The Incarnation and the (Bow of the) Body

Why does there seem to be reluctance – at least in parishes I am familiar with – to showing reverence by bowing in worship? Is it that the bodily posture of bowing has become too archaic? Is it the feeling or semblance of lowering oneself that might be attached to bowing? Is it a lack of knowledge (and catechesis) among the faithful about the moments in worship that call forth bowing? Is it unease with certain gestures that have become socially odd? Is it laziness?

I have pondered these questions especially in this Christmas time, when the incarnation and nativity of Christ speak so forcefully of the importance of embodiment to our redemption. In fact, the General Instruction of the Roman Missal specifies that for the Solemnities of the Annuncation and of the Nativity of the Lord, the faithful genuflect at the words of the Creed “by the power of the Holy Spirit . . . became [hu]man.” At all other liturgical celebrations, “a profound bow” is called for at that point in the Creed.

What I witness in worship most often, however, is – at best! – the slightest inclination of the head by a few of the faithful. Most worshippers simply continue standing in place. I think these worshippers would be quite astonished to know that the GIRM even distinguishes between two kinds of bows in worship: a bow of the head, and a bow of the body (GIRM 275 explains which bow is appropriate when). Both bows signify “reverence and honor shown to the persons themselves or to the signs that represent them.”

As we celebrate the Solemnity of the Epiphany of the Lord, it seems to me that how we respond through, with, and in our own human embodiment to God’s own embodiment among us matters profoundly. Venite adoremus is a call to bodily enactment. —  Or do we need other bodily postures than bowing  to enable the faithful to live into that truth in 2014?


  1. Bowing is a great reverential posture. I advocate that it replace the genuflection since most people do that so poorly. Our people bow during the creed but some of them miss it because it begins and ends so fast. Nearly all of our people, including children, bow before receiving HC. It’s all a matter of good catechesis and the modeling of these postures by priests, deacons, and other ministers.

  2. Bowing is deeply reverential and I love all it can express. But, I think there is little catechesis about it and it is culturally awkward (“socially odd”). I, too, would like to see modeling of bowing by the celebrant and ministers. Bowing is not happening in either the pews or at the altar…

  3. This is something I’ve been thinking about too. I have to admit to bowing deeply rather than genuflecting of late because of arthritic knees but must say I think it is so important to show reverence for the Blessed Sacrament and for God’s house in general. It focuses the mind and heart and children copy what they see so we are encouraging a future generation to give proper respect also. There are other little habits that we have lost, I’m afraid. e.g. not leaving the church until the priest has left the altar, not chatting with friends or neighbours until we are outside as it disturbs others who are in prayer, not jumping the queue to Communion or if there is a blessing of a relic etc; It all boils down to basic respect. How do we show it? Thank you for raising this topic!

  4. I’d like to focus on just the point of kneeling/genuflecting during the Creed on Christmas and Annunciation. One of the reasons that I think it isn’t done it that people are unsure of what to do. The 1973/1998 Sacramentary said to genuflect at those words, the 2011 Missal says to kneel. In our minds that means two different things. The logistics are challenging. While it might be easy for the presbyter to genuflect before the altar, it is difficult to genuflect in the pew, especially with the kneeler down. Also, when do you start? Often when you are reciting the words the lines have already passed by the time you are in a position of reverence. The best I saw it done was on Annunication, after the homily the pastor explained the significance of it and explained how everyone would do it. He handled it like the death of Christ in the Passion account. Everyone recited the words together up to and including “and became man” we stopped, everyone knelt together, and it became a true moment of corporate worship. Then everyone stood and the creed resumed.

    How have other people effectively handled it where it was truly moment of corporate worship?

  5. For the first time I’m in a parish that bows regularly.

    We don’t bother with the kneeling, but if we ever were to do so, I would consider a robust chime to remind people, especially the priest, to kneel, and as Jeff suggests, pause like the Passion.

  6. I bow, my sons bow — but I realize that most people don’t. Genuflecting is simply not an option in most pews (I just physically tried it and it’s a no go, even in the section with chairs and with the kneelers up).

