When I was studying in Washington D.C. and living at a parish there one of the other priests at the parish was from India. One day a parishioner asked me why that priest only bowed at some times during the Mass while all of the other priests she knew genuflected? Good question I thought, so I asked him about it. He said that in his culture there were various different bows and while it was our custom to genuflect to Christ present in the Eucharist, it was their custom to have their most profound bow for that honor.
Consider the different postures we assume during Mass, genuflecting, bowing, kneeling, standing, sitting, do we know why we are doing what we are doing or is it just habit? For myself the greatest understanding of this came when I was growing up in the 1970’s when I went to some different churches and noticed some people were genuflecting before going into their pews, and others were bowing. None of them were from India, but was it just different customs? Or were some more holy or pious than others? And then one day I was instructed at a church that was being remodeled that because there wasn’t a tabernacle in the worship space we were to bow to the altar where Mass would be celebrated when we entered instead of genuflecting to Christ in the tabernacle in the Eucharist. I know I was probably told that sometime before, but habits had just taken over and when I went into church I knew I was supposed to genuflect but not always thinking about why, but now I knew better. Since then, especially in the 1970’s and 1980’s when I was going different places and many churches were being remodeled and new ones built I recognized I wasn’t the only one who let my habits guide my actions as opposed to always thinking about what I was doing. Sometimes the tabernacle was still in the main body of the church, but it was off to the side (like we have), so you had to hunt down the red candle by the tabernacle to realize where I should be genuflecting.
A simple summary for postures is listed in the document Environment and Art in Catholic Worship, “sitting for preparations, for listening, for silent reflection; standing for the gospel, solemn prayer, praise and acclamation; kneeling for adoration, penitential rites.” (EAW 57) During Mass you may note that the priest genuflects after the Consecration when he shows the Body and then the Blood of Christ to the congregation, recognizing Christ’s presence.
From this list, for certain parts of Mass there could be different options, depending on where the emphasis in the action being done is to be placed. That is why another value also needs to be considered, unity. “A common bodily posture, to be observed by all those taking part, is a sign of the unity of the members of the Christian community gathered together for the Sacred Liturgy, for it expresses the intentions and spiritual attitude of the participants and also fosters them. “ (GIRM, 42) This is in the instructions for celebrating Mass, which I also mentioned to the Indian priest. Since he was going to be staying in the United States he needed to be aware of how some people saw his actions. Explaining them to others could help share his culture, but he also needed to be aware and consider how it could be misinterpreted and the division such small actions can make when deciding if he would continue this practice or not.