit, having difficulty genuflecting is the farthest thought from the mind. That priest just seemed odd to us.

    Now, I go for that walk before morning Mass. And I am barely in my mid-forties.

    The writer should give thanks that genuflecting has made a comeback. Not long ago, the only reverence Our Lord received in most churches was a slight nod of the head.

  13. Fr J says:

    A handy tip for Clergy genuflecting in cassock/vestments – in order to ensure one’s foot is covered by cloth as one genuflects, kick the hem back slightly… this will ensure one’s foot is covered and looks seemly (covering one’s shoe). Similarly when about to kneel. This move is also handy to ensure a fiddleback type chasuble doesn’t get caught on one’s ankle but slides outwards with the alb/cassock, thus preventing it from creasing or the aperture rising above one’s head (if a particularly stiff vestment). Also before kneeling, a slight forward motion whilst descending, should ensure one’s cassock falls ahead of one’s knees preventing the possibility of kneeling on buttons… a very painful experience indeed, especially when unexpected!

  14. I had exactly the same enquiry the other day… My reply was that if you are to genuflect on the step, it is more or less physically impossible not to turn slightly to the North East. Good perhaps to keep one’s head turned towards the tabernacle but let’s not allow O’Connell to drive us all crazy. He also says that when making the small signs of the cross at the gospel the priest should keep his thumb and fingers together and sign himself with the front part of the thumb. This is also impossible except for someone with an unusual thumb joint.

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