ASK FATHER: Where to bow or genuflect in confusing church

Genuflecting2From a reader…


I attend a “modern” church with the traditional long, central aisle. At one end (not the east) is the rose window above the wooden table that serves as an altar (ad popularum). At the other end is the Tabernacle in a small chapel with glass doors. Thus the tabernacle is just about as far from the altar as possible, but can be seen from the aisle through the glass doors. Some folks when they enter genuflect toward the bare altar, and bow when they cross from left to right in front of the altar (on their way to give a reading etc.). Before the consecration shouldn’t they bow toward the Tabernacle, and not the bare altar?

When Constantine legalized Christianity in the 4th c., the Church moved from worshipping in homes, caves, and makeshift gathering spaces into larger venues built (or in some cases, adapted) specifically for the worship of God. In times of persecution, the Church went back to worshipping in whatever space was available.

When persecution comes again (as it will) we’ll do the same.

In the meantime, we have the ability -now – to construct buildings specifically for the worship of God. We have a tradition of such structures, built by our forebears, upon which we can draw. From past constructs we can what works, and what doesn’t work.

We don’t need to re-invent the wheel.

There are those for whom “creativity” means starting with a blank slate, ignoring the past, and creating something altogether new. Beauty is irrelevant, what works is cliché, logic is thrown out the window (which usually contains some chips of colored glass in some abstract pattern). It’s a passing trend, but it’s something we have to deal with now.

Two hundred years from now art and architecture students will write theses entitled, “What WERE They Smoking in the 20th – 21st Century?

Reverence should always be shown to Our Lord. He is our Creator and Redeemer. We owe Him EVERYTHING. We genuflect when we pass before the Blessed Sacrament because throwing ourselves prostrate before the Lord of the Universe each and every time we encounter Him would simply be impractical.

Genuflecting3Yet, we also have liturgical law. In a spirit of humility, we should obey liturgical law. After all, the Church, which is properly deputized to do so, puts this in place to govern our actions when we worship God.

The current liturgical law in force for the Ordinary Form of the Roman Rite requires that the ministers genuflect when entering the sanctuary if the Blessed Sacrament is reserved there. They must also genuflect at the end of the Holy Mass as they leave. If the Blessed Sacrament is not reserved in the sanctuary, the ministers bow to the altar. During the Holy Mass, the ministers are instructed to bow to the altar when they pass it.

Happily we also have now the full use of the Extraordinary Form.  It is to be hoped that the Extraordinary Form will exert a powerful “gravitational pull” on the hearts and minds and knees of the faithful, and then upon the rubrics and laws of the Ordinary Form.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. gramma10 says:

    Perhaps people need to really, really know, understand and believe that Christ is quite alive and present in the mass (Eucharist) and the (Bread) Eucharist. I think they would then automatically bow to the King.

    Seems like people want to know only the rules. Rules are good but it sure helps for them to understand them also!

    Thanks to you Father! You UN-confuse us…. we can then understand the why’s and wherefores of so many Catholic ‘behaviors, traditions and rules’. Thank you.

  2. jflare says:

    “At the other end is the Tabernacle in a small chapel with glass doors.”

    Do I understand this correctly to mean that the Tabernacle resides in a small chapel close to the entry to the church building? That the altar, where the sacrifice of Mass is actually offered, sits on the other end? If so, I’m reminded of occasions when I’ve walked into a sanctuary of the “communal”, semi-circular variety, wherein the Tabernacle set in a small chapel in a rear corner. ..Almost like they had a “cry room” first, then decided to adapt it to be a “chapel”. It seemed to me quite awkward to walk into the church, walk to near the front while looking for the Tabernacle, then genuflect backward to acknowledge His presence in the building.

    I would also comment that if I understand the layout correctly, they’ll be prone to have a bottleneck at the entrance, as people genuflect to the Lord.
    Maybe encouraging this might offer..”encouragement” move the Tabernacle to a more realistic place under the Rose window?

  3. Lin says:

    On occasion, we attend a church where the tabernacle is in a chapel with a glass wall and doors right in the lobby. Very few pay any attention to HIS presence as they pass back and forth before and after Mass. I genuflect in the lobby when I enter and exit the church in a way so as not to disturb others moving about the lobby. And also when entering and exiting the pews even though there is no tabernacle in the church. And no kneelers, I may add. I would love to go back to the Latin mass but I fear there are no priests left who are still able to say it! At least, not where I live. I want rules and traditions! I can’t be alone!

  4. Boniface says:

    I genuflect towards the tabernacle WHEREVER it is at least once upon entering a church, even if it means doing so in the vestibule. I also bow towards the altar, unless the genuflection to a properly-placed tabernacle renders the bow redundant.