    Gabriel Bunge, OSB’s book “Earthen Vessels” has a good reflection on the gestures of prayer (he’s addressing personal prayer, not liturgical rubrics) but it might be an interesting piece to use for a discussion in a parish setting, or to pull from for some catechetical pieces in the bulletin on posture and the liturgy.

  7. [T]he faithful genuflect at the words of the Creed “by the power of the Holy Spirit… became [hu]man.”

    Not wishing to be too picky, but we now bow at the words “and by the Holy Spirit… became man”.

    Before Tres Abhinc Annos in 1967, the rubric was everyone genuflected during the Creed, every time it was said at Mass. Now we only genuflect at Christmas and the Annunciation; i.e. the feasts that the Incarnation has the most direct bearing on. What I imagine happened was that after people were told to stop genuflecting, rather than bowing instead they did nothing. (Indeed, as far as I can gather in the two-and-a-half years between Tres Abhinc Annos and the GIRM of the Novus Ordo, technically nothing was required. No bow, no genuflexion, nothing.)

    Why precisely this needed to be changed in the first place, I don’t know. I get that the post-conciliar intention was to particularly emphasise the Incarnation at Christmas and the Annunciation, but I think it’s an example of a reform that has generally ended up damaging devotion rather than nurturing it. In my opinion, this idea of “progressive solemnity” has not helped here.

  8. I don’t remember anyone bowing at my church and I wasn’t aware we were supposed to. I have to admit I get confused about what these actions are meant to symbolize … are we the subjects of a monarch or are we the family of a loving father?

    1. @crystal watson – comment #10:
      Well, fwiw, both. They are not opposed concepts in the Divine Persons….

      In any event, the bowing has been done more consistently over the past decade in Boston area parishes by perhaps at least a steady and visible minority of congregants since the rubrical adjustments in 2003.

      The kneeling on 12/25, still not handled well. Part of this is the habit of speed talking the Creed (though the NY ‘burbs are even worse than Boston – in NY, there’s a verbal race). Better presiders slow this down.

    2. @crystal watson – comment #10: “with this flesh I thee worship.” Gestures are important. We have too few of them as an assembly at our celebration of Eucharist. Bodily gestures at Mass are sacramental signs of our faith in the Word-become-flesh.

      There certainly are many who want to substitute “fear/awe of the Lord” into God as a “pal”.

    1. @crystal watson – comment #12:
      Crystal: when I pray the liturgy of the hours at home, I do bow whenever that is appropriate, and even with a full body bow. But I also sometimes dance, kneel on the floor, prostrate myself, or pray in the Orans position — why not? None of this has to do with me thinking I am in the presence of a monarch; rather, it is a bodily acknowledgement that I am in the presence of Someone beyond all human telling and gesturing, namely God.

    2. @crystal watson – comment #12:

      Do most people who bow/kneel at church also kneel when praying at home?

      Crystal, I don’t know what most people do, and I don’t know that there is really any data about it either. I imagine most people’s practice is pretty private. The Catechism of the Catholic Church recommends that we keep a place for prayer in our homes, isn’t prescriptive about how it might be furnished. I use a small Japanese bench (a seiza) which folds up neatly when I wish to pray kneeling at home.

    3. @crystal watson – comment #12: Do most people who bow/kneel at church also kneel when praying at home?

      My answer Is similar to Teresa Berger #15

      when I pray the liturgy of the hours at home, I do bow whenever that is appropriate, and even with a full body bow. But I also sometimes dance, kneel on the floor, prostrate myself, or pray in the Orans position — why not?

      I always stand for the NT Canticles, TeDeum and the Lord’s Prayer of the Office. I always make the profound bow for the Gloria Patri of the Canticles, and use the Orans position for the Lord’s Prayer. I think traditionally there were some bows or kneeling during the Te Deum but I don’t observe them.

      I often do other mentally not taxing things, especially physical exercises during the Divine Office. The physical exercises are varied, stretching, balance, sitting, standing, and generally assume a choreography that fits into the prayer format.

      I also pray the Divine Office while walking at 2mph on my treadmill downstairs.

