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Why Genuflect? Kneeling at Mass and Adoration

January 5, 2010 by  
Filed under Dan Burke, Liturgy, Mass, Prayer, Prayer Posture, Sacraments

Why Genuflect?

When a man is proud, he stands tall; his posture reflects his self-perception. When a good man (one who is not suffering with excessive pride) is in the presence of greatness, he knows to humble himself genuflectwhether it be in posture or expression.  His instinct is to lower himself and he, in some way, knows to acknowledge the greatness before him and to adjust his heart, and height, downward.  The difficulty with modern culture is that without Kings and Queens, we don't know what to do with this instinct.  As well, we are taught from our youth to be independent, to question authority, to never consider another as more important than we are – never to bring ourselves low as Jesus did when he washed the disciples feet.

The only place in modern western culture (outside of Church) where we still occasionally kneel is when men propose marriage (though it seems even this noble custom is fading).  Why does a man do this?  Because he knows that this posture expresses reverence and love toward his desired bride.  It communicates that he holds her in high esteem and is willing to lower himself to her judgment, to serve her, to honor her.

So, when we kneel in Church the sentiment expressed in this gesture should be in keeping with all of these good instincts. Stop for a moment and imagine if you were suddenly drawn into the presence of the King of Kings.  What would happen to the heart, soul, and body of any person of good-will? Scripture indicates that even holy men are inclined to fall to the ground in the face of Ultimate Holiness or its representatives. Scripture also points out that eventually “every knee shall bow…” (Romans 14:11) whether now, or at the final judgment.

With these perspectives in mind how should we practice kneeling or genuflection in a way that is consistent with our understanding and desire?

It is pretty simple really.  When we are in a Catholic Church, we are in the presence of the King of Kings; so, we should act like it. In that light, would a sweeping mindless and lighting fast non-committal bend or quick jerk of the knee toward the floor suffice? The key question for all of us really is, what would we do if we really believed what we were in the presence of God Almighty?

VicenteCarduchoElPaular04PrayingChapelChurchKneelAs with everything in our lives, we can use our circumstances, our gifts, our work, or any capability we have to bring us closer to God.  The key is the disposition of our hearts and the commensurate exercise of our will. Here's a proposed approach for the next time we walk into a Church:

  1. Approach the sanctuary slowly – don't rush in to find a seat – instead enter in to worship.
  2. Recognize where you are and focus on that reality.  Look to the tabernacle and acknowledge you are before the King of Kings.
  3. Move your body in a way that expresses what is real in your heart and mind – or at least what you desire to be real. Stop and kneel – right knee – all the way down to the floor and pause for a second.  Say a prayer honoring Him – the “glory be” is good prayer, or just say “thank you Lord, help me know and honor you.”  Make the sign of the cross, and slowly rise and then kneel again in the pew to further prepare your heart for your encounter with God.

With respect to norms, the Church provides us with several opportunities to practice reverence and prayer in this way before, during, and after each mass (at least for those who are physically able):

Always Before the Blessed Sacrament:

The Ceremonial of Bishops states it beautifully and simply (CB 69).

“A genuflection, made by bending only the right knee to the ground, signifies adoration, and is therefore reserved for the Blessed Sacrament, whether exposed or reserved in the tabernacle…”

Inaestimabile Donum also reflects on this beautiful expression and the related disposition of the heart (ID 26)

“This venerable practice of genuflecting before the Blessed Sacrament, whether enclosed in the tabernacle or publicly exposed, as a sign of adoration, is to be maintained. This act requires that it be performed in a recollected way. In order that the heart may bow before God in profound reverence, the genuflection must be neither hurried nor careless.” (ID 26)

Before and after Mass It is the norm to genuflect when passing before the Blessed Sacrament in the tabernacle (every time before mass).  The Ceremonial of Bishops (CB 71) says,

“No one who enters a Church should fail to adore the Blessed Sacrament either by visiting the Blessed Sacrament chapel or at least by Genuflecting. Similarly those who pass before the Blessed sacrament genuflect, except when they are walking in procession.”

The simple act of bending the knee, when turned from an empty motion into one that expresses heartfelt reverence, will properly guide our hearts to worship in a way that is personally fruitful and truly pleasing to Him. As well, it will aid in the proper disposition of our hearts to be better prepared to receive the greats gifts He has in store for us in the mass or adoration.

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Art for this post on why we genuflect: Graphic depicting a genuflection at church in the presence of Christ provided by Dan Burke from private collection, of unknown provenance. El padre Artaldo rezando en la cartuja de Portes (Father Artaldo praying in the Carthusian monastery at Portes), Vicente Carducho, 1626-1632, PD-US author's life plus 100 years or less, Wikimedia Commons.