    Don’t genuflect towards just the altar, though.

  5. Papabile says:

    I always used to bow toward the altar and genuflect to the tabernacle.

    However, since Universae Ecclesiae clarified that that since Summorum Ponticum derogates from the liturgical law those things which are incompatible with the 1962 rite, I have reverted to the previous practice of:

    1. Genuflecting to the tabernacle.
    2. Genuflecting to the Altar Cross in the absence of the Tabernacle.

    Some people seem to have a problem with number 2, though in some ways this is still maintained in the Novus Ordo from Good Friday through Easter Vigil. See the IGMR:

    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.

    Note, the new practice only does this during solemn adoration. In the old tradition, it was maintained as a sign of respect for the incarnation and sacrafice represented on the altar cross. Hence the genuflections during the Creed and Last Gospel in the Old Rite also.

  6. Kate says:

    When I enter a church that I am unfamiliar with and do not see a tabernacle “front and center” where it ought to be, I genuflect and say to Our Lord, “I don’t know where they’ve put You, but I love You.” Some people may see me and think I am misinformed and genuflecting towards an altar, but they’d be wrong…

  7. Augustine Thompson O.P. says:

    Actually, as Father Z knows (I am not correcting him), the Novus Ordo practice of bowing to the altar, if the sacrament is not reserved there, and genuflecting if it is, has not changed from the pre-1962 rubrics. I am not talking about genuflection when passing before the tabernacle during Mass: that was done in the Roman Rite, but not in the Dominican (we, as in the NO bowed when passing before the Sacrament during the Mass). The problem now is the odd positioning of the tabernacle. If it were really in a truly separate chapel (was it was required to be in Cathedrals in the old days), this awkwardness would not occur. The problem now is the semi-present sacrament in a visible place (in the vestibule, on the side of the sanctuary, etc). This is worse than having the Sacrament in a wholly separate chapel. By the way, I am NOT arguing for forbidding the tabernacle to be centrally located in the Sanctuary. I favor that, and ad orientem.

    On the other hand, I remember the pre-Vatican II period well as I was alive at that time, and people did not (for the most part) actually genuflect (in my ordinary NY parish). They did a kind of curtsy where the right knee never touched the floor at all. It was a kind of bended knee jerk. It all looked kind of silly to me as a kid. And many didn’t even get to a knee bend, just a kind of body fidget. I made a point of having my knee hit the floor with a thud to express my opinion on this. At least now the genuflectors get the knee to the ground (occasionally). Some people cannot genuflect because of physical problems, fine then and now. But I would rather see a profound bow (hands as low as the knees) than the pseudo-genuflections of my youth. But most bows seem to be just a head jerk. Perhaps imitating the Pre-Vat-2 knee jerk?

  8. jacobi says:

    We have to be careful about dismissing all Jesuits as bad. Some are, some aren’t, just as with Dominicans, some of whom are very good. My Jesuit upbringing was excellent both doctrinally and liturgically.

    What worries me about this matter is how the Pope and the Vatican are reacting . Who are these “Vatican authorities” and just what remit and responsibilities do they have? And as usual we are not getting a clear lead from the Holy Father who again appears to be telling all what they want to hear. He should come out clearly in defence of the Magisterium, and if not should say what his position is. At least then we would all know where we are.

    Oh what interesting times we live in!

  9. Sliwka says:

    Regarding the knee jerk and the head bob, the same thing happens to some Byzantine Catholics and Orthodox when crossing themselves thrice. What happens is an odd circle your hand makes and looks like you are swatting flies.

    I do not want to say it comes from a lack of faith but perhaps lack of intentionality, you do it so often it becomes shortened. We do the same thing with spoken languages.

  10. jacobi says:

    Apologies, apologies. Have posted on the wrong section. Still early in the morning here!

    Re genuflecting, I personally always bow in the direction, if I know it, of the tabernacle when entering and leaving church.

    The problem will be solved in any case in my diocese. We will shortly be closing down a lot of churches due to lack of priests, falling Mass attendance and therefore and of course, lack of money. I trust most of those ghastly post-Vat II structures will disappear.

    The church I grew up with, referred to above, is impressive, central tabernacle, and I hope will stay, but there aren’t many Jesuits in it now?

  11. iamlucky13 says:

    When my schedule leads me to attend the nearest church instead of the one I normally favor, I’m always, every single time, struck by how most of the people there ignore Our Lord – more so than most other church’s.

