A: I usually hear this question during one of the first sessions of an inquiry class with folks who are exploring whether they might become Catholic. Often they have been tripped by a Catholic who suddenly disappeared right in front of them…or (though none have ever admitted it) some might be suspicious that it is a secret Catholic trick to point out the non-Catholics.
Have no fear! Most Catholics have no idea that this gesture of reverence might trip someone behind them, which is why many of them don't think to warn you in advance what is going on.
The word “genuflect” means to bend, as in flex, the knee. This simple act is a way to fulfill what the Lord swears in Isaiah 45:23, which is repeated in St. Paul's letter to the Romans 14:11 and echoed in Philippians 2:10: “To me every knee shall bend.”
The manner of bending the knee is to touch the ground with one's right knee. A friend of mine used to demonstrate that this puts one at a distinct disadvantage, a literally awkward position, by easily pushing a genuflecting person to the ground. Like holding out a swordless right hand, genuflecting shows the other that we mean no harm—and even place ourselves at the mercy of the person we are encountering.
Genuflecting, then, is a gesture of obedience and humility
used before a king or queen, and most appropriately used before God.
a Catholic genuflects toward the tabernacle
normally at the beginning and end of Mass especially just before entering the pew to begin praying, but whenever they pass in front of the tabernacle at other times during visits to a church. Notice that I just said
a Catholic genuflects, but in the rest of the article I have been demonstrating
a Catholic genuflects. You see,
it is not really to the tabernacle, but to the Lord Jesus present in the tabernacle
that we bend our knee. For within the tabernacle, we find the Blessed Sacrament; Jesus, who is made present in the Mass, remains present in the Body in the tabernacle for those who come to pray or for those who will need to receive Him because they are sick or homebound.
This is also why
you will sometimes see confusion among Catholics
at the great pilgrimage churches, like St. Peter's Basilica in Rome. We will walk into an unfamiliar church and
automatically genuflect toward the altar
, where the tabernacle is located in many of our home parishes. Then, noticing that there is no red sanctuary lamp (the candle that usually burns near the tabernacle), we will begin to look about, honking and craning our necks like a flock of lost geese, wondering where they have taken Jesus! What we ought to do is bow toward the altar and make our way to the Chapel of Repose or Adoration Chapel—which at St. Peter's is labeled “SILENCIO” (silence) for the sake of those who are praying within. Once inside we can calmly genuflect on one or two knees, since the Blessed Sacrament is normally set out for adoration, and take some time to pray.
One last word to the Catholics who are tripping their non-Catholic friends in the aisles: The Scriptures I have quoted above begin by talking about bending our knees to God, but these verses all end with every tongue speaking about Him. One way we fulfill that part is by telling our friends what is going to happen, and then explaining why we do what we do. Even if we say, “I don't know, but I'll find out by writing to the DCA,” we're ten steps ahead of shrugging and saying, “It's just what we do.” Our actions certainly speak louder than our words, but our Lord asks for our actions
our words—even if it's a polite word of warning so our friends don't fall down.
Fr. Streifel is pastor of the Church of St. Joseph in Dickinson.
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