When I was young, every time we crossed the altar we genuflected toward the tabernacle, acknowledging God’s presence therein. Why today do persons crossing the altar bow toward the front of the altar rather than genuflect toward the tabernacle?
The answer to this question of bowing and genuflecting revolves more around the situations that each of these gestures is used, rather than the meaning of the gestures.
Unfortunately, in recent years there has been some confusion of these gestures, if for no other reason due to the changes of the placement of the tabernacle from directly upon or behind the altar to a way of placement of the tabernacle off to the side or outside the main body of the church altogether. During the 1970s and 80s, there was an increased emphasis on the placement of the tabernacle in a chapel, separate from the main sanctuary, as this was thought to be more suitable to private prayer. Part of the rationale for this change was that during the Mass, as the focus within the Mass is meant to be the altar itself, the tabernacle should be away from the altar lest it distract from the attention of the people to the altar during Mass. (In my opinion, this issue could have been rightly solved simply by giving good explanation to the people about the nature of the Mass, rather than taking the silly measure of moving the tabernacle out of church; but I digress). While this reasoning was not a
mandatory statement, many parishes did take the step of moving the tabernacle to such a separate space. In those parishes where the tabernacle is in a separate chapel, the proper reverence reserved for the Blessed Sacrament is to be upheld—that one always genuflects when passing before the tabernacle, even though it happens to be in a separate place from the main church.
In these same churches where the tabernacle has been moved, upon entering the main church, the central focal point becomes the altar of sacrifice. It has always been fitting to reverence the altar with what is sometimes called a “profound bow”—a deep bow from your waist.
When the tabernacle is directly behind the altar (as it is here), it is consistent to ALWAYS genuflect. The only exceptions come during Mass. For during the celebration of the Mass, whether the tabernacle is visible or not, the altar becomes the main focal point. During Mass, it is therefore only necessary to genuflect at the very beginning and very end of Mass (so the newest Roman Missal has it). At all other moments for the people and other ministers (not including the priest, who has other genuflections), they are simply to bow to the altar when passing before it or as they enter the sanctuary. Why is this so? Simply put, the altar is the focus of the Mass—as the place in which Christ’s sacrifice will be offered. In this way, the altar represents Christ, and therefore is understood as the center of focus.
Thus, the use of genuflections or bows is based on where the tabernacle is, and whether or not you are in the midst of celebrating the Mass. Outside of Mass, no
matter where the tabernacle is, one always genuflects to it when passing before it – even as they are preparing for Mass or putting vessels away after Mass. Within the Mass, one simply bows to the altar as the focal point during the Mass itself (as again, a genuflection is offered to begin and end Mass). Genuflections are offered only to the tabernacle.
To give a more personal statement on this question: it is unfortunate that this type of confusion over genuflecting has entered the Church in recent decades –
especially since in times previous (think 1962 Latin Mass), genuflections were offered without a second thought to the Blessed Sacrament – even during Mass. Today
unfortunately, many in the Church have lost this attentiveness – and it shows in the general lack of faith and proper reverence for the Eucharist. Might our hearts be transformed to a new awareness of Jesus, really present in the Eucharist, that we would offer Him only the most fitting worship.