    The tabernacle in this church is located in a chapel that is clearly visible through large windows in the back corner of the nave. This chapel gets used during Mass as a crying room. I would tend to think that’s an inappropriate place to deal with a fussy child when there is a separate crying room, but I was apparently mistaken: I recently found out the parents who do that are there because it’s impossible to concentrate on the Mass in the designated crying room, because there’s too many conversations going on at normal speaking volumes there.

    Anyways, regardless of whether it is mandated in that arrangement to genuflect when crossing before the tabernacle, I do so. My hope, other than to foster my own recognition and reverence of Our Lord, is that others will notice and start to think about why someone would choose to genuflect to the tabernacle instead of the altar, as those who attempt any gesture of reverence there normally do. I think of it as a form of quiet catechesis that this parish seems to really need.

    Unfortunately, I think it goes largely unnoticed. Before Mass, people are too busy with their conversations. After Mass, almost nobody is left in the church by the end of the closing hymn.

  12. Nicolas Bellord says:

    When the sacrament is exposed a double genuflection is customary. However for older people unless there is something to hang onto genuflection can be difficult and one bows instead. I do wish they would put the altar rails back so that I could kneel for communion and not trip over the step. If I do injure myself tripping over the step because of the absence of communion rails I intend to sue for every last penny on health and safety grounds. You have been warned. :-)

  13. Boniface says:

    Fr Augustine Thompson: brilliant comment as always… “body fidget”! I don’t often laugh aloud on front of my screen, so thanks for that.

    While I’m too young to remember the “pre-V2” days, I have still seen what you are talking about.

    It reminds me of the haphazard way one can approach the sign of the cross, as well. I once read a mention of someone’s personal encounter with St. Bernadette Soubirous, and her signing herself with “that majestic sign of the cross that she learned from Our Lady of Lourdes.” I may not have the exact quote here, but it made a great impression on me since then.

  14. Magash says:

    At the parish where I am a catechist things are trending in the right direction. A small number of adults, which includes all of the catechists, are very diligent about genuflecting as they pass the Eucharistic Chapel , which is at the rear of the Church. Those same adult dutifully and profoundly bow as they enter the pew or cross before the altar. Many other adults do not, however I see the youth following the example of their teachers.
    Last week we ended our youth group meeting in the sanctuary. We were there to silently pray, and to have them write a prayer intention, which would then go into a basket which would be reference in the prayer of the faithful the following week. “And we ask for the intentions of our youth…etc.” The youth were spread throughout the pews as they filled out their intentions and a choir member sang Ave Maria while they wrote. As they finished their intention and went forward to silently drop them into a basket set before the altar I began to notice how almost every one made a profound bow before the altar. Likewise we we exited, each turned toward the Eucharist Chapel as they passed it and genuflected. As we had headed to the chapel, since we don’t normally go into the church during youth nights, the Youth Minister had said to them, “Remember where you’re going.” I guess they did.

  15. Gerard Plourde says:

    Like Nicholas, I find that in the past year my knees have ceased to permit me to genuflect reliably absent a pew to hold onto. This infirmity may also explain the “body fidget” half-genuflection that I also regularly witnessed in the pre Vatican II church. The small, nagging pains caused by rheumatism and arthritis rob us of mobility but at the same time offer us a reminder and an opportunity to couple our comparatively minor sufferings to those of Our Lord.

  16. JesusFreak84 says:

    I usually attend an Eastern Rite parish, and bowing is more common there, so I wind up executing bows or genuflections depending on the “mode” in which my brain is at that moment.

  17. Giuseppe says:

    I went to a church for a few years where the high altar had been removed, replaced with a table for versus populum worship. There was a slightly smaller version of these altar tables on the right and left. The left has a gorgeous status of Mary, usually adorned with flowers. The right altar had the tabernacle sitting on it.

    I solved the genuflecting problem by entering sitting on the right side, entering the right aisle, and then genuflecting forward, which was genuflecting to the tabernacle altar.

    Why Jesus doesn’t reside behind the main altar of a modern church is beyond me. It’s like living in a hotel instead of the papal apartments…

  18. ray from mn says:

    If there is a large, great crucifix [not the “resurrection” type] behind the altar, which there should be, there is nothing wrong with bowing to the crucifix.

  19. MrsMacD says:

    I have a similar problem when I go to Mass in a nearby town. It’s a beautiful old church, slightly run down, but built in the old style. Weekday Masses are said in the sacristy, which is a little chapel in an of it’s self, with a lovely statue of the Immaculate Heart behind the altar/table. What confuses me is that the sanctuary door is open and Jesus is exactly opposite from the altar, so when I enter I genuflect facing the back of the chapel, the sanctuary of the main church. It wouldn’t make sense to bow towards the altar with Our Lord right there on the other side. Once out of embarrassment I bowed towards the main altar and didn’t genuflect towards our Lord but I felt like I had betrayed Him, so I told Him I was sorry and do the awkward thing.

