On Genuflection

The Question: Not wanting to start a new thread, this subject seemed appropriate for my question. What is "genuflecting" all about?

The Response: Genuflection is another of those things that Catholics do, not only at particular moments during the Mass, but at other times when they are in the presence of the Catholic-Christ-as-cookie or certain other idols. Like just about everything else in the Church that claims to be always the same (Semper Idem), the rules regarding this practice have been modified a number of times over the years.

Here's the way it is done today, according to one Catholic source book:

This act of bending the right knee to the floor and rising up again has had a number of meanings associated with it, from an act of penitence and supplication (e.g., before one's master), to an act of veneration in front of a person of prominence (e.g., emperor or bishop) or a holy object (e.g., altar, relics, especially those of the True Cross), to an act of reverence before the exposed or reserved Sacrament in church. The postconciliar liturgical books indicate that "three genuflections are made during the Mass: after showing of the Eucharistic Bread, after the showing of the chalice, and before Communion" (General Instructions of the Roman Missal, n. 233) and that "genuflection in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament, whether reserved in the tabernacle or exposed for public adoration, is on one knee" (General Instruction on Holy Communion and the Worship of the Eucharist Outside Mass, n. 84) – Peter M. J. Stravinskas, S.T.L., Ed., Our Sunday Visitor's Catholic Dictionary, © 1993, Our Sunday Visitor, Inc., pp. 228-29

Those are the rules for genuflecting these days; at least as far as some Catholics are concerned. Things were done a bit differently prior to Vatican II, as this definition of Genuflection from an older dictionary manifests:

momentary bending of one knee (the right) so as to touch the ground; the body should be held erect and the sign of the cross not made. This is one of the two normal ceremonial reverences…of the Latin church; it has to a great extent superseded the profound bow, general before the 16th century, still preferred by some religious orders, and almost universal in the East; at the English Convent of Canonesses regular at Bruges the young gentlewoman boarders were still in the 17th century instructed to curtsey to the Blessed Sacrament. All genuflect when passing before an altar at which the Blessed Sacrament is reserved or is lying upon the corporal during Mass, or upon which a relic of the True Cross is exposed, and to the unveiled cross throughout Good Friday. The clergy (excluding prelates) and assistants during liturgical functions genuflect to the altar-cross and to a bishop enthroned. Directions differ as to whether the server at low Mass should genuflect to the altar-cross; the S.R.C. (4193.1) says he should. There are various occasional genuflections, e.g., at the Incarnatus in the Creed, at Veni, Sancte Spiritus in the gradual at Whitsuntide, during the Te Deum, towards the end of the Epiphany Gospel, etc. The genuflections at the Consecration in Mass are relatively recent and are still not fully used by the Carthusians. A double genuflection consists in kneeling on both knees, bowing the head and rising; it is made only before the Blessed Sacrament when it is exposed. – Donald Attwater, Ed., Catholic Dictionary, © 1942, The MacMillan Company, p. 219 (Has Nihil Obstat & Imprimatur)

Those readers not familiar with the English language as used in England may wonder what in the world Whitsuntide is. The same source provides the answer:

WHITSUNDAY (i.e., White Sunday). The popular name in England, from at least the 12th century, for the feast of Pentecost, so called because of the white coifs…worn by the babies baptized at that time.Ibid., p. 557

That's what Brits mean by WhitSunday. Whitsuntide, as used in the foregoing definition, refers to the week that begins with WhitSunday, and most especially the first three days of that week.

In the definition of Genuflection above, it was mentioned that genuflection is one of two "normal ceremonial reverences." Know what those are? Not to worry, for Attwater informs that the ceremonial reverences

ordinarily in use in the Catholic Church are bowing, the genuflection and metany. – Ibid, p. 456

Wait a minute! Up above, we are informed that genuflecting is one of two "normal ceremonial reverences" in use by the Catholic Church. I counted three in the above definition. What in the world is metany, and who does it? Though I was a Catholic when Attwater's dictionary was printed, and for some years after, I cannot recall ever encountering that word before.

It turns out that metany is something folks in the Eastern branch of the monolithic Catholic Church go in for. It comes in two forms. Lesser metany is just nothing more than simply inclining the head and shoulders – rather like a slight bow. Greater metany, on the other hand, involves prostrating oneself, with only the feet, hands and forehead touching the floor. Definitely penitential and more than a little similar to an attention-getting device much favored by Marine drill instructors.

Catholics, Eastern or Western, are really big on public displays of piety. Ostentatious humility – there's an oxymoron for you – is part and parcel of Catholic worship and practice. At their ordination ceremonies, priests and bishops lie prostrate on the floor before their superordinates to demonstrate their humility and willingness to be in obedience to their higher-ups. When a pope is crowned, the great displays of humility on the part of priests, bishops, cardinals and even the new pope are enough to turn one's stomach.

One of the pope's titles is Servant of the Servants of God. That's humble enough—until you look at some of the other titles he claims. This pseudo-servant also is called Sweet Christ on Earth. How's that for humility?

