What is the proper gesture of reference towards the tabernacle both during Mass and outside of Mass?


Our outward gestures, especially those that take place within the context of liturgy and prayer, should reflect our inner disposition, our own thoughts and feelings about what we are doing. That is why a question like this is an important one: it is an opportunity for us to make sure that our gestures are an accurate reflection of genuine Catholic sentiment regarding the tabernacle.

The tabernacle is a boxlike container where the Blessed Sacrament is kept, or “reserved.” Consecrated hosts are kept there so that the Body of Christ is available to take to the sick, and so that the faithful have the opportunity to adore our Lord in the Eucharist.

Outside of Mass, the proper gesture of reverence towards the tabernacle is a genuflection, in which you kneel on your right knee, make the Sign of the Cross, and then rise to your feet again. Note that this is a more profound act of humility and reverence then a bowing of the head, or a bowing at the waist. This is because Christ’s Presence in the tabernacle is more profound. Jesus is more substantially present in the tabernacle than He is in the Word of God found in Scripture or, generally speaking, in the hearts of men. Thus, the tabernacle calls for a greater gesture of reverence.

The purpose for the genuflection you make when you enter and exit the pew is to venerate the tabernacle. But, note that this takes place before Mass starts and after it has ended. While Mass is being celebrated, there is no sign of reverence made towards the tabernacle, at least not by the priest, deacon, and other liturgical ministers. The General Instruction of the Roman Missal says, “If, however, the tabernacle with the Most Blessed Sacrament is present 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” (cf. no. 274).

I’m not entirely sure why that is. Perhaps it is to draw our attention to the altar, where the Sacrifice of the Mass is taking place. Genuflection signifies adoration, so it could also be that, by removing the sign of reverence towards the tabernacle, the Church is trying to place the emphasis on what is being consecrated in front of us, instead of on what was already consecrated during a previous Mass. Or, it could be that, since you already reverenced the tabernacle when you entered the pew before Mass, and you’re going to do it again before you exit the pew, that those gestures are sufficient and it’s not necessary to do them again. I am not an expert on the liturgy, but those are my educated guesses.

Peace of Christ to you,

Nicholas Hardesty,
WIMM Board Member
Director of Religious Education, Blessed Mother Catholic Church
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