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To genuflect [ Latin genu flectere , geniculare (post-classic), to bend the knee; Greek gonu klinein or kamptein ] expresses:

  • an attitude
  • a gesture: involving, like prostration, a profession of dependence or helplessness, and therefore very naturally adopted for praying and for worship in general.

"The knee is made flexible by which the offence of the Lord is mitigated, wrath appeased, grace called forth" (St. Ambrose, Hexaem., VI, ix). "By such posture of the body we show forth our humbleness of heart" ( Alcuin, De Parasceve ). "The bending of the knee is an expression of penitence and sorrow for sins committed" (Rabanus Maurus, De Instit. Cler., II, xli).

I. AN ATTITUDE OR POSTURE AT PRAYER

To kneel while praying is now usual among Christians. Under the Old Law the practice was otherwise. In the Jewish Church it was the rule to pray standing, except in time of mourning (Scudamore, Notit. Eucharist., 182). Of Anna, the mother of Samuel we read that she said to Heli : "I am that woman who stood before thee here praying to the Lord" ( 1 Samuel 1:26 ; see also Nehemiah 9:3-5 ). Of both the Pharisee and the publican it is stated in the parable that they stood to pray, the attitude being emphasized in the case of the former ( Luke 18:11, 13 ). Christ assumes that standing would be the ordinary posture in prayer of those whom He addressed:" And when you shall stand to pray ", etc. ( Mark 11:25 ). "And when ye pray, you shall not be as the hypocrites, that love to stand and pray in the synagogues ", etc. ( Matthew 6:5 ). But when the occasion was one of special solemnity, or the petition very urgent, or the prayer made with exceptional fervour, the Jewish suppliant knelt. Besides the many pictorial representations of kneeling prisoners, and the like, left us by ancient art, Gen., xli, 43 and Esth., iii, 2 may be quoted to show how universally in the East kneeling was accepted as the proper attitude of suppliants and dependents. Thus Solomon dedicating his temple "kneeling down in the presence of all the multitude of Israel, and lifting up his hands towards Heaven ", etc. ( 2 Chronicles 6:13 ; cf. 1 Kings 8:54 ). Esdras too: "I fell upon my knees, and spread out my hands to the Lord my God " ( Ezra 9:5 ); and Daniel : "opening the windows in his upper chamber towards Jerusalem, he knelt down three times a day, and adored, and gave thanks before his God, as he had been accustomed to do before" (Dan., vi, 10), illustrate this practice. Of Christ's great prayer for His disciples and for His Church we are only told that "lifting up his eyes to heaven, he said", etc. ( John 17:1 ); but of His Agony in the Garden of Gethsemani : "kneeling down, he prayed " ( Luke 22:41 ). The lepers, beseeching the Saviour to have mercy on them, kneel ( Mark 1:40 ; cf. 10:17 ).

Coming to the first Christians, of St. Stephen we read: "And falling on his knees, he cried with a loud voice, saying", etc. ( Acts 7:59 ); of the Prince of the Apostles : "Peter kneeling down prayed " ( Acts 9:40 ); of St. Paul : "kneeling down, he prayed with them all" ( Acts 20:36 ; cf. 21:5 ). It would seem that the kneeling posture for prayer speedily became habitual among the faithful. Of St. James, the brother of the Lord, tradition relates that from his continual kneeling his knees had become callous as those of a camel ( Eusebius, Hist. Eccl., II, xxiii; Brev. Rom., 1 May). For St. Paul the expressions "to pray " and "to bow the knee" to God are complementary (cf. Philippians 2:10 ; Ephesians 3:14 , etc.). Tertullian (Ad Scap., iv) treats kneeling and praying as practically synonymous. And when forgiveness of offences has to be besought, Origen (De Orat., 31) goes so far as to maintain that a kneeling posture is necessary.

