Religion Wiki

1909 drawing of Hermod genuflecting before Hela, from Norse mythology

Capt. James A. Symonds, Commanding Officer of the USS Ronald Reagan, genuflects while presenting the former American President's casket flag to former First Lady Nancy Reagan

Genuflection (or genuflexion), bending at least one knee to the ground, was from early times a gesture of deep respect for a superior. In 328 BC, Alexander the Great introduced into his court etiquette some form of genuflection already in use in Persia.[1] In the Byzantine Empire even senators were required to genuflect to the emperor.[2] In medieval Europe, one demonstrated respect for a king or noble by going down on one knee.[3]

The Latin word genuflectio, from which the English word is derived, originally meant kneeling rather than the rapid dropping to one knee and immediately rising that became customary in Western Europe in the Middle Ages.[4]

Genuflecting to a bishop

From the custom of genuflecting to kings and other nobles arose the custom by which lay people or clergy of lesser rank genuflect to a prelate and kiss his episcopal ring,[5] as a sign of acceptance of the bishop's apostolic authority as representing Christ in the local church.[6]

Genuflecting before the bishop of the diocese to which one belongs was treated as obligatory in editions of the Caeremoniale Episcoporum earlier than that of 1985.[7]

In the same period, the clergy genuflected when passing before the bishop of the diocese when he presides at a liturgical ceremony. But the officiating priest, as also all prelates, canons, etc., were dispensed, and substituted a bow of the head and shoulders for the genuflection.[8]

The present Catholic liturgical books exclude genuflecting to a bishop during the liturgy: "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."[9] But outside of the liturgy some continue to genuflect or kneel to kiss a bishop's ring.[10]

Genuflection to the Blessed Sacrament

Francis of Assisi in genuflection (painting by Francisco Zurbarán)

The practice of genuflecting to the Blessed Sacrament, in particular when arriving or leaving its presence, has grown up only in the Latin Rite Catholic Church, and even there is a relatively modern replacement for the profound bowing down of head and body that is still maintained in the East as the supreme act of liturgical reverence.[8]

It was only during the later Middle Ages, centuries after it had become customary to genuflect to persons in authority, such as bishops, that the practice of genuflecting to the Blessed Sacrament was introduced and gradually spread, becoming viewed as obligatory only from the end of the fifteenth century. 1502 has been given as the date of its formal recognition. For a long time after it became usual to raise the consecrated Host and Chalice after the Consecration so as to show them to the people, no obligatory genuflections accompanied it.[8]

The rule whereby before the Blessed Sacrament unveiled as at Expositions (but not when lying on the corporal during Mass) one genuflected on both knees[8] was altered in 1973, with the introduction of the rule: "Genuflection in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament, whether reserved in the tabernacle or exposed for public adoration, is on one knee."[11][12]

The General Instruction of the Roman Missal lays down the following rules for genuflections during Mass:

Three genuflections are made by the priest celebrant: namely, after the showing of the host, after the showing of the chalice, and before Communion. Certain specific features to be observed in a concelebrated Mass are noted in their proper place.
If, however, the tabernacle with the Most Blessed Sacrament is present in the sanctuary, the priest, the deacon, and the other ministers genuflect when they approach the altar and when they depart from the sanctuary, but not during the celebration of Mass itself.
Otherwise all who pass before the Most Blessed Sacrament genuflect, unless they are moving in procession.
Ministers carrying the processional cross or candles bow their heads instead of genuflecting.[9]

The Tridentine Mass requires more numerous genuflections to the Blessed Sacrament during Mass.

Other genuflections in the liturgy

Genuflection or kneeling is prescribed at various points of the Roman Rite liturgy, such as after the mention of Jesus' death on the cross in the readings of the Passion during Holy Week

A genuflection is made before the Holy Cross from the solemn adoration during the liturgical celebration on Good Friday until the beginning of the Easter Vigil.[9]

A genuflection is made at the mention of the Incarnation in the words et incarnatus est de Spiritu Sancto, ex Maria Virgine, et homo factus est ("by the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate of the Virgin Mary, and was made man") in the Creed on the solemnities of Christmas and the Annunciation.

In the Tridentine Mass this genuflection is made on any day on which the Creed is recited at Mass, as well as at several other points:

  • at the words et Verbum caro factum est ("and the Word became flesh")[13] in the prologue of the Gospel of John, which is the usual Last Gospel as well as the Gospel for the third Mass on Christmas.
  • at the words et procidentes adoraverunt eum ("and falling down they adored him") in the Gospel for the Epiphany, Matthew 2:1-12
  • during the Tract said on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays in Lent
  • at the end of the Gospel for Wednesday in the Fourth Week of Lent, John 9:1-38, at the words et procidens adoravit eum ("and falling down he adored him")
  • during the Epistle on Palm Sunday (Philippians 2:5-11), at the words ut in nomine Iesu omne genu flectatur caelestium, terrestrium et infernorum ("that in the name of Jesus every knee should bow of those that are in heaven, on earth, and under the earth")
  • during the Alleluia before the Sequence Veni, sancte Spiritus during the Octave of Pentecost
  • during the Epistle on 3 May, the feast of the Invention of the Holy Cross, the same as for Palm Sunday
  • during the Epistle on 14 September, the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, the same as for Palm Sunday
  • in the votive Mass of the Holy Ghost, during the Tract or Alleluia, which is the same verse as during Pentecost
  • during the Epistle of the votive Mass of the Passion of the Lord, Philippians 8-11, the same words as on Palm Sunday
  • during the votive Mass for Deliverance from Mortality, which has the same Tract as mentioned above during Lent

In the Maronite Catholic Church, there is an evocative ceremony of genuflection on the feast of Pentecost. The congregation genuflects first on the left knee to God the Father, then on the right knee to God the Son, and finally on both knees to God the Holy Spirit.

Some Anglicans and Lutherans also genuflect during their worship services.

See also