Genuflecting a No-No?

by Steve Ray on May 23, 2004

Saturday evening my wife and went to a new parish (new for us) to visit and I genuflected before receiving the Blessed Sacrament. I was reprimanded by the Extraodinary Minister while he handed me the host. After Mass I was reprimanded by the priest. I told them they were both wrong and the letter that follows explains why.

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May 16, 2004

Dear Father:

My wife and I had the pleasure of attending Mass at Transfiguration for the first time Saturday evening, May 15. I found the Mass very reverent and your homily delightful and instructive. I appreciated the explanations about the Council of Jerusalem and the authority of Peter and the need for flexibility within the bounds of the Catholic Church’s teaching. I told you afterwards that I enjoyed your homily very much. We just moved to this area and just discovered Transfiguration Church.

Having said that, I would like to comment on one other matter—namely, being confronted in a rather brusque way about genuflecting while approaching to receive the Eucharist on our first visit to your parish. In addition, I was inappropriately “corrected” by an Extraordinary Minister while receiving communion. The GIRM 160 indicates that even priests should not argue with communicants about posture when they are receiving Communion, saying that they should provide ‘proper catechesis’ (no doubt when the communicant is not in the Communion line). Consequently, it is certainly inappropriate for an extraordinary minister to do so.[i]

First, I am not ignorant of the GIRM’s latest instruction about bowing in reverence before receiving as the norm. The GIRM establishes the norm but in doing so does not forbid other appropriate signs of reverence, including genuflecting or receiving while kneeling. If the GIRM specifically mentions that kneeling is allowed, as it does, it must certainly not forbid the lesser action of genuflecting, especially if it is done in the line prior to actually stepping up to receive. In fact, the GIRM gives specific instructions that even if one kneels they are not to be denied the Eucharist.

Colin B. Donovan, STL (degree received from Angelicum in Rome) commented on the matter by saying:

“The bishops have set the bow as the norm. They have not forbidden kneeling or genuflecting. They cannot, as the Roman interpretations of the norms have made clear. Genuflection is a one knee kneel. It is contained within the statements permitting kneeling, since it is a lesser reverence than kneeling, though stronger than bowing. Standing and bowing replaces kneeling, as the original legislation authorizing bishops’ conferences to choose standing over kneeling makes clear. . . . Indeed, the real issue is not whether genuflecting is allowed but whether the USCCB having chosen standing and bowing as the norm criminalizes or makes disobedient those who desire to do something else. To that question Rome has answered an emphatic no, with respect to kneeling and implicitly genuflecting, and warned the clergy about making it seem so.”

It does not necessarily follow that since bowing is the norm that genuflecting is therefore criminalized.[ii] Though this can potentially be confusing for Catholics, I would suggest that the recent Redemptionis Sacramentum[iii] was promulgated to clarify matters. In no. 90 it says: “The faithful should receive Communion kneeling or standing, as the Conference of Bishops will have determined”, with its acts having received the recognitio of the Apostolic See. ‘However, if they receive Communion standing, it is recommended that they give due reverence before the reception of the Sacrament, as set forth in the same norms’” (176). Also, “Therefore, it is not licit to deny Holy Communion to any of Christ’s faithful solely on the grounds, for example, that the person wishes to receive the Eucharist kneeling or standing” (no. 92).

As I understand it, even though the American norms specify that the sign of respect before receiving is a bow of the head, when the Sacred Congregation for Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments was queried about whether continuing to genuflect was forbidden, they responded in the negative. Consequently, if genuflecting is not specifically forbidden by Rome, the burden of proof to the contrary certainly falls on the one trying to enforce such a non-existent prohibition.

“The way Americans read law; the norms would be interpreted strictly. But that interpretation is misleading. The law has to be understood in the sense in which it is intended by Rome (which approved the law and whose interpretation of the law is definitive), and Romans do not read law the same way Americans do. Americans tend to take a much stricter interpretation of law that admits of no exceptions unless they are stated in the text itself. Vatican officials, however, often understand laws in a more permissive way that allows for unwritten exceptions” (Jimmy Akin). There are a number of examples I could cite that refer specifically to posture during Mass (e.g., See attachment #2).

Again, genuflecting is a lesser act than kneeling and kneeling is specifically mentioned as an allowed and acceptable posture for receiving Holy Communion. I know I was not denied the Eucharist on Saturday, but even being reprimanded during reception and after Mass for something not disallowed—but even approved of—could prove to be a problem. But the real matter is that if the Holy See has allowed reception by standing or kneeling, genuflecting ahead of time is certainly not a violation of Church law.