      Generally now I pray the Divine Office either in English from and/or in Latin according to the old Monastic Office from Beuron. Texts as well as audio for both are available on the internet so I am not tied to a book or any positions. The Latin texts for feasts for Lauds and Vespers are fairly much the same so I know the psalm texts well. I have a copy of the Monastic Antiphonal so whatever else I am doing I usually rise, profoundly bow at the Gloria Patri, go to the Antiphonal to follow the chant notation for the Antiphons, then resume what else I was doing, sitting at my computer, exercising, washing dishes,etc.

      Some times I pray an English Office Hour downstairs twice. First once when doing my variety of physical exercises, then again for 15-20 minutes while walking on the Treadmill. The treadmill has a computer with a large monitor so besides the sound and texts, I have a huge photography collection which I use as icons for the prayer. Lots of sunrises, and sunsets etc. I recently read that they have found out the benefits of walking outdoors also occur for walking with virtual scenery. Walking along the shore of Lake Erie is one of my favorite places for prayer. I guess it is now possible to do that with an App for the Divine Office too.

      1. @Jack Rakosky – comment #19:
        Ah, you made my day, Jack. I am glad to know that others find doing dishes while praying with the DivineOffice App meaningful. I have at times felt guilty about this practice, but then remembered the desert mothers and fathers and their basket-weaving during prayer. I find that keeping the body in motion aids my prayer, most of the time. I pray a lot while walking too.

      2. @Fran Rossi Szpylczyn – comment #35:
        Thank you for this, Fran. Lovely.
        But as someone named after Teresa of Avila (rather than the Little Flower), I must note that the Teresa of the dishes is really Teresa of Avila, who famously quipped at a sister longing for contemplation when she was assigned kitchen duty: “GOD walks amonst the pots and pans.”

      3. @Teresa Berger – comment #37:

        I love the Teresa of Avila quote (which I know in Spanish) I do note that I have this card pinned up next to my desk and on the back there is a quote from the LIttle Flower: “I find just when I need them certain lights…and it isn’t during my hours of prayer that these are most abundant but rather in the midst of my daily occupations.”

        Therese admired Teresa, so therein perhaps lies the connection!

  9. One of the things we lose with losing Catholic grammar school education is knowledge of the “little” things like when to genuflect and why. I say they’re a big loss.

    With the loss of Catholic high schools and their more adult religion classes people don’t always learn or don’t become sufficiently impressed with the old concept of God who is infinitely immense, powerful, loving, and to Whom we owe everything good. The result is that the concept of God that is left seems to be that of the mysterious Creator and Jesus’ Dad. OK, that’s a huge over-simplification, but I do believe that not enough attention is given to appreciating God as Infinite Good, as the greatest Reality beyond what we could possibly imagine in a trillion years, and thereby awesome and worthy of bows.

  10. Karl Liam Saur :
    The kneeling on 12/25, still not handled well. Part of this is the habit of speed talking the Creed (though the NY ‘burbs are even worse than Boston – in NY, there’s a verbal race). Better presiders slow this down.

    This made me laugh out loud — “verbal race” is a great description of this NY parish. I’ve tried to work with the presiders to slow it down, but it’s hopeless. Once it starts, it has a life of its own.

  11. Searching for “creed bow” was certainly interesting, with excursions into hunting technologies and the virtues of specific weapons in some video games.

    What surprised me most though, was how infrequently “came down from heaven” was associated with buried, raised, ascended, will come again in glory. The descent into incarnation is coupled with rising in glory, and I feel the physical bow as a preparation for being rising with Christ. I think it is genius that the Nicene creed links the birth from Mary with the Paschal Mystery in this way instead of leaving it isolated as the Apostles Creed does.

  12. Thanks everyone for answering my question. Sometimes I wonder what other Christians do because I’m a convert and the only one at home who prays.

    I understand that gestures are important, but what I’m trying to figure out is what the gestures we do choose say about out relationship to the Jesus/God we personally know. I honestly can’t imagine kneeling, bowing, prostrating myself before anyone, unless I was afraid of them. I can’t imagine me wanting anyone I love to kneel before me, either. So when I pray, I don’t do those things, but maybe part of why I don’t is that it’s taken me a very long time to not be afraid of God but to believe instead that he loves me.

