Every Sunday, as parishioners make their way to their seats for Mass, it’s amusing to observe how they bow, or genuflect, in so many different directions within the church.
Some people genuflect in front of the altar or toward the altar as they enter the pew. Others walk past the altar and genuflect toward the Blessed Sacrament Chapel on the side of the church. Still others genuflect in front of statues or paintings that are displayed.
It seems that our “genuflecting compass” is out of whack.
In the book “Why Do Catholics Do That?” Kevin Johnson writes that, “Genuflecting comes under the title, Sacramental actions, which are ancient modes of courtesy that the Church has embraced as appropriate manifestations of respect for God.” The book points out that in the Gospel of Mark 1:40, the leper comes to Christ genu flexo, or “on bent knee.”
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.
As far back as 328 BC, Alexander the Great introduced into his court etiquette some form of genuflection already in use in Persia. It was a sign of respect or service. Many times a proposal of marriage is made on one knee. When the folded flag is presented to the family at a funeral of a veteran, the presenting officer will take one knee if the recipient is seated.
So, to genuflect is a way of showing respect and acknowledging the superiority of what you are genuflecting toward. I am sure that many people still genuflect toward the altar, regardless of where the tabernacle is located, because many years ago (before Vatican II) the tabernacle was always on the altar.
According to the website catholic.com: “It depends where the tabernacle is situated. If it is in the center of the sanctuary, you genuflect to the tabernacle as you pass the center of the sanctuary, and when you enter or exit your pew. If the tabernacle is situated off into a Blessed Sacrament Chapel, and is not situated within the sanctuary, you are to reverence the altar with a profound bow.”