I am a ten-year convert to the Catholic Church and have always genuflected out of my great reverence and love for the Eucharist and the Church.[iv] I have always been encouraged to do so. For me it is a personal way of demonstrating my love and utter reverence for the Eucharist, the liturgy, and the Church. I have genuflected while receiving before our own presiding bishop many times (as lately as last week), twice with the Pope in a private Mass; with Cardinal Ratzinger, Cardinal Schonborn, Cardinal Wamala, Cardinal Vidal, Archbishop Foley and Bertoni in Rome, the Patriarch of Jerusalem, the Auxiliary bishop of Jerusalem, the archbishop of Smyrna (St. John’s successor), two Papal Nuncios, and many other knowledgeable and holy priests, bishops and archbishops, including bishops in the United States. Never before have I been reprimanded for expressing my reverence to Our Lord in the Eucharist.

Sometimes I think the reprimand should be for those who refuse to show any reverence toward the Eucharist, but then again that is just my humble opinion.

I understand that you are trying to instruct your community on the norms for worship and I appreciate your efforts and commend you for it. I would suggest though, that tact is a virtue when instructing the faithful and that the postural leniency allowed and protected by Rome should be also allowed and protected in the parishes.

Other than that, as I commented before, I found you very impressive and knowledgeable, celebrating a very reverent liturgy. I plan on visiting your parish again since it is so close to our new home. I look forward to more excellent homilies.

 Thanks for being a priest and serving Our Lord and the Church in such a marvelous capacity. I hope this is letter is not taken in an offensive or challenging way. It is simply an honest communication and with the hope we can be friends in the future. I pray for all of God’s blessings on you and your ministry.

Respectfully yours in Christ and in His Church, 

Steve Ray 

PS. Later this week I will be writing to the CDW to get further clarification on this point and will pass the response on to you and the bishop.

Attachments:

Congregation de Cultu Divino et Disciplina Sacramentorum
Prot. n. 1322/02/L
Rome, 1 July 2002

“The Congregation in fact is concerned at the number of similar complaints that it has received in recent months from various places, and considers any refusal of Holy Communion to a member of the faithful on the basis of his or her kneeling posture to be a grave violation of one of the most basic rights of the Christian faithful, namely that of being assisted by their Pastors by means of the Sacraments (Codex Iuris Canonici, canon 213). In view of the law that “sacred ministers may not deny the sacraments to those who opportunely ask for them, are properly disposed and are not prohibited by law from receiving them” (canon 843 ¶ 1), there should be no such refusal to any Catholic who presents himself for Holy Communion at Mass, except in cases presenting a danger of grave scandal to other believers arising out of the person’s unrepented public sin or obstinate heresy or schism, publicly professed or declared. Even where the Congregation has approved of legislation denoting standing as the posture for Holy Communion, in accordance with the adaptations permitted to the Conferences of Bishops by the Institutio Generalis Missalis Romani n. 160, paragraph 2, it has done so with the stipulation that communicants who choose to kneel are not to be denied Holy Communion on these grounds.”

Jorge A. Cardinal Medina Estévez
Prefect
+Francesco Pio Tamburrino
Archbishop Secretary

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“[That] the Roman Curia, and in Europe in general, they take a much more relaxed view of posture than we do . . . This is something that people with a sound formation in liturgical law have known for a long time, however it recently became possible to document it. In a response issued June 5, 2003, the CDW issued a response which stated:

Dubium: In many places, the faithful are accustomed to kneeling or sitting in personal prayer upon returning to their places after having individually received Holy Communion during Mass. Is it the intention of the Missale Romanum, editio typica tertia, to forbid this practice?

Responsum: Negative, et ad mensum [and for this reason]. The mens [reasoning] is that the prescription of the Institutio Generalis Missalis Romani, no. 43, is intended, on the one hand, to ensure within broad limits a certain uniformity of posture within the congregation for the various parts of the celebration of Holy Mass, and on the other, to not regulate posture rigidly in such a way that those who wish to kneel or sit would no longer be free.

This response deals specifically with the question of kneeling after receiving Communion, but it also states Rome’s general interpretation of the posture provisions of the GIRM for the laity, which is that the provisions are “to ensure within broad limits a certain uniformity of posture within the congregation for the various parts of the celebration of Holy Mass, and on the other, to not regulate posture rigidly” (Jimmy Akin).


Endnotes:

[i] If we are to hold strictly and legalistically to the instructions about distribution of the Eucharist, the Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion should not have spoken words to me other than those prescribed. Note the USCCB’s Committee on the Liturgy instruction in its Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion at Mass where it is specifically forbidden to add any words other than “The Body of Christ” and “The Blood of Christ”.

[ii] Also, on a practical matter, I genuflect prior to stepping up to receive – while the person in front of me is still receiving. This way I do not hold up the line. By the time the person in front of me has moved aside, I am standing and stepping up to bow and receive. In this way I full follow even the norm if strictly interpreted.

[iii] This Instruction, prepared by the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments by mandate of the Supreme Pontiff John Paul II in collaboration with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, was approved by the same Pontiff on the Solemnity of St. Joseph, 19 March 2004, and he ordered it to be published and to be observed immediately by all concerned. From the offices of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, Rome, on the Solemnity of the Annunciation of the Lord, 25 March 2004. Francis Card. Arinze, Prefect. Domenico Sorrentino, Archbishop Secretary .