It is remarkable that the "orantes" ( praying figures) of early Christian art are in the catacomb frescoes invariably depicted as standing with arms extended. Some remarks of Leclercq (Manuel d'Archéologie chrétienne, I, 153 sqq.) suggest that a probable explanation may be found in the view that these "orantes" are merely conventional representations of prayer and of suppliants in the abstract. They are symbols, not pictures of the actual. Now, conventional representations are inspired as a rule in respect of detail, not so much by manners and customs prevalent at the date of their execution, as by an ideal conserved by tradition and at the place and time accepted as fitting. Ancient art has left us examples of pagan as well as of Christian "orantes". The attitude (standing with arms extended or upraised) is substantially the same in all. This, then, is the attitude symbolical, among the ancients, of prayer.

In reality, however, suppliants have, as a matter of course, very generally knelt. Hence such classical phrases as: "Genu ponere alicui" (Curtius); "Inflexo genu adorare" (Seneca); "Nixi genibus" (Livy); "Genibus minor" (Horace). On the other hand, examples are not wanting of Christians who pray standing. The "Stans in medio carceris, expansis manibus orabat", which the Church has adopted as her memory of the holy martyr, St. Agatha , is an illustration. And as late as the end of the sixth century, St. Gregory the Great describes St. Benedict as uttering his dying prayer "stans, erectis in coelum manibus" (Dial., II, c. xxxvii). Nor is it unlikely that since standing has always been a posture recognized, and even enjoined, in public and liturgical prayer, it may have survived well into the Middle Ages as one suitable, at least in some circumstances, for even private devotion. Yet, from the fourth century onwards, to kneel has certainly been the rule for private prayer. Eusebius (Vita Constant., IV, xxii) declares kneeling to have been the customary posture of the Emperor Constantine when at his devotions in his oratory. At the end of the century, St. Augustine tells us: "They who pray do with the members of their body that which befits suppliants; they fix their knees, stretch forth their hands, or even prostrate themselves on the ground" (De curâ pro mortuis, v). Even for the ante-Nicene period, the conclusion arrived at by Warren is probably substantially correct: —"The recognized attitude for prayer, liturgically speaking, was standing, but kneeling was early introduced for penitential and perhaps ordinary ferial seasons, and was frequently, though not necessarily, adopted in private prayer " (Liturgy of the ante-Nicene Church, 145)

It is noteworthy that, early in the sixth century, St. Benedict (Reg., c. l) enjoins upon his monks that when absent from choir, and therefore compelled to recite the Divine Office as a private prayer, they should not stand as when in choir, but kneel throughout. That, in our time, the Church accepts kneeling as the more fitting attitude for private prayer is evinced by such rules as the Missal rubric directing that, save for a momentary rising while the Gospel is being read, all present kneel from the beginning to the end of a low Mass ; and by the recent decrees requiring that the celebrant recite kneeling the prayers (though they include collects which, liturgically, postulate a standing posture) prescribed by Leo XIII to be said after Mass it is well, however, to bear in mind that there is no real obligation to kneel during private prayer. Thus, unless conditioned on that particular posture being taken, the indulgence attached to a prayer is gained, whether, while reciting it, one kneel or not (S. Cong. of the Index, 18 Sept., 1862, n. 398). The "Sacrosanctæ", recited by the clergy after saying the Divine Office, is one of the exceptions. It must be said kneeling, except when illness makes the doing so physically impossible. Turning now to the liturgical prayer of the Christian Church, it is very evident that standing, not kneeling, is the correct posture for those taking part in it. A glance at the attitude of a priest officiating at Mass or Vespers, or using the Roman Ritual, will be sufficient proof. The clergy in attendance also, and even the laity assisting, are, by the rubrics, assumed to be standing. The Canon of the Mass designates them as "circumstantes". The practice of kneeling during the Consecration was introduced during the Middle Ages, and is in relation with the Elevation which originated in the same period. The rubric directing that while the celebrant and his ministers recite the Psalm "Judica", and make the Confession, those present who are not prelates should kneel, is a mere reminiscence of the fact that these introductory devotions were originally private prayers of preparation, and therefore outside the liturgy properly so called. It must not, in this connexion escape attention that, in proportion as the faithful have ceased to follow the liturgy, replacing its formulæ by private devotions, the standing attitude has fallen more and more into disuse among them. In our own time it is quite usual for the congregation at a high Mass to stand for the Gospel and Creed ; and, at all other times either to remain seated (when this is permitted) or to kneel. There are, nevertheless, certain liturgical prayers to kneel during which is obligatory, the reason being that kneeling is the posture especially appropriate to the supplications of penitents, and is a characteristic attitude of humble entreaty in general. Hence, litanies are chanted, kneeling, unless (which in ancient times was deemed even more fitting) they can be gone through by a procession of mourners. So, too, public penitents knelt during such portions of the liturgy as they were allowed to assist at. The modern practice of Solemn Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament for public adoration has naturally led to more frequent and more continuous kneeling in church than formerly. Thus, at a Benediction service it is obligatory to kneel from beginning to end of the function, except during the chant of the Te Deum and like hymns of Praise.

