When I am in the Church, when should I bow and when should I genuflect?
To review, a genuflection is the gesture of bending our knees to God in reverence. We bend to genuflect by bringing our left foot one step ahead of our right foot, and then, bending our left knee, we bring down our right knee to the floor, allowing it to touch against the floor. This traditional reverence for the Eucharist includes within it an enacting of Paul’s words in Philippians 2:10, “that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth.” Our touching of our right knee to the floor portrays that we bow deeply to the Lord – so much so that we go as low as possible on our knee – and the gesture likewise reminds us of Jesus’ own “lowering of Himself” to take on our human flesh and come into the world (see especially John 1:14 and Philippians 2:6-8). The genuflection is the most proper reverence for the Eucharist and should always be offered by those who are physically able to do so. For those with bad knees, back, etc. a “profound bow,” or the bow wherein we bend at our waist toward the tabernacle, is acceptable. However, genuflection is the normal act of reverence for the reserved Eucharist in the tabernacle at all times other than during Mass.
Any time you are in the church building for Mass or even during Mass, either as you are entering your pew, or if you are going out of Church, you should
genuflect to the tabernacle. If you are entering or exiting the church by way of one of the side doors such that your path will take you toward the altar, or if you are heading to the sacristy (or storage rooms, for the matter), it is proper to make your genuflection when you come into closest proximity to the tabernacle. Given the layout of the church here (the fan-shaped seating area, with the nearly semi-circular altar area and with the three doorways from which we are able to enter all giving a clear sightline to the tabernacle) it is important to emphasize that your genuflection is most fittingly offered when you are the closest distance to the tabernacle that you will be – which may not always be as you are about to enter the pew. (On the other hand, to genuflect twice [when you are closest to the tabernacle and also in the moment when you are about to enter your pew, if these are not in one and the same moment] is certainly a fitting act of reverence and piety).
During Mass, the altar becomes the focal point of our attention. While the priest and other ministers always begin and end Mass looking to the tabernacle with a
genuflection (at least those who are not carrying anything as we process into church), during the rest of the Mass it is more proper to bow to the altar whenever we pass in front of it. Thus all readers, cantors, and extraordinary ministers, whenever they approach the altar, are asked to make a “profound bow” to the altar (rather than
genuflecting). Even though the tabernacle remains the same during Mass, our focus during the Mass itself is to be directed to the altar, as the Eucharist will come to us from what is offered upon the altar in our intentional act of worship.
To sum up: when you are coming into or leaving the church, always genuflect to the tabernacle – even during Mass. The exception to such genuflections would be if you are in the midst of a liturgical ministry and must approach the altar or sanctuary, during which a bow to the altar is asked.