Genuflecting or Kneeling prior to Holy Communion
With the continuing globalization of the world – true no less for the Church than for nations at large – a variety of outward pious customs have entered into the Sacred Liturgy. One of the times during which many customs are expressed concerns reverence shown to the Eucharist in the Communion procession. What follows is based on the existing liturgical law.

The General Instruction of the Roman Missal (G.I.R.M.) dedicates an entire chapter to norms which the respective conferences of bishops throughout the world are to establish. In chapter nine, paragraph number 390 states:

“It is up to the Conferences of Bishops to decide on the adaptations indicated in this General Instruction and in the Order of Mass and, once their decisions have been accorded the recognitio of the Apostolic See, to introduce them into the Missal itself. These adaptations include:

  • The gestures and posture of the faithful;
  • The gestures of veneration toward the altar and the Book of the Gospels;
  • The texts of the chants at the entrance, at the presentation of the gifts, and at Communion;
  • The readings from Sacred Scripture to be used in special circumstances;
  • The form of the gesture of peace;
  • The manner of receiving Holy Communion (cf. nos. 160, 283);
  • The materials for the altar and sacred furnishings, especially the sacred vessels, and also the materials, form, and color of the liturgical vestments.”

Note that bullets 1 & 6 are most pertinent to the gesture required for receiving Holy Communion. In response to the instruction of the Holy See to make these adaptations, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops released its document entitled “Adaptations of the Institutio Generalis Missalis Romani, editio typica tertia” in November 2001. In the section of this document relative to the reception of Holy Communion, the instruction states:

“This adaptation will take the place of number 160, paragraph 2:
When receiving Holy Communion, the communicant bows his or her head before the sacrament as a gesture of reverence and receives the Body of the Lord from the minister. The consecrated Host may be received either on the tongue or in the hand at the discretion of each communicant. When Holy Communion is received under both kinds, the sign of reverence is also made before receiving the Precious Blood.”

Thus, for all diocese of the United States, the normative sign of reverence before receiving Holy Communion is a bow of the head. While a genuflection toward the Blessed Sacrament reserved in the Tabernacle or monstrance is prescribed, the U.S. Bishops determined that such a gesture could be disruptive to those in the Communion procession behind the individual performing such a sign of reverence during the Holy Mass. While it might seem that genuflecting before, or kneeling while receiving the Body & Blood of the Lord is a greater sign of reverence, rightly due the Sacred Species, in the interest of uniformity a simple bow should be all that is observed and practiced.

Even the priest, deacon, and servers, once they have entered the Sanctuary, are not to genuflect toward the Tabernacle as they cross it during Mass. The General Instruction says, “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 it, but not during the celebration of Mass itself.” This is not meant to demean the Eucharist reserved in the Tabernacle, but rather to give emphasis to the altar, as it is the visible sign of Christ and the anticipated fruit of the sacrifice being celebrated during each Mass. The preference here is to focus on the fruits of the Mass being celebrated, which unfolds most excellently on the altar, rather than focus on the bounteous fruits of past sacrifices reserved in the Tabernacle. This is true even if Mass is being celebrated on an altar to which the Tabernacle is attached.

Some have asked if a genuflection or a gesture of kneeling might be permissible if done in an undisruptive way. The General Instruction of the Roman Missal asks for uniformity in the worshiping assembly. Paragraph number 42 states:

“The gestures and posture of the priest, the deacon, and the ministers, as well as those of the people, ought to contribute to making the entire celebration resplendent with beauty and noble simplicity, so that the true and full meaning of the different parts of the celebration is evident and that the participation of all is fostered. Therefore, attention should be paid to what is determined by this General Instruction and the traditional practice of the Roman Rite and to what serves the common spiritual good of the People of God, rather than private inclination or arbitrary choice. A common posture, to be observed by all participants, is a sign of the unity of the members of the Christian community gathered for the Sacred Liturgy: it both expresses and fosters the intention and spiritual attitude of the participants.”

The Bishops chose a bow of the head as a proper sign of reverence due the Blessed Sacrament at Mass in the interest of noble simplicity and so as to create a visible sign of uniformity, as not all members of the faithful would always be able to genuflect or kneel due to age, or injury.

It seems clear from these instructions, that a genuflection or a gesture of kneeling while receiving Holy Communion, no matter how seamlessly performed, would be inappropriate. However, in recent times our Holy Father has introduced the custom of placing a kneeler between he and those to whom he offers the Eucharist so that they can kneel while communicating. Nothing has been revised in universal liturgical law at this point and it is important to note that when the Pope does this that all of those who approach him receive the Eucharist this way. Since the Pope never distributes the Eucharist to the entire assembly present before him, however, and since a Papal Mass has traditionally been celebrated in forms slightly diverse from those of parish priests, or bishops, this gesture should not be interpreted as a revision of the norms of the United States. Indeed those who do not receive Communion from the Pope at Papal Masses do so in a variety of ways and almost never while kneeling due to the large volume of communicants, which is why the U.S. Bishops chose a bow of the head as an appropriate reverence.

These rules do not, of course, apply to the Extraordinary form of the Roman Rite celebrated according to the norms of the Missale Romanum of 1962 since this Liturgical book mandated as a universal gesture that the faithful receive Communion while kneeling. The Missal Romanum of 1970 opted to leave this decision to the bishops of each country, or conference.

While it may not be the answer that we would like, or while it might seem we are short-changing the reverence required for our belief in the Eucharist, we should submit to the authority of Christ and those to whom He has given it. As John the Baptist once said, “He [Christ] must increase; I [we] must decrease” in the interest of unity.