It has been remarked that penitents knelt during public prayer, the rest of the faithful standing. A corollary easily drawn from this was that in Lent and other penitential seasons, when all Christians without distinction professed themselves to be "penitents", the whole congregation should kneel during the celebration of the Divine Mysteries and during other liturgical prayers. This has given occasion to the Missal rubric, requiring the clergy and by implication the laity, to kneel in Lent, on vigils, ember-days, etc., while the celebrant recites the collects and post-communions of the Mass, and during the whole of the Canon, that is, from the Sanctus to the Agnus Dei. In early times an attempt was made to insist yet more emphatically on the character of penitents as that most befitting ordinary Christians. A practice crept in of posing in church as penitents, that is, of kneeling, on all days alike. It was a principle akin to that which deemed it a great virtue to fast even on Sundays and feast days. In both cases the exaggeration was condemned and severely repressed. In the twentieth canon of the Council of Nicæa ( A. D. 325) the fathers lay down (the canon, though passed over by Rufinus, is undoubtedly genuine): —

Because there are some who kneel on the Lord's Day and in the days of Pentecost [the fifty days between Easter and Whit-Sunday]: that all things may be uniformly performed in every parish or diocese, it seems good to the Holy Synod that the prayers [ tas euchas ] be by all made to God, standing.

The canon thus forbids kneeling on Sundays ; but (and this is carefully to be noted) does not enjoin kneeling on other days. The distinction indicated of days and seasons is very probably of Apostolic origin. Tertullian, long before Nicæa, had declared kneeling on the Lord's Day to be nefas (De Cor. Mil., c. iii). See also pseudo-Justin (Quæst. et Resp. ad Orthodox., Q. 115); Clement of Alexandria (Strom., VII); Peter of Alexandria (can. xv); with others. For post-Nicene times, see St. Hilary (Prolog. in Psalm.); St. Jerome (Dial. contra Lucif., c. iv); St. Epiphanius (Expos. Fidei, 22 and 24); St. Basil (De Spir. Sanct., c. xxvii); St. Maximus (Hom. iii, De Pentec.); etc. Note, however, with Hefele (Councils, II, ii, sect. 42) that St. Paul is expressly stated to have prayed kneeling, during paschal time ( Acts 20:36 ; 21:5 ). Moreover St. Augustine, more than fifty years after the Council of Nicæa , writes: "Ut autem stantes in illis diebus et omnibus dominicis oremus utrum ubique servetur nescio" (i.e. but I do not know whether there is still observed everywhere the custom of standing, whilst praying, on those days and on all Sundays ). Ep. cxix ad Januar. By canon law (II Decretal., bk., IX, ch. ii) the prohibition to kneel is extended to all principal festivals, but it is limited to public prayer, "nisi aliquis ex devotione illud facere velit in secreto", i.e. (unless anyone, from devotion, should wish to do that in private). In any case, to have the right to stand during public prayer was looked upon as a sort of privilege — an "immunitas" ( Tertullian, loc. cit.).

