Genuflecting And Blessing Ourselves

I’ve written before about examples of “guru’s cat” stories which persist in the Church. That is, we continue to do things long after the practical reason for introducing them in the first place has disappeared and then come up with a theological explanation. A book published a few years ago on the Roman Rite dedicates a whole chapter to how candles should be lit and extinguished correctly. Until the invention of the electric light bulb 120 years ago, lighting candles had a very practical purpose - to ensure that people could see! Perhaps in the future, when all Church buildings are air-conditioned, the rubrics for Mass will include instructions on how many fans must be rotating for a Mass to be valid!
I was recently made aware of how a liturgical gesture can sometimes become an unthinking action when Morning Prayer was held in St Stephen’s Chapel in Brisbane. The sacrament is not reserved in the Chapel but in the Blessed Sacrament Chapel of the cathedral nearby. Nevertheless, more than half of those arriving for prayer genuflected before taking their seat in the pews. In Churches where the tabernacle has been located in a side eucharistic chapel, many parishioners continue to genuflect toward the front as they enter and leave. Does this indicate that people genuflect out of force of habit or are they unaware of when and where the gesture is appropriate?
A friend swears blind that one day at the movies she saw a lady who was leaving the theatre before the film ended turn and genuflect toward the screen before walking out!
Perhaps we need to be reminded that the act of genuflecting is a sign of reverence for the real presence of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament reserved in the tabernacle. The red lamp burning near the tabernacle serves as a reminder of the real presence. Clearly people don’t notice the absence of either the tabernacle or the red light!
Children and non-Catholics sometimes ask about another ritual which Catholics commonly perform as they enter or leave the Church – blessing themselves with holy water. This possibly has its origins in the Jewish custom of washing oneself and reciting a prayer on entering the synagogue or temple. As Christians, the gesture reminds us that we “entered” the Church through baptism. As we make the sign of the cross with the blessed water, we call to mind that we are baptised in the name of the Father who created us, the Son who saved us through his death and resurrection, and the Spirit who fills us with life and is always with us.
It is for this reason that the baptismal font is now often located at the entrance of the Church. In fact, in the first centuries the baptistry was a separate building outside the main worship space. I have seen visitors walk in past a font full of holy water and complain that this church doesn’t have holy water! Again it makes me wonder if they think about what they are doing!
Rituals are essential to liturgical worship, but there is a danger of their becoming empty and meaningless unless we know the whys and wherefores of what we do and appreciate how such practices help maintain our identity as Catholic Christians.


Elizabeth Harrington