[iv] Early on I read St. Augustine’s words which follow. They touched me deeply and based on encouragement from very good priests, we have always genuflected prior to stepping up to receive. St. Augustine wrote, “He took flesh from the flesh of Mary.  He walked here in the same flesh, and gave us the same flesh to be eaten unto salvation.  But no one eats that flesh unless first he adores it . . . we do sin by not adoring.”

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Genevieve Swan April 30, 2008 at 5:22 PM

Dear Steve,
I read with interest your experience of being reprimanded for genuflecting before receiving Communion. In Australia, we are currently being told that the new GIRM forbids genuflection before Communion because it is dangerous and that we must bow instead – how much of a bow and when varies from diocese to diocese and priest to priest.
Looking at the GIRM, I see that it doesn’t say anything about not genuflecting and certainly not that it is dangerous. My mother thinks that if it says you must bow, then to be obedient, then you should bow and not genuflect.
Like you, I have been genuflecting (stepping forward to genuflect so no-one can fall over me) while the previous person receives so I don’t hold up the line. This helps me to let go of self and prepare to receive the Lord.
I would like to continue to do this, but don’t want to seem disobedient or disrespectful to our parish priest, or cause him to be hostile towards me.
On searching the internet, I found that the Vatican had made this statement,
Cardinal Medina Estevez’s Responsum ad dubium
(November 7, 2000: Prot. n. 2372/00/L)

Dubium 2. Does the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments intend by Nos. 160-162, 244, or elsewhere in the Institutio Generalis Missalis Romani, that the people may no longer genuflect or bow as a sign of reverence to the Blessed Sacrament immediately before they receive Holy Communion?

Resp.: Negative.

I wondered if there has been any reiteration of that, because some people say that the GIRM would override that, since it postdates this statement. Did you end making further enquiries yourself and what was the response? Did the priest you wrote to make any further response and do you still attend Mass there? Have you had any further hassles regarding genuflection before Communion?
Thank you for taking the time to read this and for the great apostolate of evangelisation you are doing. I would like to come back to your blog and read more.
Regards,
Genevieve Swan
Brisbane, Australia

Fr. Daniel Behr August 18, 2008 at 10:00 PM

Bless your hearts! All this talk about law and “criminalizing,” the scrupulous parsing of Vatican rulings. You’d think the scribes and pharisees were back!

Here in my little parish in the U.S. I’ve never denied anyone Holy Communion on account of their posture, not even the rather troubled young man who once insisted on laying prostrate for the Sacrament. But I did spend a night last month in the hospital with an aging parishioner who tripped and fell over the suddenly back-thrust leg of the communicant in front of her who chose to genuflect during the communion procession.

There is, in addition to all the talk about laws and rights in your discussion above, also a question of charity. Is it so terribly important to exercise your right to genuflect or kneel, if the result is an injury to the elderly communicant behind you?

I’ll take Christian charity and pastoral common sense over a cardinal’s responsum ad dubium any day.

Steve Ray August 19, 2008 at 7:43 AM

Wow! In the hospital, eh? What a freak accident. Very sorry to hear that. However, you imply the the act of genuflecting will invariably cause a hospital visit, yet I have genuflected at every Mass for 14 years and have yet to cause even a minor accident. The only incident was an intolerant old priest.

No need to set up a dichotomy between charity and correct rubrics. They are not enemies nor set up against one another. Charity and proper rubrics go together which is what I tried to accomplish.

The lack of charity was on the part of the old priest, who by the way, retired soon afterwards with a decimated parish 1/4 the size of when he was assigned.

By the way, a young new priest was assigned to the parish. He welcomes genulflecting, displays great charity and has doubled the size of the parish in one year. Even with all the bobbing up and down he has never yet been rushed to the hospital.

Scott Radke March 30, 2009 at 10:36 PM

This may be outside of the discussion here but, the whole genuflecting /kneeling or not thing is one of the many reasons I do not go to the Novus Ordo Mass any longer but go instead to the afternoon Traditional Mass in our Parish. Oh yes, I have been denied communion and lectured too! This said I was asked an interesting question after Mass this past Sunday-Passion Sunday-by a young man who has been coming more frequently to this Mass with his wife. He has noticed that at our parish the vast majority of parishioners genuflect as the Crucifix is going by during the processional and recessional. His query was basically this: Should we genuflect on the right knee when an image of Our Lord i.e. the Crucifix, is passing by, or should we genuflect on the left knee because the right knee genuflection is properly reserved for honoring the True Presence of Our Lord in the Most Blessed Sacrament? I told him I did not know but would try to find out. Also, does this apply for honoring the bishop when kissing his ring?

What do you say Steve?

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