On the other hand, to be degraded into the class of the "genuflectentes", or "prostrati", who (Fourth Council of Carthage, can. lxxxii) were obliged to kneel during public services even on Sundays and in paschal time, was deemed a severe punishment. St. Basil calls kneeling the lesser penance ( metanoia mikra ) as opposed to prostration, the greater penance ( metanoia megale ). Standing, on the contrary, was the attitude of praise and thanksgiving. St. Augustine (loc. cit.) considers it to signify joy, and therefore to be the fitting posture for the weekly commemoration by Christians of the Lord's Resurrection, on the first day of the week (See also Cassian, Cobb., XXI). Hence, on all days alike, the faithful stood during the chant of psalms, hymns, and canticles, and more particularly during the solemn Eucharistic or Thanksgiving prayer (our Preface ) preliminary to the Consecration in the Divine Mysteries. The diaconal invitation ( Stomen kalos, k.t.l.; orthoi ; Arab. Urthi ; Armen. Orthi ) is frequent at this point of the liturgy. Nor have we any grounds for believing, against the tradition of the Roman Church, that during the Canon of the Mass the faithful knelt on weekdays, and stood only on Sundays and in paschal time. It is far more likely that the kneeling was limited to Lent and other seasons of penance. What precisely were the prayers which the Fathers of Nicæa had in view when insisting on the distinction of days is not at once evident. In our time the decree is observed to the letter in regard to the Salve Regina or other antiphon to Our Lady with which the Divine Office is concluded, and also in the recitation of the Angelus. But both these devotions are of comparatively recent origin. The term prayer ( euche ) used at Nicæa, has in this connection always been taken in its strict signification as meaning supplication (Probst, Drei ersten Jahrhund., I, art. 2, ch. xlix). The diaconal litany, general in the East, in which all conditions of men are prayed for, preparatory to the offering of the Holy Sacrifice, comes under this head. And in fact in the Clementine Liturgy (Brightman, 9; Funk, Didascalia, 489) there is a rubric enjoining that the deacon, before beginning the litany, invite all to kneel down, and terminate by bidding all to rise up again. It remains however unexplained why the exception for Sundays and paschal time is not expressly recalled. In the Western or Roman Rite, traces of a distinction of days still exist. For instance at the end of the Complin of Holy Saturday there is the rubric : "Et non flectuntur genua toto tempore Paschali", which is the Nicene rule to the letter. The decree has likewise (though lightly varied in wording) been incorporated into the canon law of the Church (Dist. iii, De consecrat., c. x). It may be added that, both in the East and in the West, certain extensions of the exemption from the penitential practice of kneeling appear to have been gradually insisted upon. "The 29th Arabic Canon of Nicæa extends the rule of not kneeling, but only bending forward, to all great festivals of Our Lord " (Bright, Canons of Nicæa, 86). Consult Mansi, xiv, 89, for a similar modification made by the Third Council of Tours, A. D. 813. See also the c. Quoniam (II Decretal., bk. 9, c. 2) cited above.

To fix with some precision the import of the Nicene canon, as it was understood and reduced to practice by the ancients, the supplications, to which the name "bidding prayers " has sometimes been given, merit careful notice. They are the Western analogues of the Eastern diaconal litanies, and recur with great frequency in the old Gallican and Mozarabic uses. In their full form they seem peculiar to the Roman Rite. The officiating bishop or priest invites the faithful present, who are supposed to be standing, to pray for some intention which he specifies. Thereupon, the deacon in attendance subjoins: "Flectamus genua" (Let us kneel down). He is obeyed. Anciently a pause more or less long, spent by each one in private and silent prayer, ensued. This ended at a sign given by the celebrant, or for him by some inferior minister, who, turning to the people with the word "levate", bade them stand up again. They having done so, the celebrant summed up, as it were, or collected their silent petitions in a short prayer, hence called a collect. "Cum is gui orationem collecturus est e terra surrexerit, omnes pariter surgunt" (Cassian, Instit., II, vii). The stress put in the early Church upon the due performance of this ceremonial explains why, before receiving baptism, a catechumen was required to rehearse it publicly. He is standing before the bishop who addresses him: "Ora, electe, fiecte genua, et dic Pater noster". This is the "Oremus, flectamus genua" of the liturgy. The direction to say the Lord's Prayer in preference to any other, or at least previously to any other, is very natural. A glance at the Roman liturgical books will show what other preces were usually added — Kyrie eleison (repeated several times) and certain Psalm verses concluding, as a rule, with "Domine exaudi orationem meam. Et clamor meus ad te veniat" ( Psalm 101:1 ). Then the catechumen is told: "Leva, comple orationem tuam, et dic Amen ". The words of the prayer in which the officiating priest will collect his supplications and those of the rest of the faithful are omitted, as it is only the catechumen's part in the common prayer which is being dealt with. The catechumen rises and says "Amen". This is gone through three times and the catechumen having shown that he has learned how to comport himself during the "oratio fidelium" of the liturgy in which he will henceforth take part, the baptismal ceremony is proceeded with (See Roman Ritual, De Baptismo Adultorum; and Van der Stappen, IV, Q. cxvii).