  20. Andrew says:

    Eurythmia est venusta species commodusque in compositionibus membrorum aspectus. Haec efficitur, cum membra operis convenientia sunt altitudinis ad latitudinem, latitudinis ad longitudinem, et ad summam omnia respondent suae symmetriae.
    (Vitruvius: de Architectura: Lib. 1: Cap. 2 no. 3)

    (Eurythmia is the attractive appeal and the agreeable harmony of the parts featured. This is accomplished by having the parts properly matched: the height to the width, the width to the length, and above all by having everything respond to its own symmetry.)

    I have been to contemporary sanctuaries (who hasn’t?) where all symmetry was deliberately disturbed so that one could not perceive where the front is, where the back and where the sides are.

  21. Bob Glassmeyer says:

    Kate, very well said! I, too, genuflect out of respect toward the Blessed Sacrament, even if I don’t see a Tabernacle.

    Certainly, bowing can honor Our Lord, and if someone is infirm, has crippling arthritis in the knees, etc., surely Our Lord is pleased when they do Him homage by bowing.

    When one bows to the altar whilst in the Sanctuary, IMHO, one ought to face away from the congregation when doing so. I can’t help it, but it looks like people are bowing to the congregation when they bow facing the people. I find that it’s best if I don’t look at what’s happening in the Sanctuary most of the time, because wanting to immolate myself would be a bit off-putting to the other folks in church.

    “They have taken away my Lord, and I don’t know where they have put Him.”

  22. Joe in Canada says:

    I have a question regarding the current liturgical law. When the Tabernacle is not in the Sanctuary, I understand that the Ministers bow to the Altar when they enter and leave the Sanctuary. If Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion enter the Sanctuary after the Agnus Dei, should they genuflect to the Blessed Sacrament Which is on the Altar at that point?

  23. iamlucky13 says:

    My instinct is to say yes on genuflecting to the Blessed Sacrament on the altar, but I don’t know if there is an actual instruction to that effect or specifically calling for a bow. I just know that it’s extremely rare to see a genuflection in that situation except at a couple of religious communities I’ve occasionally had the fortune to attend Mass at.

    While reading the latest posts, I just remembered an opposite issue – being so used to genuflecting that you do it reflexively in a familiar-feeling environment.

    I’ve done it in protestant church’s before. I don’t think I’ve ever done it any of the more embarrassing situations, but I’ve had friends admit to doing it in aisles of movie theaters and aircraft.

  24. Suburbanbanshee says:

    If the Blessed Sacrament isn’t actually reserved anywhere inside the nave or sanctuary of the church building, and it’s actually in another, entirely enclosed chapel room behind a wall (even if it’s a glass wall), my reasoning is that the tabernacle has basically been put out of reach of kneeling. You’re pretty much in the position of walking along outside the church and greeting the tabernacle from there.

    Albeit it’s a great and pious thing to kneel in His direction, anyway. Hagan lio!

    A lot of these kinds of weirdly set-up parishes also provide weird seating that allows you to look directly or sideways at the tabernacle and the altar at the same time.

    The other thing to do would be to go in for a minute and visit with Him in the chapel on your way in, and do your kneeling directly.

  25. We went from an EF Mass presided over by the FSSP (who know how to do things right!) to a better-than-average OF Mass. My 3 boys are altar servers and haven’t been given clear instructions as to when to genuflect/bow when they are setting up the altar/lighting candles, etc. before Mass. It seems that 1/2 the time they genuflect to the tabernacle in the center of the old high altar and 1/2 they bow to the altar table which is situated 10 feet in front of it. There wasn’t any of this confusion in the FSSP parish- boys learned pretty early on what to do and when, but since there was no altar table in the middle to confuse things it wasn’t hard to figure out on our own. Since there doesn’t seem to be a consistent rule, what should they do?

  26. mlmc says:

    after remodeling our church a few years ago, the chapel is now in a separate room next to the entrance of the church (before remodeling it was behind the altar-the altar is now at the old entrance i.e. turned around). So now I genuflect upon entering the church (in the direction of the chapel) & then walk down the aisle to my seat & bow towards the altar. At the end of mass I reverse the procedure. Any opinions on if this is correct?

  27. jflare says:

    “I trust most of those ghastly post-Vat II structures will disappear. ”

    I’m sure we all hope so, jabobi. Sadly, things don’t always work out that way.

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