ROME, 6 SEPT. 2011 (ZENIT)
Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.
Q: A genuflection is made by bending the right knee (General Instruction of the Roman Missal [GIRM], No. 274), and a sign of cross is made by the right hand. Are these rules absolute? Could a left-handed person make a sign of cross by the left hand or genuflect with the left knee? — P.T., New Orleans, Louisiana
A: As a southpaw myself, I fully sympathize with our reader's predicament. Thankfully, the stigma attached to left-handedness in former times seems to have all but disappeared. It certainly does not seem to have damaged the prospects of three of the last four U.S. presidents.
From a liturgical standpoint, the indications in the GIRM are merely descriptive of what the vast majority of people will do naturally and indicative of established custom. Since it is usually no great difficulty for left-handed people to perform these tasks, it is better and more decorous that they conform to the general rule of right. Even in civil society the vast majority of left-handed people will proffer the right hand for a friendly handshake. It quickly becomes so natural and spontaneous to use the right hand for genuflecting and blessing that one would have to make a conscious effort to act otherwise.
Personally, I have rarely found being left-handed an obstacle to carrying out the normal liturgical gestures and movements, except possibly when scooping incense from the boat to the thurible.
And yet, there is no deep theological reason for preferring one hand or another. It is a question of practicality and longstanding custom, similar to the different ways of making the sign of the cross, moving the hand from right to left among most Eastern Catholics while the Latin rite traditionally prefers a left-to-right movement.
It is true that there are many biblical passages that speak of the power of God's right hand, and of Our Lord sitting "at the right hand of the Father." The literary figures contained in these texts are significant in many theological contexts and are certainly related to the liturgy's general preference for the use of the right hand. But I think it would be forcing the issue to use them to exclude other possibilities, or convert the use of the right hand into an absolute rule. These texts simply reflect the use of universal symbols of power grounded on the fact that 90 percent of people are right-handed.
If circumstances warrant it, then an alternative mode can be adopted. For example, when Blessed John Paul II broke his arm he felt no qualms in using his left hand to impart the apostolic blessing. Likewise, a person who is unsteady on his legs could genuflect according to whichever member gave greater balance.
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Follow-up: Right-handed Gestures [9-20-2011]
In the wake of our comments on left-handedness (see Sept. 6), a reader offered some interesting information: "I have an interest in the history and language of gestures. In medieval times, you would genuflect on your left knee to someone who had authority over you but not ultimate authority. You would use your left knee before your local lord, but your right knee was reserved for the king. We've kept some of that in America. I remember the sisters telling me for my confirmation that I should use my left knee to genuflect to the bishop, because the right knee was reserved for Jesus."
Meanwhile, a reader in Nigeria reader asked about the sign of the cross: "I wish to know the appropriate position of the fingers while making the sign of the cross. It is clear that we begin the sign of the cross with the fingers on the forehead down to the chest or navel, then to the left shoulder and the right. I have a little confusion whether the fingers should be on the navel or the chest. Where should it be? Which one is correct? What is the liturgical and theological implication of each?"
According to the original Catholic Encyclopaedia, the "Sign of the Cross" is:
"A term applied to various manual acts, liturgical or devotional in character, which have this at least in common: that by the gesture of tracing two lines intersecting at right angles they indicate symbolically the figure of Christ's cross.
"Most commonly and properly the words 'sign of the cross' are used of the large cross traced from forehead to breast and from shoulder to shoulder, such as Catholics are taught to make upon themselves when they begin their prayers, and such also as the priest makes at the foot of the altar when he commences Mass with the words: 'In nomine Patris et Filii et Spiritus Sancti.' (At the beginning of Mass the celebrant makes the sign of the cross by placing his left hand extended under his breast; then raising his right to his forehead, which he touches with the extremities of his fingers, he says: In nomine Patris; then, touching his breast with the same hand, he says: et Filii; touching his left and right shoulders, he says: et Spiritus Sancti; and as he joins his hands again adds: Amen.) The same sign recurs frequently during Mass, e.g. at the words 'Adjutorium nostrum in nomine Domini,' at the 'Indulgentiam' after the Confiteor, etc., as also in the Divine Office, for example at the invocation 'Deus in adjutorium nostrum intende,' at the beginning of the 'Magnificat,' the 'Benedictus,' the 'Nunc Dimittis,' and on many other occasions."
Some other sources suggest the lower breast or navel area as appropriate. I do not believe that this point is legislated about with great precision, and a couple of inches here or there makes no substantial difference to the quality of the gesture.
What is important is to do the gesture with reverence and awareness of its significance as a proclamation of Trinitarian faith and remembrance of the Passion.