Of silent kneeling prayer the characteristic example is the group of prayers for all conditions of men in our Good Friday liturgy. They have retained the name "Orationes solemnes" (usual prayers ) because, in primitive ages, gone through in every public Mass. They are the Latin "Oratio Fidelium", and their place in the daily liturgy is still marked by the "Oremus" invitation at the Offertory (Duchesne, Origines du culte chrétien, ch. vi, art. 5). The same form of prayer obtains at ordinations and in some few other rites. But it has long since been shorn of its most striking feature. The faithful are indeed bidden to kneel down; but straightway follows the order to stand up again, the impressive pause being suppressed. Again, nowadays, the object of the prayer is mostly no longer announced. The single word "Oremus' uttered by the celebrant is followed immediately by "Flectamus genua", with its momentary genuflexion, "Levate", and the collect (see, in the Roman Missal, the ember-day Masses, etc.). The learned Bishop Van der Stappen (Sacra Liturg., II, Q. lxv) is of opinion that anciently on all days alike, there was a pause for silent prayer after every "Oremus" introducing a collect; and that on Sundays and other non-penitential days this same silent prayer was made by all standing and with hands raised to Heaven. The invitation Flectamus genua merely reminded the faithful that the day was one of those on which, by the custom of the Church, they had to pray kneeling. The rubrics for the Pentecost ember-days which occur in paschal time, and that prefixed to the last collect in the blessing of candles on the feast of the Purification, strengthen this view. Another instance of kneeling prayer (probably replaced by one said standing, on Sundays and in paschal time ) is that of the benedictions or short collects which, in early ages, it was usual to add after the recitation of each psalm, in public, and often in private, worship. The short prayers called "absolutions" in the Office of Matins are a survival of this discipline. (For a complete set of these prayers see Mozarabic Breviary in P.L., LXXXV. These collects were said kneeling, or at least were preceded by a brief prayer gone through in that attitude. They are probably the "genuflectiones", the multiplicity of which in the daily life of some of the earlier saints astonishes us (see for instance the Life of St. Patrick in the Roman Breviary, 17 March). The kneeling posture is that at present enjoined for the receiving of the sacraments, or at least confirmation, Holy Eucharist, penance and Holy orders. Certain exceptions, however, seem to show that this was not always the case. Thus, the supreme pontiff, when solemnly celebrating, receives Holy Communion in both kinds, seated; and, remaining seated, administers it to his deacons who are standing. In like manner, should a cardinal who is only a priest or deacon be elected pope ; he is ordained priest (if he has not yet taken the step) and consecrated bishop, while sitting on his faldstool before the altar. It seems reasonable to suppose that at the Last Supper the Apostles were seated round the table when Christ gave them His sacred Body and Blood. That, in the early Church, the faithful stood when receiving into their hands the consecrated particle can hardly be questioned. Cardinal Bona indeed (Rer. Liturg., H, xvii, 8) hesitates somewhat as to Roman usage; but declares that in regard to the East there can be no doubt whatever. He inclines moreover to the view that at the outset the same practice obtained in the West (cf. Bingham, XVI, v). St. Dionysius of Alexandria , writing to one of the popes of his time, speaks emphatically of "one who has stood by the table and has extended his hand to receive the Holy Food" ( Eusebius, Hist. Eccl., VII, ix). The custom of placing the Sacred Particle in the mouth, rather than in the hand of the communicant, dates in Rome from the sixth, and in Gaul from the ninth century (Van der Stappen, IV, 227; cf. St. Greg., Dial., I, III, c. iii). The change of attitude in the communicant may perhaps have come about nearly simultaneously with this. Greater reverence was being insisted upon; and if it be true that in some places each communicant mounted the altar-steps, and took for himself a portion of the consecrated Eucharist (Clem. Alex., Strom., I, i) some reform was sorely needed.