    1. @crystal watson – comment #20:
      Thank you for your thoughts, Crystal. You clarified something for me: I myself rarely am afraid of anything or anyone, and I can also be quite irreverent at times :). So, when I embody postures like the ones I describe, they don’t speak of fear for me, but simply of a wonderful, profound, all-encompassing, joyful reverence with which I enter into God’s presence.
      But bodily gestures — as all other signs and symbols — never carry only one meaning and that for everyone. On the other hand, if I were you, why not simply try some of the postures mentioned above, and see whether they really feel so fear-ful? The body has its own knowledges,most of which can only be revealed in the bodily practice itself, not in thinking about it.

    2. @crystal watson – comment #20:
      Happy Christmastide, Crystal and thank you for your thoughtful post. I do a profound bow at the Creed every Sunday and at the Doxology (Glory be to the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit) when it comes up in hymnody. That is something I picked up through monastic liturgical practice and has deepened my reverence of the triune name of God.

      Let me recommend an excellent book about keeping a sacred space in your home for prayer: Poustinia by Catherine de Heuek-Doherty. It will affirm and inspire what you do devotion ally in your home.


  13. It seems to me that the great value of bowing in public is that it’s a witness to our belief that God is Great and beyond us all, even though He is present in every speck of His creation..

    I pray the morning and night prayers of the Hours (or some of them), but I don’t do gestures then. They would be distracting to me. Styles of prayer are so very individual.

    I think the Church is missing the boat in not teaching a variety of kinds of contemplative prayer to the laity. The young may not be “religious”, but many are very spiritually inclined, and many would probably appreciate knowing more about the classic methods of private prayer. (The ancient ascetic practices are something else — many sound masochistic to me!)

  14. I noticed with interest that within a few months of the instruction being given in the USA (only) to bow before receiving Communion that at least half the people seemed to have forgotten. Of the remainder, many do a rapid and almost perfunctory nod which looks comic and could scarcely be described as reverent.

    In England and Wales, para 210 of the Bishops’ Conference 2005 document Celebrating the Eucharist has this:

    The Communion procession expresses the humble patience of the poor moving forward to be fed, the alert expectancy of God’s people sharing the Paschal meal in readiness for their journey, the joyful confidence of God’s people on the march toward the promised land. In England and Wales it is through this action of walking solemnly in procession that the faithful make their sign of reverence in preparation for receiving Communion.

    But one can also ask whether reverence is the only appropriate emotion at this point in the rite. Joy might be there too. Brian Wren’s magnificent text says it all:

    1 I come with joy to meet my Lord,
    forgiven, loved, and free;
    in awe and wonder to recall
    his life laid down for me.

    2 I come with Christians far and near
    to find, as all are fed,
    the new community of love
    in Christ’s communion bread.

    3 As Christ breaks bread and bids us share,
    each proud division ends;
    the love that made us, makes us one,
    and strangers now are friends.

    4 And thus with joy we meet our Lord;
    his presence, always near,
    is in such friendship better known:
    we see and praise him here.

    5 Together met, together bound,
    we’ll go our different ways;
    and as his people in the world,
    we’ll live and speak his praise.

    1. @Paul Inwood (#25):

      Re. para. 210 of Celebrating the Eucharist: I confess, the “sign of reverence” our bishops have decided on is something that greatly irks me.

      A more honestly British way of describing “walking solemnly in procession” would be “queueing”. Call me a cynic, but I don’t think most people in England and Wales treat what they see as the queue for Communion as a sign of the “march toward the promised land”. I think our bishops have a overly romanticised idea of queueing; perhaps they should spend a bit more time in banks and post offices…?

      Also, if the sign of reverence is something everyone would do anyway as a matter of practicality (i.e. being in the Communion procession), there’s nothing to distinguish it as reverent per se, nothing in the action to mark it out as important. The Communion procession/line/queue is something that naturally happens anyway, just as queues happen at fast-food restaurants. So what exactly makes it reverent?

      In any case, I would privilege what the GIRM itself says in para. 160: when they communicate standing, it is recommended that the faithful bow in reverence before receiving the Sacrament. The bow marks out the act of receiving Holy Communion and helps form a reverent attitude towards Our Lord in a way that the procession on its own cannot, no matter how ‘creatively’ it is interpreted.