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About Dan Burke

Dan is the President of the Avila Foundation, the parent organization of SpiritualDirection.com, the Avila Institute for Spiritual Formation, Divine Intimacy Radio and Divine Intimacy Radio - Resources Edition, Into the Deep Parish Programs, the Apostoli Viae (Apostles of the Way) Community, and the FireLight Student Leadership Formation Program, author of the award-winning book, Navigating the Interior Life - Spiritual Direction and the Journey to God, Finding God Through Meditation-St. Peter of Alcantara, 30 Days with Teresa of Avila, Into the Deep, Living the Mystery of Merciful Love: 30 Days with Thérèse of Lisieux, and his newest book The Contemplative Rosary with St. John Paul II and St. Teresa of Avila. Beyond his "contagious" love for Jesus and His Church, he is a grateful husband and father of four, the Executive Director of and writer for EWTN's National Catholic Register, a regular co-host on Register Radio, a writer and speaker who provides online spiritual formation and travels to share his conversion story and the great riches that the Church provides us through authentic Catholic spirituality. Dan has been featured on EWTN's Journey Home program and numerous radio programs.

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  • Mike

    Fabulous information on how to properly genuflect, and and reason why we do this. Thanks for the teaching!

  • Marie

    I agree that this is wonderful information on how and why we genuflect. The problem is that so many of the churches in my dioceses have removed the tabernacles from the body of the church that no one knows this is to be done. Along with not having the tabernacle there are also no statues of the Blessed Mother or St. Joseph to draw our attention away from ourselves or our neighbors. Unfortunately many of the churches I attend have people talking to their neighbor rather than preparing, adoring or contemplating God and the Sacrifice of the Mass. Changes are in the works to try and bring the tabernacles out but no one has the money now to renovate the church to put not only the tabernacle back in its rightful place but also to put the kneelers back in.
    Thanks for the information.

    • I always thought that if I could contribute to a restoration that I would require that the Tabernacle be permanently anchored into the concrete foundation of the church. 😉

  • Helen

    Let’s just be careful not to let our reverence devolve into obnoxious ostentation that is a distraction to others and a source of pride for ourselves.

    • Agreed – a gentle faithfulness with a focus on Christ…

    • veronica

      A sweet reminder Helen. Thank you.

  • Guest

    Thank you Fr. Dan for reminding us all of how we should greet our King, Lord, Master, Redeemer Jesus Christ in the Blessed Sacrament. I just wonder, have the Catechists stopped teaching their catecumens on how to approach and adore God in the Blessed Sacrament?. Observing the various ways the faithful conduct themselves upon entering the Church or the Adoration Chapel, I have been wondering what has happened to our old well-ingrained teaching on the Catholic behaviour before the King of Kings.

  • ralyge

    Dan,

    Thanks for great post. Many genuflect with both knees when the Blessed Sacrament is exposed but with only one knee when it is not. Is the above better, because it is an act of obedience? Is the above consistent with the General Instruction of the Roman Missal. How do we explain that genuflecting with one knee is just as reverent as two?

  • Woody Jones

    Dan,

    Many thanks for this great posting. May I add one more aspect: proper dress? After all, since we are going to meet our Kiong, should we not want to honor Him with being dressed as well as we can be, given our particular circumstances? As someone once said to me, if you were going to meet even Queen Elizabeth at one of her famous garden parties, you would not go dressed in a sports shirt (or worse) would you? While it may seem at first to be ostentatious to be “dressed up” for Mass, my own experience is that one soon gets over that feeling. And who knows, maybe one would be a good example to some other as well?

    Keep up the good work,
    Woody Jones

    • Thank you for the encouragement Woody! Thank you as well for your love for Christ and His church.

  • Catholic Churches now have no tabernacle in the main church. People talk and visit before Mass, like they do at a Broadway play before the curtain goes up.

    BRING BACK THE TABERNACLE INTO THE CHURCHES (and also the large crucifix)!

  • MLouiseM

    I am one of many Adorers in my parish. We are very blessed to have perpetual Adoration. Unfortunately, I have a herniated disc and cannot kneel until it heals. It is causing me spiritual suffering because I cannot adore our Lord on my knees. I never thought being unable to kneel would affect me in this way.

    • I am sorry to hear of your sufferings. I am certain that if you are kneeling on the inside and doing your best on the outside that God is pleased with your offering of love.

  • I believe I read somewhere that those in the Eastern Catholic churches don’t kneel or genuflect at all…. something about standing being a sign of respect in the East. I don’t think they practice Eucharistic Adoration either. Any thoughts on this?