II. A GESTURE OF REVERENCE

This is peculiar to the Roman Rite , and consists in the momentary bending of one or both knees so as to touch the earth. Genuflecting, understood in this sense, has now almost everywhere in the Western Church been substituted for the profound bowing down of head and body that formerly obtained, and that is still maintained in the East as the supreme act of liturgical reverence. It is laid down by modern authorities that a genuflexion includes every sort of inclination, so that any bowing while kneeling is, as a rule, superfluous (Martinucci, Man. Sacr. Cærem., I, i, nn. 5 and 6). There are certain exceptions, however, to this rule, in the liturgical cultus of the Blessed Sacrament. The practice of genuflecting has no claim to antiquity of origin. It appears to have been introduced and gradually to have spread in the West during the later Middle Ages, and scarcely to have been generally looked upon as obligatory before the end of the fifteenth century. The older Roman Missals make no mention of it. Father Thurston gives A. D. 1502 as the date of the formal and semi-official recognition of these genuflexions. Even after it became usual to raise the consecrated Host and Chalice for the adoration of the Faithful after the Consecration, it was long before the priest's preceding and following genuflexions were insisted upon (see Thurston in "The Month", Oct., 1897). The genuflexions now indicated at such words as "Et incarnatus est", "Et Verbum caro factum est", and the like, are likewise of comparatively recent introduction, though in some cases they replace a prostration that was usual, in ancient times, when the same sacred words were solemnly uttered (see, for instance, in regard to the "Et incarnatus", the curious passage in the work of Radulphus Tongrensis (De can. observ.). The Carthusian custom of bending the knee, yet so as not to touch the ground, is curious; and has interest from the historical point of view as testifying to the reluctance formerly felt by many to the modern practice of genuflecting. See also the Decree of the S. Cong. of Rites (n. 3402) of 7 July, 1876, insisting that women as well as men must genuflect before the Blessed Sacrament. The simple bending of the knee, unlike prostration, cannot be traced to sources outside Christian worship. Thus, the pagan and classical gesture of adoration consisted in the standing before the being or thing to be worshiped, in putting the right hand to the mouth ( ad ora ), and in turning the body to the right. The act of falling down, or prostration, was introduced in Rome when the Cæsars brought from the East the Oriental custom of worshipping the emperors in this manner as gods. "Caium Cæsarem adorari ut deum constituit cum reversus ex Syria non aliter adire ausus esset quam capite velato circumvertensque se, deinde procumbens" (Suet., Vit., ii). The liturgical rules for genuflecting are now very definite.

  • All genuflect (bending both knees) when adoring the Blessed Sacrament unveiled, as at Expositions.
  • All genuflect (bending the right knee only) when doing reverence to the Blessed Sacrament, enclosed in the Tabernacle, or lying upon the corporal during the Mass. Mass-servers are not to genuflect, save when the Blessed Sacrament is at the altar where Mass is being said (cf. Wapelhorst, infra ). The same honour is paid to a relic of the True Cross when exposed for public veneration.
  • The clergy in liturgical functions genuflect on one knee to the cross over the high altar, and likewise in passing before the bishop of the diocese when he presides at a ceremony. From these genuflexions, however, an officiating priest, as also all prelates, canons, etc., are dispensed, bowing of the head and shoulders being substituted for the genuflexion.
  • On Good Friday, after the ceremony of the Adoration of the Cross, and until Holy Saturday, all, clergy and laity alike, genuflect in passing before the unveiled cross upon the high altar .

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