Frequently, we find ourselves walking mindlessly into church, finding a pew and kneeling quickly on one knee before sitting down.
We so much do it without thinking to the extent that when we walk down the aisle of a movie theater we end up genuflecting before we sit down for the show!
So why do Catholics genuflect when they enter into a church?
Based on history, the act of genuflecting on one knee emanates from court etiquette and was also done while in the presence of a medieval king or noble. It was a sign of respect and also a pledge of service.
Over time, Christians adopted this custom, and it became fully adopted into the liturgy of the Roman Rite by the 16th century. To give reverence to a king, the left knee was always used and so to differentiate the Christian usage of the custom, Christians now genuflect in church on the right knee to God.
Knowingly to the Jews and Christians, God has always been a king who is rich in mercy and boundless in love. In order to give honor to that “King of Love,” Christians thought it fitting to pay homage and honor to him by genuflecting every time they enter his court.
This was all about bending on one knee whenever they passed in front of the tabernacle (the little house in every Catholic church that houses the Blessed Sacrament).
As Catholics, we believe that Jesus is truly present, Body, Blood, soul and divinity in the Holy Eucharist and so when we genuflect, we do so because we are in the presence of God.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC 1378) affirms 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”.
In order words, this means that Catholics should only genuflect when there is a tabernacle present with the Precious Body of Jesus within it. There are also times in the liturgical year, Good Friday, for instance, when the tabernacle is emptied and the doors are open.
Since the Eucharist is not in the tabernacle, we do not need to genuflect before getting into the pew. A simple bow is used whenever the Eucharist is not present.
A practical guide to know when to genuflect in a Catholic church is to look out for the red sanctuary lamp. If it is lit, that means Precious Body of Jesus is present and the proper response is to genuflect to show your love and honor.
Bear in mind, that Catholics are only asked to genuflect while passing before the tabernacle. Meaning that, if a Catholic church has her tabernacle in a separate chapel of Eucharistic reservation, you genuflect only when walking by it, not every time you enter the main body of the church.
Finally, we do these bodily actions because both our religion and our prayer, demands bodily expression. Because Jesus, the Risen One, gives himself in the Body, therefore, we have to respond in soul and body all the spiritual possibilities of our body are necessarily included in celebrating the Eucharist be it singing, speaking, keeping silence, sitting, standing and kneeling.