What are we bowing to at the alter

This is going to be a really stupid question from a new convert. :o When people enter the pews they either bow or genuflect. When others approach the alter during Mass to read, help with communion, etc., they also bow or genuflect. Now I notice all these people looking or posturing at all different places when doing so, which has be confused as to who or what we’re suppose to be bowing/genuflecting to.

Are we bowing to the alter, the crucifix, or the tabernacle, or something else entirely?

I asked this question to 3 different long-time members of our parish and one said to the alter, the other said to the tabernacle, and the other said she ‘thinks’ it’s suppose to be to the Christ on the crucifix. But almost everyone in our tiny rural church are converts and the teachings are pretty ‘loose’ if you know what I mean.

In fact, bowing or genuflecting has never been taught to us in our RICA classes. Our parish also has no kneelers so we don’t even know when we are to kneel if we attend another Catholic Church while on vacation, etc. All we catechumens and candidates are just kind of “winging it”. Not meaning any disrespect because I know they are all doing the best they can with how they were taught, but it makes it all kind frustrating for those of us who want to know the correct and respectful ways of the Catholic faith.

The Tabernacle, because it contains the Consecrated Host. You are bowing/genuflecting to God Himself. If you kneel, it is…appropriate…to kneel with your right knee, though, there is no hard and fast rule about that.

One kneels before the consecration (after Holy, Holy, Holy Lord…) and again, right before Communion, and after, until Jesus is put back in the Tabernacle.

I’m old :smiley: so I date back to the Latin Mass when churches all (I think) had the tabernacle on the altar up front. (The priest had his back to us during most of the Mass.) I understood that we were bowing and genuflecting toward the tabernacle that contained the Body of Christ.

In my (also) small rural church we have the old altar with the tabernacle on it (and a very large and beautiful crucifix above it that came from a much bigger church!). Then we have the alter where the priest says Mass while facing us. So in our case, in our church, when we bow or genuflect it is toward the tabernacle. But the altar and crucifix are also in that direction.

I realize from reading here on the forums that many modern churches are constructed much differently with the tabernacle located someplace else. I know when I attended a wedding I had a difficult time figuring out where and when to genuflect because I couldn’t see where the tabernacle was.

It will be interesting to see some other replies.

You genuflect toward the tabernacle and Christ within it. However, if during the Mass you see someone bowing as they cross the front of the church, they are bowing toward the altar as the sacrificial table.

As you say, people have been taught differently (or not at all) and some who cannot genuflect will bow in all circumstances.

I was told by a priest last year, that you genuflect in the direction of the tabernacle before stepping into your pew, no other genuflect necessary towards the tabernacle again for the remainder of the Mass. One doesn’t have to genuflect upon leaving. Also if you have bad knees or a bad back a bow is an acceptable substitute.

We bow to the altar because it is also a holy place, second only to the tabernacle in its holiness. One should always bow before entering the sanctuary and then again, if you cross the sanctuary for any reason; like crossing behind the altar, or behind the presiders chairs and crucifix. I believe the bowing in the sanctuary is always directed towards the table (altar) and not the crucifix.

When I am Sacristan, I bow like a six times even before Mass begins! People probably think I’m crazy when they see me bowing all the time.


I have issues with this. I can barely see 3 feet in front of me, so I have NO IDEA what the tabernacle looks like

Is there always consecrated host in the tabernacle? If not, do we always genuflect assuming it’s in there? I’m not so sure our small church has it present at all times since we rarely have shut-ins, etc. Father sometimes put it in there during communion if we do have a shut-in for it to be picked up later.

You can always tell if there are consecrated hosts in the Tabernacle by the presence of a candle in a red glass or crystal candle thingie (I do not know what they are called). This is usually hanging or placed near the tabernacle. If it is missing there is no Consecrated Host. If it is burning, then Christ is present in the Tabernacle. You will notice, this Friday, that this candle will be removed as the Tabernacle will be emptied and the doors left open.

Oh, and never be afraid to ask questions. I am a convert as well and if you look at my post history, especially my early posts, you will see someone who was pretty uneducated. This place has helped me learn a great deal about the Church, yet I have more left to learn than I could possibly accomplish in my life. Welcome home and may God bless you as you continue a lifetime of learning.

It will most likely look similar to the one pictured here.

It’s called a Sanctuary lamp.

No, it’s not. :slight_smile:

You genuflect to the Eucharist (the Blessed Sacrament). If the Eucharist is reserved in the tabernacle, there will be a lit candle near it (commonly called the “sanctuary lamp”). When the Eucharist is in the tabernacle, it is proper to genuflect to it.

If the Eucharist is not in the tabernacle (which will be the case on Good Friday and at the beginning of the Easter Vigil), you do not genuflect toward the tabernacle, because there’s nothing in it! (You genuflect to the Eucharist, not the tabernacle!) In that case, it is proper to make a profound bow to the altar. A profound bow is a bow of the body, not just of the head. The altar is a symbol of Christ.

Generally speaking, if you’ve made a genuflection to the Eucharist before entering your pew, there is no need to then bow to the altar: the greater sign of reverence to the Real Presence “trumps” the lesser sign of reverence to the altar.

It is customary in many places for lectors to bow to the altar before entering the sanctuary to read the Scriptures during Mass. It is also customary to bow to the altar when passing in front of it.

That’s rather disappointing. Kneeling is part of your liturgical participation as a Roman Rite Catholic, so it’s unfair for a parish to discourage (or even prevent) that participation.

If I may inject my opinion on this matter. Bowing, Kneeling etc are all displays of respect and the faith we all share. Some would contest that it is not necessary, only “Bow once in the direction of the Sacresty”
I feel it is not different than in Revelations the Elders all praying, “Holy, Holy Holy” in a never ending song of praise.
It would lead you to the assumption that “as mortals we can venerate God to much?”
Regardless, “You should always seek to praise God and when necessary use words”

perhaps this helps you to understand the Sanctuary of God.



…but I’ve never seen anything like that in church.

The only day of the Church year that there not consecrated hosts in the tabernacle is Good Friday.

Try this photo goodnewsbooks.com/popup.aspx?src=images/PRODUCT/large/293.jpg

At the church (chapel) I go to which is on a military base, the Tabernacle is actually in the back of the church, not on the altar…this is because the Protestants use this chapel as well. We still bow or genuflect…this is a sign of reverence to our Lord. If you notice, during the Nicene Creed, we are also supposed to bow when it comes to “by the power of the Holy Spirit he was born of the Virgin Mary, and became man.”

It is also common practice at our chapel that each time the name Jesus is mentioned, we give a slight nod of the head…also to show reverence.

“Because of this, God greatly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth”

Saint Paul to the Philippians 2.9-10

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