Bowing at the Holy Names

Author: Father Edward McNamara, LC


Bowing at the Holy Names

Local customs OK if not banned by the General Instruction

ROME, 1 DEC. 2015 (ZENIT) 

Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university. 

Q: "Is it forbidden by the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM) or the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments for concelebrating priests, deacons assisting, religious in choir, or laypeople present at Mass, to bow at hearing the holy names of Jesus and Mary (and by extension the saint of the day, etc.)? — N.D., Antwerp, Belgium

A: The text of the GIRM says the following about bows in No. 275: 

"A bow signifies reverence and honor shown to the persons themselves or to the signs that represent them. There are two kinds of bows: a bow of the head and a bow of the body.

"A bow of the head is made when the three Divine Persons are named together and at the names of Jesus, of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and of the Saint in whose honor Mass is being celebrated.

"A bow of the body, that is to say a profound bow, is made to the altar; during the prayers Mundacor meum (Almighty God, cleanse my heart) and In spiritu humilitatis (Lord God, we ask you to receive); in the Creed at the words Et incarnatus est (by the power of the Holy Spirit . . . made man); in the Roman Canon at the words Supplices te rogamus (Almighty God, we pray that your angel). The same kind of bow is made by the deacon when he asks for a blessing before the proclamation of the Gospel. In addition, the priest bows slightly as he speaks the words of the Lord at the consecration.  

Our reader is referring primarily to bows of the head. The above norms do not say anything about who makes the bow. Today it would usually be interpreted in the sense that the person or persons proclaiming the text would be the ones to make the gesture.

Most of these bows were, and still are, made in the extraordinary form of the Roman rite, and in some cases only the priest would know the precise moment to make them as parts of these prayers were recited in a low voice inaudible to the congregation. When audible, the faithful would make the gesture while the other ministers would turn and bow toward the tabernacle, doffing the biretta while doing so. 

This would also be done when the preacher mentioned Jesus by name. Some liturgists, such as Fortescue, employed a three or five rule in which after the third or fifth time a preacher invoked the Holy Name the clergy could make a simple bow and stop removing their headgear or turning toward the tabernacle.

In the ordinary form, during the Glory and the Creed the whole congregation and all the ministers bow at the name of Jesus and Mary as all recite it together. 

On the other occasions, usually only the principal celebrant makes this gesture as these mentions are mostly confined to the presidential prayers. However, a concelebrant would bow if he mentions one of the persons while reciting part of the Eucharistic Prayer.

In some countries in which Catholicism has strong roots, the custom still exists among Catholics to make a bow of the head whenever they hear or say the names of Jesus.

This tradition is based on St. Paul's letter to the Philippians 2:9-10: "God greatly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every other name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend … and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord …."

It also stems from Constitution 25 of the Second Council of Lyons, convened in 1274 by Pope Gregory X:

"Those who assemble in church should extol with an act of special reverence that name with is above every name, than which no other under heaven has been given to people, in which believers must be saved, the name, that is, of Jesus Christ, who will save his people from their sins. Each should fulfill in himself that which is written for all that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow; whenever that glorious name is recalled, especially during the sacred mysteries of the Mass, everyone should bow the knees of his heart, which he can do even by a bow of his head."

The same Pope later encouraged the Dominican order to preach and promote the devotion to the Holy Name. In 1721 Pope Innocent XIII instituted the feast of the Holy Name. This was removed in 1969 and was restored by St. John Paul II and is now celebrated on Jan. 3.

This custom, once widespread, indeed almost universal, has unfortunately become far less common today.

With respect to such customs, the above norms of the GIRM say nothing either for or against. Thus, wherever the local custom is for all to make the bow whenever the name of Jesus and Mary are mentioned, nothing in the text of the GIRM would forbid it.

Where it is no longer the custom, any member of the faithful may continue to do so as a private devotion and act of reverence and, in many places, a fair number of Catholics retain the practice. 

If one is serving in a ministerial capacity such as deacon or concelebrant, again I do not believe the text of the GIRM constitutes a prohibition. However, if you are the only one, apart from the celebrant, making the gesture, it might be best to refrain from doing it so as not to appear to be calling attention toward yourself. As the GIRM says in No. 42:  "The gestures and posture of the priest, the deacon, and the ministers, as well as those of the people, ought to contribute to making the entire celebration resplendent with beauty and noble simplicity, so that the true and full meaning of the different parts of the celebration is evident and that the participation of all is fostered. Therefore, attention should be paid to what is determined by this General Instruction and the traditional practice of the Roman Rite and to what serves the common spiritual good of the People of God, rather than private inclination or arbitrary choice. A common posture, to be observed by all participants, is a sign of the unity of the members of the Christian community gathered for the Sacred Liturgy: it both expresses and fosters the intention and spiritual attitude of the participants."

This article has been selected from the ZENIT Daily Dispatch
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