      1. @Matthew Hazell – comment #27:

        A more honestly British way of describing “walking solemnly in procession” would be “queueing”.


        What’s the difference between a procession and a queue? Answer: when you’re in a procession, you sing. The Church proposes Communion antiphons for us all to sing in the procession, with psalm/canticle verses for a cantor or schola. The silent shuffling forward is certainly a queue, but a congregation that understands that it is in the Communion procession, supported by the sung prayer of the entire community, is a different thing entirely.

      2. @Paul Inwood (#41):

        Except that practically nowhere sings the Communion antiphon, or any of the other Mass propers, because we replace them all with hymns. And since no-one takes a hymnal with them when they leave their pew, few people are going to be singing in the procession, unless the replacement hymn is one everyone knows.

        Even then, I don’t think that many people would sing. In my experience, just before receiving Communion most people prefer an interior participatio actuosa to an exterior one. This moment in the Mass is where a good schola/choir comes into its own; rather than have everyone attempt to remember and sing an antiphon and its melody (which some people are better at than others!) while at the same time trying to prepare to receive Communion, people can prepare in the procession assisted by the choir doing the musical legwork.

        Still, I’m not sure the sign value of the procession is changed that much even with singing. If it looks like a queue, and quacks like a queue… Having re-read the relevant section of CtM, I don’t see that it makes the distinction between procession and queue that you do. There’s no mention of singing in CtM 210; para. 213 mentions that singing highlight[s] more the “communitarian” nature of the Communion procession, but that’s not quite the same thing, because it seems to treat of singing as a helpful but extra component of the procession, not as essential to the idea of a procession itself.

        In any case, CtM 210 references GIRM 160, which recommends that people bow before receiving Communion standing – or, of course, one could solve the whole problem and just receive kneeling (though I find that this suggestion is not looked upon fondly by many who believe themselves to be “adult” in the faith, whatever that means!).

      3. @Matthew Hazell – comment #42:
        Matthew, your first premise is not entirely accurate. More often I see (and nearly always use) responsorial songs sung at Communion, which, if they aren’t propers “by the book” retain two important elements: the structure of call-and-response, and the texts based on Scripture. This is a solid improvement over the Tridentine Low Mass.

        People sing when they are consistently encouraged to sing over several years. It happens at my parish, but I can’t really take credit for anything more than maintaining a tradition well-rooted before I got there.

        Getting back to bowing, at least two dioceses in my state, to promote speed, suggested lay people bow as the person in front of them receives the Eucharist. Our students are from many dioceses, so I observe a variety of practices. But they catch on at the singing bit, mostly. And I don’t have a problem with people who pause the singing to walk, receive, and come back.

      4. @Matthew Hazell – comment #42:

        You obviously haven’t kept up with the repertoire, which for the past 40 years has been producing Communion Songs with refrains precisely for the purpose I described. Many congregations are used to this now and have embraced it joyfully as a means to prayer, as Todd bears out in #47.

      5. @Paul Inwood (#53):

        In my experience of parishes around England and Wales, the norm is decidedly not what you (and Mr Flowerday in the U.S.A.) evidently experience. Either a hymn replaces the proper, or there is instrumental music, or there is nothing. Responsorial songs do not feature.

        And I keep up with the repertoire enough to know that there’s not been much good congregational music written in the last 40 years, responsorial or otherwise. Our diocese uses Laudate, and, offhand, I can’t think of one single contemporary piece in it that either I like, or that I think is suited to the Mass, or that can be sung well by an average congregation. (I’d have to have a flick-through to try and find something.) I’m willing to predict that, when I’m of retirement age, there’s going to be very few songs from 1960-2010 that will still be sung in Catholic worship. But that’s a whole other can o’ worms…

        Then again, I am one of these young-fogey extremists who thinks that we should actually sing the Mass propers instead of taking it upon ourselves to replace them with other texts. So feel free to ignore me! 🙂

      6. @Matthew Hazell – comment #55:
        Responsorial songs during Communion have been suggested/preached/harangued for in the US at least since the 80’s. Even organists employ them. But hymns are not extinct at that spot.

