When we Catholics initially enter a pew or when we exit the pew before leaving church, we “genuflect.” That means that we briefly kneel, bending our left leg and touching our right knee to the floor. Why?
Some possible reasons:
- It is a charming habit.
- Everyone else does, so to fit in.
- It is a tradition, a “Catholicy” thing to do!
- We are acknowledging the fact that we are literally in the presence of Jesus Christ, the Lord of Lords, the King of Kings. He is really, substantially before us in the Holy Eucharist – in body, blood, soul and divinity – reserved in the tabernacle. We acknowledge this and submit to His divine Kingship in humble adoration.
The correct answer of course is the last one. Genuflecting reminds us of who and where we are. We are not God and He is. We are in the MOST sacred space, where the passion, death and resurrection or our Savior is made present through the Mass. At that once and for all time sacrifice, we are assembled with far more people than those of the parish present. We are together in communion with all the angels and saints (known and unknown) and with the faithful of every past and every future Mass everywhere.
Sometimes when we genuflect this is not foremost in our mind. We may be thinking of other things or acting out of habit. That friends, is really sad. Properly genuflecting may be the most important thing we do to prepare our hearts and minds for the Mass. A quick mini-curtsy or head nod toward the front does not do it.
Catholic brothers and sisters, recommit yourselves to getting this right. Do so at the very next Mass you attend (and every one after that):
- Find the sanctuary lamp. Is it lit? You are in His presence.
- Face the tabernacle and touch you right knee to the floor. Completely.
- Optional: bow your head (I prefer that) and/or cross yourself (the preference of most other people).
If you need to steady yourself, by all means hold on to the pew as necessary. If you physically can not do this, just do what you can (we are never expected to do the impossible).
Non-Catholic visitors, welcome! I wrote how your visit might seem like you are in a strange land, but will summarize. We Catholics believe (actually, know beyond any doubt whatsoever) that our communion bread literally becomes Christ just as He said. Not all of His most Holy Body is consumed by those receiving. That which is not is “reserved” (safely and respectfully kept) in a “tabernacle” (a special dwelling place harking back to that which Moses constructed). While rare (e.g. after Holy Thursday and throughout Good Friday), it is possible that the tabernacle is empty. When empty, Christ is not present and we do not genuflect (it would not make sense). A special lamp (typically a candle in red glass) is mounted close to the tabernacle and lit as a signal to us when He is present. For your visit, please just have a seat for now (it’s OK, really). We pray that you too will one day join us at the Eucharistic table.