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Genuflection (or genuflexion), bending at least one knee to the ground, was from early times a gesture of deep respect for a superior. In 328 BC, Alexander the Great introduced into his court-etiquette some form of genuflection already in use in Persia. In the Byzantine Empire even senators were required to genuflect to the emperor. In medieval Europe, one demonstrated respect for a king or noble by going down on one knee, often remaining there until told to rise. It is traditionally often performed in western cultures by a male making a proposal of marriage. More recently, the gesture is largely restricted to Catholic religious practices.

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.

In Roman Catholicism

Genuflection, typically on one knee, still plays a part in Roman Catholic religious practices, as well as those of the Eastern Orthodox church and parts of the Anglican Church and other churches; it is different from kneeling in prayer, which is more widespread. Its role declined somewhat in the late 20th century. Those, such as the aged, for whom the gesture is difficult are not expected to perform it.

In front of the Blessed Sacrament

Genuflection to the Blessed Sacrament, the consecrated Eucharist, especially when arriving or leaving its presence, is a practice in the Anglican Communion, the Latin Rite Catholic Church, and the Lutheran Church. It is a comparatively modern replacement for the profound bow of head and body that remains the supreme act of liturgical reverence in the East. Since in Catholic churches the Blessed Sacrament is normally present behind the altar, genuflection is usual when arriving or passing in front of the altar at the communion rail.

Only during the later Middle Ages, centuries after it had become customary to genuflect to persons in authority such as bishops, was genuflection to the Blessed Sacrament introduced. The practice gradually spread and became viewed as obligatory only from the end of the fifteenth century, receiving formal recognition in 1502. The raising of the consecrated Host and Chalice after the Consecration in order to show them to the people was for long unaccompanied by obligatory genuflections.

The requirement that genuflection take place on both knees before the Blessed Sacrament when it is unveiled as at Expositions (but not when it is lying on the corporal during Mass) was altered in 1973 with introduction of the following rule: "Genuflection in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament, whether reserved in the tabernacle or exposed for public adoration, is on one knee." However, in some countries the episcopal conference has chosen to retain the double genuflection to the Blessed Sacrament, which is performed by kneeling briefly on both knees and reverently bowing the head with hands joined.

The General Instruction of the Roman Missal lays down the following rules for genuflections during Mass:

Three genuflections are made by the priest celebrant: namely, after the showing of the host, after the showing of the chalice, and before Communion. Certain specific features to be observed in a concelebrated Mass are noted in their proper place.
If, however, the tabernacle with the Most Blessed Sacrament is present in the sanctuary, the priest, the deacon, and the other ministers genuflect when they approach the altar and when they depart from the sanctuary, but not during the celebration of Mass itself.
Otherwise all who pass before the Most Blessed Sacrament genuflect, unless they are moving in procession.
Ministers carrying the processional cross or candles bow their heads instead of genuflecting.

The Tridentine Mass requires more numerous genuflections to the Blessed Sacrament during Mass.

Other genuflections in the liturgy

Genuflection or kneeling is prescribed at various points of the Roman Rite liturgy, such as after the mention of Jesus' death on the cross in the readings of the Passion during Holy Week.

A genuflection is made before the Holy Cross from the solemn adoration during the liturgical celebration on Good Friday until the beginning of the Easter Vigil.

A genuflection is made at the mention of the Incarnation in the words et incarnatus est de Spiritu Sancto, ex Maria Virgine, et homo factus est ("and by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary, and became man") in the Creed on the solemnities of Christmas and the Annunciation.

In the Tridentine Mass this genuflection is made on any day on which the Creed is recited at Mass, as well as at several other points:

  • at the words et Verbum caro factum est ("and the Word became flesh") in the prologue of the Gospel of John, which is the usual Last Gospel, as well as the Gospel for the third Mass on Christmas.
  • at the words et procidentes adoraverunt eum ("and falling down they adored him") in the Gospel for the Epiphany, Matthew 2:1-12 (which before 1960 was also the Last Gospel of the third Mass on Christmas)
  • at the words Adiuva nos ... during the (identical) Tract said on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays in Lent, except on Ember Wednesday. But no genuflection is envisaged when after Septuagesima the same Tract is used in the votive Mass at a time of Mortality (Missa votiva tempore mortalitatis)
  • at the words et procidens adoravit eum ("and falling down he adored him") at the end of the Gospel for Wednesday in the Fourth Week of Lent, John 9:1-38
  • at the words ut in nomine Iesu omne genu flectatur caelestium, terrestrium et infernorum ("that in the name of Jesus every knee should bow of those that are in heaven, on earth, and under the earth") in the Epistle () of Palm Sunday, the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross on 14 September (and also, before 1960, the Feast of the Invention of the Holy Cross on 3 May) and in the Epistle () of the votive Mass of the Passion of the Lord.
  • at the words Veni, sancte Spiritus in the Alleluia before the Sequence on Pentecost Sunday and the Octave of Pentecost and in the votive Mass of the Holy Ghost

In the Maronite Catholic Church, there is an evocative ceremony of genuflection on the feast of Pentecost. The congregation genuflects first on the left knee to God the Father, then on the right knee to God the Son, and finally on both knees to God the Holy Spirit.

Genuflecting to a bishop

From the custom of genuflecting to kings and other nobles arose the custom by which lay people or clergy of lesser rank genuflect to a prelate and kiss his episcopal ring, as a sign of acceptance of the bishop's apostolic authority as representing Christ in the local church, and originally their social position as lords. Abbots and other senior monastics often received genuflection from their monks and often others. Genuflecting to human authorities (perhaps excepting the Pope as the Vicar of Christ) is always done on the left knee, other than the genuflection towards God which is done on the right knee.

Genuflecting before the bishop of the diocese to which one belongs was treated as obligatory in editions of the Caeremoniale Episcoporum earlier than that of 1985.

In the same period, the clergy genuflected when passing before the bishop of the diocese when he presides at a liturgical ceremony. But the officiating priest, as also all prelates, canons, etc., were dispensed, and substituted a bow of the head and shoulders for the genuflection.

The present Catholic liturgical books exclude genuflecting to a bishop during the liturgy: "A genuflection, made by bending the right knee to the ground, signifies adoration, and therefore it is reserved for the Most Blessed Sacrament, as well as for the Holy Cross from the solemn adoration during the liturgical celebration on Good Friday until the beginning of the Easter Vigil." But outside of the liturgy some continue to genuflect or kneel to kiss a bishop's ring.

See also

  • Kneeling
  • Prayer in Christianity
  • Proskynesis
  • Salat
  • Seiza
  • Sign of the cross
  • Tebowing
  • Veneration
  • Warschauer Kniefall