        I’m aware of some of the repertoire being produced in Britain, but mainly in the US, of course, both published and not. My sense is that at least 99% of everything being composed these days is inferior, but given that hundreds of thousands of songs and hymns have been written since 1960, that still spells something of a golden age for good liturgical music. A discerning music director only needs to slog through a mountain of possible repertoire and navigate multiple publishers big and small. A darned headache, granted.

        In the US, my sense is that by the 22nd century, about twenty to fifty songs from 1970-2010 will still be utilized, depending on the parish. That, of course, presumes the limits of books. In another forty years, I don’t think we’ll be seeing many books in church. People will sing from tablets and glasses from what is programmed into them wirelessly. No problem having a 5,000-entry hymnal then. And thanks to MR3, we’re so much farther from a national repertoire than ever.

        I have no reason to ignore you, Matthew. I think the batch of propers we’ve inherited are a largely dead issue for the Church. A lot of people are doing good and devoted work today that would have borne fruit a century or more ago. Or even in 1960. The only way most of the purveyors can promote the propers is seemingly to denigrate the repertoire of others, the hermeneutic of subtraction.

        Not following that example would be the work of the Psallite project. The music I’ve sung from that collection ranges from pedestrian to inventive, and as a body, matches any published contemporary collection, and is superior to the various solo projects I’ve browsed, the CCW, or the SEP, and such.

      7. @Paul Inwood – comment #41:

        What’s the difference between a procession and a queue?


        In a procession there is constant movement forward, perhaps at a leisurely or stately pace, but there is forward movement. In a queue there is considerable waiting. More should be done to manage the dynamics of the communion procession and the avoidance of communion queues.

        In my favorite parish there is one communion procession down the center of the aisle. However it is a fast procession because when one reaches the front of the church it expands into four stations for the bread and six for the cup. No waiting there. Elementary fluid dynamics. The constriction in the width of the flow means it will be fast. One usher on each side of the church helps to usher people into the procession at the right pace to keep the procession moving at a normal walking pace.

        By contrast other parishes which have people in multiple queues for multiple aisles have slow queues because they generally place insufficient ministers at the head of the aisle to cause the flow to expand and therefore to move more quickly and don’t have ushers assisting people to enter the procession at the proper pace.

      8. @Matthew Hazell – comment #27:

        Didn’t the UK Bishops subsequently change that and ask for a bow instead? I think that the book Mr. Hazell mentions is now out of date because the IGMR has all the CBCEW provisions in it.

        A. Griffiths.

      9. @Alan Griffiths – comment #56:

        The draft of the Norms for the Reception of Holy Communion for England and Wales have been languishing on a desk in Rome for many years. There is no sign of them reappearing, They did indeed include a bow as a sign of reverence, but since they never received the confirmatio the 2005 document’s solemn procession as the sign of reverence still stands as particular law for those countries.

  15. It is a mixed bag in my parish. I think it does sneak up on people and it is quick. I think the EF rubric has the genuflection earlier than where the bow begins in the OF. The priest and servers really need to model it. However I notice in my parish that most strike their breast three times at the mea culpa in the Confiteor as it seems to come quite naturally.

  16. I find that ritual theorists, especially Catherine Bell, to be particularly helpful when thinking about bodily gestures. For Bell, the act is not so much a symbolic, communicative action (i.e. that it’s primary purpose is to communicate some meaning for the self or others – in this case to express our inner sense of reverence or fear, etc.). Indeed, Bell is quite critical of such interpretations of ritual acts. Bell’s position is that ritual acts are practical – that is, they aim not primarily at communicating/expressing some meaning or content separate from the act, but at their doing. And by doing (especially over time) we hope to become. So, in bowing, genuflecting, etc. we are not expressing our reverence (sometimes we do this even without feeling reverential), but doing reverence to become God revering people. This strikes me as being very closely related to virtue ethics.
    Now, that doesn’t address Ms. Watson’s concern about the appropriateness of these gestures. To that concern, I would respond: 1) that we have been elevated in Christ to sons and daughters, friends of the Father does not do away with God’s lordship. Our relationship with God as both creatures and friends is paradoxical, not dialectical, and both components are acted out in ritual gesture. 2) Our democratic inclinations often blind us to the subtle ways in which we enact hierarchy (rightly or wrongly) among people we are inclined to think of as ‘equals’. Hierarchy is always contextual and there are many contexts in which we set others, even friends, above ourselves. In an obvious sense, even though we rarely deal with nobility, we nevertheless have habits of speech and gesture denoting the precedence of our leaders above us (courtroom behavior with a judge is most obvious as we don’t even address him/her directly by name, but through the intermediatary of the judge’s Honor). 3) It is the cosmic reverence of the Creator by creation in liturgy (pt. 1) that can potentially subvert all the inner-worldly hierarchies of pt. 2.

