Kneeling Before Entering Pew, and Before the Altar?

At Mass, I notice people kneeling before entering the pew, and when they walk up to, or past the altar. I was wondering, what does the kneeling mean, and how, and when are you supposed to do it?

Here’s a good article on genuflecting:

We kneel to our Lord present in the Blessed Sacrament (i.e. consecrated hosts, kept in that ornamented safe called a tabernacle with a lit candle nearby). We do this when entering or leaving His presence, or when passing by.

There are no hard and fast rules here. Traditionally, one bends the right knee to our Lord (left knee to one’s bishop). “Passing by” is defined as crossing the center aisle (if there is one). Many modern churches, however, do not have a traditional floor plan (cross shape with the tabernacle at the head), so one may adjust his genuflecting accordingly. If there’s no tabernacle behind the altar, or the Sacrament has been removed (e.g. for Good Friday), it’s appropriate to bow to the altar / crucifix as you cross the center aisle, as they represent (but are not) Christ.

Firstly, there is “bowing”, ie. a deep bow from the waist, and “genuflecting”, which is to bend to one knee. These are the postures used most of the time.

For the celebrants and ministers (ie. readers and EMHC’s), there are rules for how to bow during Mass. As a lector, I know that the rule for me is bow to the altar (not tabernacle) when approaching and leaving the lectern.

For the congregation, the only rule (in Australia), is that they “bow” before receiving communion.

The bowing and genuflecting which you see the congregation doing are customs they have learned, but are not rules. Different people can do different things, or nothing at all.

The custom is to genuflect before entering the pew, or on entering the church. Different people do different things with respect to moving past the altar and tabernacle. Some bow every time they pass and others bow once and then not again as they get on with business (eg. carrying things in and out of the church). For still others, the only motion they will make is the first bow, or genuflection, on entering the church and another on leaving. Some quite pious Catholics do this.

The main thing is that you are there, and that you are learning. Don’t worry if you don’t get the bowing and genuflecting right - everyone is a little different, no one will notice, and you are not breaking any rules.

Incorrect. There are rules for bowing and genuflecting for the assembly. They are right there in the GIRM. Among them are the profound bow during the Creed, which becomes a genuflection on Christmas, and the frequently disregarded bow of the head on the mention of the names of Jesus, Mary, the Trinity, and the saint of the day.

The topic is the bowing for those moving in the church. There are other motions for the assembly as part the liturgy, such as kneeling for the consecration, but this is not the place to list them all.

Does the GIRM have any instructions for the assembly on the topic?

Genuflections and Bows

  1. A genuflection, made by bending the right knee to the ground, signifies adoration, and therefore it is reserved for the Most Blessed Sacrament, as well as for the Holy Cross from the solemn adoration during the liturgical celebration on Good Friday until the beginning of the Easter Vigil.

During Mass, three genuflections are made by the Priest Celebrant: namely, after the elevation of the host, after the elevation of the chalice, and before Communion. Certain specific features to be observed in a concele-brated Mass are noted in their proper place (cf. nos. 210-251).

If, however, the tabernacle with the Most Blessed Sacrament is situated 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.

Otherwise, all who pass before the Most Blessed Sacrament genuflect, unless they are moving in procession.

Ministers carrying the processional cross or candles bow their heads instead of genuflecting.

  1. A bow signifies reverence and honor shown to the persons themselves or to the signs that represent them. There are two kinds of bow: a bow of the head and a bow of the body.

a) A bow of the head is made when the three Divine Persons are named together and at the names of Jesus, of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and of the Saint in whose honor Mass is being celebrated.

b) A bow of the body, that is to say, a profound bow, is made to the altar; during the prayers Munda cor meum (Cleanse my heart) and In spiritu humilitatis (With humble spirit); in the Creed at the words et incarnatus est (and by the Holy Spirit . . . and became man); in the Roman Canon at the Supplices te rogamus (In humble prayer we ask you, almighty God). The same kind of bow is made by the Deacon when he asks for a blessing before the proclamation of the Gospel. In addition, the Priest bows slightly as he pronounces the words of the Lord at the Consecration.

I was taught both were required.


a) A bow of the head is made when the three Divine Persons are named together and at the names of Jesus, of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and of the Saint in whose honor Mass is being celebrated.

How practical is that? I think I would suffer from whiplash having to do this dozens of times during a Mass.

Bow the head at the start of Mass and raise it at the end. Problem solved.


I have no problem with that but the other poster who quoted from the GIRM seems to think we should be like these nodding dogs you see in the back window of cars.

ALWAYS kneel when you pass the Blessed Sacrament, whether exposed on the altar or in the Tabernacle. ALWAYS.

Well, that certainly would have the benefit of not paying attention to what your neighbor is doing!!! :smiley: :thumbsup:

Technically the head is bowed when one is reading from a handmissal or missalette. So that’s another way of solving the problem.

For reading perhaps.

But a bowed head is terrible posture when it is time for singing/chanting.

Thanks for the quote from the GIRM, however it doesn’t answer my question. It is a general instruction to priests and the assembly, and mostly (entirely?) is about the bowing and genuflection during Mass

Agreed, every person passing the tabernacle during the Mass, other than a celebrant or during a procession is to bow.

It would be more helpful if you’d address the GIRM to the OP’s question, and use your own words, and without extraneous information.

But, really, why? Why turn a simple question from a Catholic enquirer into a dispute? It doesn’t give a good impression of the Catholic Church.

Not at all, I do it without any discomfort. People have been doing head bows for centuries (though it has largely fallen into disuse in our reverence-bereft age). If a sacred name repeats a lot in a short space of time, you simply bow once and skip the rest for that particular prayer, reading, or sermon. At least that’s how the FSSP clergy do it.

That said, the head bows are a matter of devotion / custom, and not required under pain of sin.

In the US we have “bobblehead dolls”. Yeah. It’s difficult to keep up. Ad Orientem said it perfectly. Bow once if there are lots of names and skip the rest. Also problem solved.

Having a particular devotion, I bow at the mention of the Holy Spirit, especially at the epiclesis. The Holy Spirit seems to be the forgotten member of the Trinity in spite of the fact that the Holy Spirit dwells within us and sanctifies us.

The reason why I mentioned bowing at the beginning and raising our head at the end is because my examination of conscience asks about allowing myself to be distracted at Mass and looking around out of curiosity as a violation of the third commandment to keep the sabbath holy. I try as best as I can not to look around too much. Keeping the head bowed helps.


Thanks for the extract from the GIRM, however it seems to have complicated the matter rather than resolved it, as it has extraneous information (on the requirements for celebrants) and it is not clear what its intended scope is, particularly whether it applies only during Mass, or to those entering and leaving the church for Mass, or 24/7. Similarly, are we obliged to bow every time the three Divine Persons are named together - anywhere and everywhere?

It would be more helpful if you were to put into your own words how that extract applies the OP’s question (and to my post, if you wish), however I am happy to let this discussion end here. It’s a distraction from a simple inquiry by a visitor to a Catholic church who wanted an explanation of what he or she observed.


Yes, but if you don’t know the words…