When I genuflect, which knee do I kneel on? At Mass, I have seen it done both ways — left and right. — Appleton
We’ve had a couple of questions sent to FAQs about genuflection, regarding how, when and where.
“Genuflection” comes from two Latin words: genu “knee” and flectere “to bend” or “flex.”
Genuflection is different from kneeling. Kneeling in prayer or worship has a longer history. Kneeling can be found in the Old Testament (when Solomon knelt in the Temple, see 1 Kings 8:22), and the New Testament (as when Jesus knelt in Gethsemane in Lk 22:41).
However, in the early church, it was common to stand for prayer. This comes from our roots in Jewish history and the knowledge that we are children of God and sibling of the risen Christ.
Genuflection in the Western Church goes back less than 1,000 years and was not obligatory until the late 15th century, according to the Catholic Encyclopedia. It began around the 12th century. It was a way to honor bishops, in much the same way as medieval knights knelt before kings. Genuflection was a posture of honor or an offer of service, but not one of worship.
Even today, when a folded flag is offered to a veteran’s family at his or her burial — the presenting officer goes down on one knee if the recipient is seated. But the officer goes to the left knee. It is the same with someone receiving a knighthood; they kneel on their left knee.
I attended Catholic school, before the changes of Vatican II. I remember that we had to genuflect — on our left knees — when the priest came into or left our classroom. Again, it was a gesture of respect.
Genuflecting on the right knee, however, was only for church. This is because genuflecting on the right knee is a sign of worship and reserved for God alone. When I was in school, the tabernacle was on the back altar. So we genuflected to Jesus, present in the Blessed Sacrament.
For a while in recent church history, and in some churches today, the tabernacle was not always behind the altar. When this happened, a bow was given to the altar and genuflection reserved for the tabernacle — where Jesus is present — wherever it was placed in the church. When the sacrament is on the altar during adoration, it also receives a genuflection.
Now, you might see people genuflect on both knees — usually during eucharistic adoration. This is something we were also taught at one time, whenever the sacrament was exposed for worship. However, in 1973, the Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship changed the rule, directing that the right knee genuflection be used, whether the sacrament was reserved or exposed.
Genuflecting to the crucifix is also part of the Good Friday service, during and after Adoration of the Cross. The same right knee genuflection is used for relics of the true Cross.
So it’s the right knee for God and the left knee for honor or respect to a human being.
Finally: Why genuflect at all? The U.S. bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy answered this in “Praying with Body, Mind and Voice” (2010).
“When our bodies participate in our prayer,” the committee said, “we pray with our whole person, as the embodied spirits God (that) created us to be, and this engagement of our entire being in prayer helps us to pray with greater attention.”
Kasten is an associate editor at The Compass and holds a master’s degree in theological studies from St. Norbert College in De Pere.