    1. @Brendan McInerny – comment #30:
      I appreciate your pointer to Bell’s thinking on the matter very much. I agree with her, and with you — even if my previous ways of expressing things might have led you to think otherwise.

      1. @Teresa Berger – comment #31:
        I sincerely apologize if my comments suggested I was criticizing anything you or anyone else has posted.
        As to your original post, I’d venture to say that the lack of bowing, etc. comes from an ignorance of the GIRM more than anything else. The parishes I frequent have only a spattering of bowers, and I wouldn’t describe them as parishes inclined toward principled rejections of norms – for whatever reason. There is also the broader issue of our contemporary de-ritualized mindset (not that we are de-ritualized) and the resulting difficulty for us to grasp why we perform ritual actions at all. I’m reminded of Guardini’s letter to Mgr Wagner for the Third German Liturgical Congress:
        “Is not the liturgical act and, with it, all that goes under the name of ‘liturgy’ so bound up with the historical background – antique or medieval or baroque – that it would be more honest to give it up altogether? Would it not be better to admit that man in this industrial and scientific age, with its new sociological structure, is no longer capable of a liturgical act?”
        Despite agreeing with Guardini, et al, that things might not be so bleak, I find the latter question haunting.

  17. Sure I learned this at some point… but my question would be why do we do a bow at the incarnation and nothing around the death/resurrection… is it too much emphasis on the incarnation act itself and not on the Paschal Mystery elements?

  18. Whole lot of discussion about not much, in my opinion.

    Personally, I bow because I ‘do the red’. But I do that not so much because I think it is holier; mostly it is to be willing to do it in support of others who do it and to make a contribution to all of us acting as a community as much as possible.

    That said, it doesn’t offend me if others don’t, and if their hearts are properly oriented, I am confident God doesn’t mind, either.

    Sometimes you need to be careful what you wish for, because you might get it. Example from Paul Inwood: “…within a few months of the instruction being given in the USA (only) to bow before receiving Communion that at least half the people seemed to have forgotten. Of the remainder, many do a rapid and almost perfunctory nod which looks comic and could scarcely be described as reverent. Why is that? Is it because hundreds of people are going to receive Communion at one time and some don’t want to appear to be lingering and slowing the process down? I think we create problems for ourselves by fretting over the minutiae.

  19. Early in my theology school career, we were assigned Rudolph Otto’s “The Idea of the Holy” to read. It has been one of the most influential of my spiritual life. I don’t bow to a God in fear, or as a subject, but as the creature of the Creator, recognizing both the glory and love that is greater than anything I can be. I think equating the postures of bowing, kneeling, prostration, etc. to serf-overlord loses the beauty of being in awe before God.

  20. During war years and conscription the habit of saluting would have been common. Now the military, and former servicemen, are only a small part of the population so that sort of physical gesture of salutation and respect is less common. I suspect that this plays a small part in the change in habits of the congregation.

  21. Speaking of Teresa of Avila, I’d think she’d be one of the last people who would bow, kneel, or prostrate, given the close and personal kind of relationship she had with Jesus (but I could be wrong). I understand bowing to a God who seems so utterly Other, but I don’t see how one can conduct a personal relationship with that kind of being … Jesus called his disciples friends.

