FATHER IGNATIUS YEO explains the significance behind this practice
The word “genuflection” simply means a knee bend and is the most common way Catholics show their reverence for the Blessed Sacrament reserved in the tabernacle upon entering or leaving a church.
However, this practice was common even in pre-Christian times. Among the pagans and especially during the Roman Empire, it signified adoration and worship of the gods, and particularly the Roman emperors who were considered to be divine rulers.
Thus, the early Christians were careful not to genuflect, in case they appeared to others to have adopted pagan beliefs and practices. The early Church even prescribed the low bow from the waist rather than genuflection as the usual way of showing respect to the Blessed Sacrament and to the altar during the celebration of the Mass.
Genuflection was also forbidden in some places in the Latin Church because it brought to mind the way Jesus was mocked by the Roman soldiers before His crucifixion.
During the early centuries, as genuflection gradually lost its pagan overtones, it became used as a mark of courtesy and respect towards persons of high authority such as the Popes and Bishops.
By the early middle ages, genuflection became used as a common sign of reverence for the Crucifix, the altar, images of our Lord, relics of the saints, etc. By the eleventh century it had become commonly used as an act of adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. It was not until 1502 that genuflection was introduced into the rubrics for the celebration of the Mass.
In 1570, Pope Pius V universally introduced the practice of genuflection in his edition of the Missale Romanum, the liturgical book that contains the texts and rubrics for the celebration of the Mass in the Roman Rite of the Catholic Church.
Saint Augustine called gestures “sensible words” and, indeed, to genuflect is to say “I acknowledge I am small before God.” St Ambrose said that “By genuflecting, one expiates one’s offences against God, and divine grace is called for.”
Genuflection remains our Catholic manner of showing reverence to the Blessed Sacrament, although in some parts of the world the faithful bow profoundly upon entering and leaving a church, and before receiving the Eucharist in Communion.
For as Catholics we believe that Jesus is truly present – body, blood, soul and divinity – in the Holy Eucharist and so we genuflect because we are in God’s Holy presence.
The Catechism echoes this teaching, “In the liturgy of the Mass we express our faith in the real presence of Christ under the species of bread and wine by, among other ways, genuflecting or bowing deeply as a sign of adoration of the Lord (CCC 1378).”
Fr Ignatius is a lecturer at the St Francis Xavier Seminary and CTIS, and parish priest of the Church of St Anthony.