I have modified the way I receive Communion. I used to give a deep bow when I got to the front of the Communion line, but the bow has given way to a genuflection. Yes, it is more visible (more obtrusive, some might say), but I don't care about that. By my reading of the rubrics, a genuflection is what is called for — and it seems the most appropriate gesture, anyway.
Consider what the celebrant is called to do. According to the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, during Mass he is to genuflect at certain times: “after the showing of the Eucharistic bread, after the showing of the chalice, and before Communion.” Immediately after his genuflection at Communion time, the priest self-communicates. He genuflects as a sign of adoration.
If genuflection is proper for the priest as he receives Communion, on what grounds could it be improper for lay people, given that nothing in the rubrics suggests that genuflection is a posture reserved for the clergy? Hold that thought a moment as we consider what the Church has taught about what lay people are to do as they receive Communion.
In Inestimabile Donum, the Congregation for the Sacraments and Divine Worship noted that, “[W]hen the faithful communicate kneeling, no other sign of reference toward the Blessed Sacrament is required, since kneeling itself is a sign of adoration.” But a sign of reverence should be made when the people receive Communion standing, which is the most common way in American parishes. “When they receive Communion standing, it is strongly recommended that, coming up in procession, they should make a sign of reverence before receiving the Sacrament. This should be done at the right time and place, so that the order of people going to and from Communion is not disrupted.”
So, if you receive Communion standing, you should make a sign of reverence just before you receive. What should that sign be? Inestimabile Donum does not specify, but one could argue that the priest and people should make the same sign, to show unity among themselves. What sign does the priest make? He genuflects. This suggests that genuflection, then, is the most proper sign for the people to make. But it is not the only sign they may give. They may give some other sign of reverence, such as a deep bow or even the sign of the cross. What is required is some sign of reverence, and the choice is up to the communicant.
Catholics need to adore their Lord when they receive him in Communion. Their bodies should mirror the love in their hearts.
Look at the final clause of the instruction in Inestimabile Donum: “[S]o that the order of people going to and from Communion is not disrupted.” Does this eliminate genuflection? Some might say it should. After all, if the person in front of you suddenly drops his knee to the ground, you might trip over him. It's been known to happen. A little direction from the pulpit, though, can eliminate such hazards.
All a priest need say is that someone going up for Communion should leave a little space ahead of himself as he gets near the front of the line — say, in second or third place. If he lets the person just ahead of him advance an extra pace or so, he can move forward into the empty space (thus putting the empty space between him and the person behind him) and genuflect. He may want to hold on to the end of the neighboring pew for support. With the empty space behind the genuflector, there will not be any danger of anyone tripping over him.
Besides, if most of the parishioners follow this arrangement, even newcomers to the parish will be able to see what is happening and will be able to adjust their own actions as they get to the front of the line. If a communicant chooses not to genuflect but to make some other sign of reverence, such as a deep bow, nothing is lost; he has plenty of room ahead and behind.
Most Catholics do not know that a sign of reverence is required of them because they have not been told. They have not been instructed by their pastors, who themselves may not know the rules. So it is that in many parishes genuflecting in the Communion line might strike some as “odd.” It is “odd” only in that it is uncommon, and it is uncommon only because the people have not been told what they are to do. The rarity of the act is no argument against genuflecting. It is an argument, instead, for proper and thorough instruction of the congregation.
Catholics need to adore their Lord, and at no time are they closer to him than when they receive him in Communion. That is the very best time for their bodies to mirror the love that should be in their hearts. The traditional way to signify adoration is not the sign of the cross, not the bow, but the genuflection. While genuflecting at Communion is not required, it strikes me as the most appropriate gesture, both psychologically and rubrically, and that is why I have switched.
Karl Keating is founding director of Catholic Answers.