    • Yes – I attend an Eastern Rite Catholic parish. Kneeling is infrequent. However, it is still a sign of reverence – just reserved for different times during worship than in the west. The key is to be obedient and docile for the love of Christ to the tradition God has placed you in…

    • I attend an eastern rite parish – they do kneel – as in the west. However, not always at the same times and places. In fact, it was an eastern saint (Abba Appollo) who said that the devil had no knees…

      They also do practice Eucharistic Adoration.

  • jyots

    Father, your explanations are really so good but I would like to note that genuflection as a western custom. It is foreign to us. In India, to show reverence we usually bow our heads, lower our eyes and put our palms together in namaste gesture. To show extreme reverence (as when Blessed Sacrament is exposed), we fall down and touch our foreheads to the ground. I hope this is ok.

    • Dear Friend, my wife would be happy to report that I am not a priest! Your note is a very welcome reminder of the diversity of Christ’s beautiful Church. Thank you for the reminder and a few details regarding how you honor our Lord in India!

    • Another irony about your post is that though I attend the Roman liturgy daily, on Sunday my home parish is Maronite – not too much kneeling there though it is very very reverent.

  • Dawn

    Our parish priest taught us to kneel with the right knee when the Blessed Sacrament was not exposed, but to kneel with both knees before the exposed Blessed Sacrament. I have even noticed some who kneel with both knees and then lower their heads to the ground for a brief moment when entering or exiting the adoration chapel. Can you comment on this?

    • My apologies – I am not acquainted with the rubrics regarding adoration. I do find myself in the chapel often and generally follow the guidelines that your priest relayed.

  • Guest

    We have Perpetual Adoration in our parish in Syracuse NY. People frequently come in, say “Hi” to each other either in full voice or whisper. Others will gab about how one is doing. I have recently turned and told people – I wish my voice would have been a little less authoritative – that there is supposed to be silence in the presence of our Lord, and to please go outside and speak. To another I mentioned that if Jesus is trying to say something to the person talking he/she may miss it by focusing on saying hi to me. It’s hard, but I don’t respond and guess I’m being seen as a “too too holy holy either that or antisocial. I’m not. It’s such a precious time. People can go have coffee … so … what’s the Church say about decorum during Adoration. (The talking in general in Church after/before Mass is way out there. I wish the clergy would say something.)

    • The root cause is lack of belief in the real presence. If Christ was really present to all of us, the only thing happening would be worship.

  • Kniblock

    this was perfect for th eproject im doing. o know God is gratefull that you help and teach about God.

  • Red

    Fantastic article! Thank You for sharing such wonderfulness. God Bless!

  • Joyce

    Our priest does not genuflect – he only bows. I have never asked why. He looks able enough to genuflect. It disturbs me because half of those attending Mass, only bow, from kids to seniors.

    • LizEst

      Please do not assume that he can genuflect. There can be many physical reasons for it–bad knees, good knees but little to strength to get up without making a big deal of it, dizziness, etc. Some people who can kneel have great difficulty with genuflecting. Sometimes, the ones who are unable to genuflect, are masking an even greater physical difficulty. Unless one is a physician–or in the medical field–and could possibly help, I wouldn’t ask either.

  • When my family went to Italy last May, hardly anyone knelt before Holy Communion. They just stood. I felt uncomfortable about that. I knelt anyway. Sometimes when I attend Mass in small prayer room chapels or homes, people don’t follow all the rules in standing and kneeeling. It makes me self-conscious to still follow them, but it feels so wrong not to. Especially kneeling during Consecration and before and after Holy Communion.

    • LizEst

      MariaGo–First of all, the postures prescribed are not the same everywhere, according to what different bishops’ conferences have prayerfully decided. For an example, go here to the US Catholic Bishops’ site where, in an excerpt from the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (which is binding), it says “in the United States”: http://www.usccb.org/prayer-and-worship/the-mass/order-of-mass/liturgy-of-the-eucharist/posture-during-the-eucharistic-prayer-and-our-father.cfm So, that’s the first thing.

      Second, the reason one is self-conscious with kneeling during times like these can indicate a heart divided about what is right before God and what is right before the world, a concern about how one looks before others. When Christ says to be careful about doing good things in order that people may see them (cf Matthew 6:1), the corallary to that, especially in this day and age, is to be careful about not doing good things because people are seeing you.

      So, go ahead and kneel for love of God and because it is right before Him. Keep practicing it and ask for the grace that your heart be less and less and less divided, until it is finally one with His heart and His will. God wants this for you as well. May He richly bless you as you continue to seek Him and to seek His will for you.

      • Thanks! Learned a lot! Will pray for a purer heart! 🙂

        • LizEst

          Great, MariaGo!
          ps. I kneel, too!

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