So, what have we got so far? Genuflecting is not something that Catholics have been doing throughout the 2000-year history they claim. The form and occasion genuflection takes has varied through the years the practice has been in use, and there has been some confusion as to who genuflects and when during Mass.

Genuflecting and kneeling used to be part and parcel of the Mass, especially the High Mass. As I have written elsewhere, when I was young, I really enjoyed attending High Mass. Just loved all the music and the pomp and ceremony, but I hated all the calisthenics as we stood, kneeled, sat or genuflected frequently during the lengthy celebration.

Before I came on the scene, genuflecting was a lot more rigorous that what I experienced.

GENUFLECTION—Bending of the knee. This is always done in passing before the tabernacle where the Blessed Sacrament is reserved. If the Blessed Sacrament is exposed the genuflection is made with both knees. It is frequently used by the priest in the Mass, and by the faithful at the mention of the Incarnation in the Creed.Cabinet of Catholic Information, 2nd Section, A Simple Dictionary for Catholics, © 1903, P.P. Murphy & Sons, p. 185 (Has Nihil Obstat & Imprimatur)

Both knees?! Ouch! I recall how hard the marble floor was at the communion rail of Sts. Peter and Paul Catholic Church, where I worshiped as a Catholic. And it was plenty cold in the wintertime. I suppose the guys who came up with the idea of the double genuflection when passing the exposed consecrated cookie figured that pain added to the humility of the reverent act. Whatever.

Another of my old books, published just a year earlier than the Cabinet affords us another example of the confusion that typifies Catholic instruction.

GENUFLECTION (the bending of the knee) is a natural sign of adoration or reverence. It is frequently used in the ritual of the Church. Thus the faithful genuflect in passing before the tabernacle where the Blessed Sacrament is reserved; the priest repeatedly genuflects at Mass in adoration of the Eucharist, also at the mention of the Incarnation in the Creed, &c. Genuflection is also made as a sign of profound respect before a bishop on certain occasions. A double genuflection—i.e., one on both knees—is made on entering or leaving a church, where the Blessed Sacrament is exposed.

The early Christians prayed standing on Sundays, and from Easter till Pentecost, and bent the knee only in sign of penance; hence a class of penitents were known as Genuflectentes. A relic of this penitential use of genuflection survives, according to Gavantus (P.I. tit. 16), in the practice enjoined by the rubric of genuflecting at the verse "Adjuva nos," in the Tract of Masses during Lent.—John Gilmary Shea, Ed., The Catholic Educator, © 1902 Thomas Kelly, pp. 214-15(Has Imprimatur of the Archbishop of New York

The Educator agrees that Catholic faithful are to genuflect when passing before the tabernacle where the consecrated hosts are stored, but it adds a little something special. This source informs that Catholics are to get down on both knees when entering or leaving a church where the consecrated wafer is exposed. I imagine that must have made for real confusion as folks made their way in or out of church at such a time. Think how inconvenient it must have been for ladies in the tight corsets and full, floor-length dresses of the period.

Where in the world did the Catholic Church get the idea of genuflecting which, as you may recall, has only been going on for about 500 years or so? Here's one Catholic teaching on that:

Why genuflect on entering a church?

As to bowing down the body, and bending the knee, in sign of reverence, the patriarchs and the prophets, and even Jesus Christ Himself on earth, did the same repeatedly, and this St. John saw in a vision done by the twenty-four elders worshipping in Heaven.—Rev. C.F. Donovan, Compiler, Our Faith and the Facts, © 1927 Patrick L. Baine, p. 641 (Has Nihil Obstat & Imprimatur)

I reckon the patriarchs and prophets likely did render some form of reverence when in the presence of royalty or high authority, but I cannot recall reading that Jesus Christ bowed or genuflected. As to the alleged genuflecting of the 24 elders mentioned in Revelation, a simple look at the pertinent verses should clear this up, one way or the other. The reverencing of the 24 elders is mentioned several times in Revelation, but never as genuflecting. Rather, what John saw were visions of the 24 elders prostrating themselves before Almighty God, as these examples show:

The four and twenty elders fall down before him that sat on the throne, and worship him that liveth for ever and ever, and cast their crowns before the throne, saying, Thou art worthy, O Lord, to receive glory and honour and power: for thou hast created all things, and for thy pleasure they are and were created.-- Revelation 4:10-11

And when he had taken the book, the four beasts and four and twenty elders fell down before the Lamb, having every one of them harps, and golden vials full of odours, which are the prayers of saints.-- Revelation 5:8

And the four beasts said, Amen. And the four and twenty elders fell down and worshipped him that liveth for ever and ever.--Revelation 5:14

And the four and twenty elders, which sat before God on their seats, fell upon their faces, and worshipped God,-- Revelation 11:16

And the four and twenty elders and the four beasts fell down and worshipped God that sat on the throne, saying, Amen; Alleluia.-- Revelation 19:4

Looks like this is just one more example of pounding Scripture until it can be forced into the appearance of supporting Catholic doctrine and practice.

Hope that helps.

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