  22. We have a friend who is a Baptist. In her church it is customary for everyone to remain in their seats for communion. The bread and wine are passed round, dishes of hosts and trays of small wine glasses, one per communicant. I remember her reaction to attending Mass for the first time. She was blown away by the symbolism of the communion procession and instantly grasped that it was about a people travelling together towards the heavenly Jerusalem being nourished by what they were doing. It made her weep. sometimes we miss what is under our own noses through familiarity.

  23. This has been an interesting discussion, however, I wonder whether the matter is altogether more simple, at least in the UK (I have little experience of the US).

    Catholics always used to genuflect during the Creed at ‘.. et homo factus est’ or thereabouts. We always genuflected when passing in front of the Holy Sacrament. But I don’t remember Catholics ever bowing a lot. I may be wrong, but it seems that bowing is just not something that RC’s have ever done, as far as I can see.

    Genuflection is an inherited gesture, at least for older Catholics. You always did it. Even if it is reduced to just a little ‘bob’ or curtsey, it is something we all grew up with if we are over 55 or so. I would hazard a guess that such ‘inherited’ gestures which we grew up with are likely to become almost automatic.

    Other gestures which are commended to us in later life are likely to be performed on a more ‘conscious’ level, and in the case of bowing I am not surprised that some people may find this ’embarrassing’ because it is done at a higher level of self-consciousness. One just feels silly, basically. This is to say nothing of the seating arrangements in many churches which do not permit movement at all!

    Also, as a priest often facing the people during the Creed, I am at a loss in which direction to direct my ‘bow’ (if I remember to do it at all). Do I face the altar? That makes some sense to me, as I am ‘orienting’ myself. But if I am standing at a chair which is on line with the altar, then in turning I run the risk of colliding with the server standing next to me. So what if I just bow in the direction of the congregation? What does that suggest?

    I think our Bishops (or the General Instruction, indeed,) may be on a loser in trying to make people behave in ways they were not brought up to observe.

    Alan Griffiths.

  24. I think, Teresa, you’re absolutely right that most Catholics don’t even know that they’re supposed to be bowing, or that there are two different kinds of bows. I didn’t know about the bow during the creed until I noticed the fine print in a missalette when I was an adult.

    If it’s not too cranky, I’d like to wag my finger at the worship aides we’ve been using since the introduction of the new missal. You know, those laminated cards in the pews? My parish uses the one published by Magnificat (, and I still reach for it when it’s time for the Creed. I thought the new translation might at least be an opportunity to re-teach people about the bow (and other under-appreciated or under-practiced aspects of the liturgy), but the way that pew card cues people to bow is so confusing that I think it’s made matters worse. (There’s at least one other design that has the same problem.) They’ve interrupted the text of the Creed with a note: “At the words that follow, up to and including ‘and became man,’ all bow.” So what happens is, people are reading along, and then they get to that — “What’s this?” — and by the time they finished reading the instructions the moment has passed. As a result, instead of an uptick in bowing, I have noticed a dropping-off in reciting as people stumble over that weird interpolation in the text. Why couldn’t they just put a little bracket in the margin with the word “bow”?

    1. @Mollie Wilson O’Reilly – comment #51:
      I absolutely agree with your observation, Mollie. In the parishes I know, people’s voices drop off at that point in the creed because of the very unfortunate way this is scripted on the laminated aids we use. Early on, there was actually somewhat of a silence at that point, because people struggled with what to do.

  25. Some years ago, there was a pastoral letter in my diocese (Westminster, UK) on good Communion practice. By someone’s extraordinary oversight, the recommendation to bow before receiving was relegated to a footnote, so was never read out. The result is that in my parish I am one of very few who do so. To me it is a suitable reminder to myself (and perhaps to others) of what I am about to receive. In my church bowing to the altar is common practice because the Blessed Sacrament is (for historical reasons) reserved in a side chapel.

    Now here’s another opportunity for bowing. When I was an altar server in the 1950s, it was correct for the server to bow to the priest in the Confiteor at ‘et tibi, pater’ and ‘et te, pater’. Now that we all confess together to God AND TO EACH OTHER, what about turning to bow to those around you at ‘to you, brothers and sisters’? Nothing elaborate, a slight turn and nod of the head will do. These are people with whom you will exchange the sign of peace later, so why not acknowledge them when you actually mention them verbally first in the ‘I confess’?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *