Bowing While Kneeling

Author: Father Edward McNamara


Bowing While Kneeling

ROME, 21 SEPT. 2010 (ZENIT)
Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.

Q: At Mass some folks are beginning to bow after the consecration of each of the elements, although our rubrics require that we be kneeling. Isn't kneeling already an act of adoration and reverence, thus making the bow superfluous? For some reason, bows seem to be proliferating during the liturgy like rabbits multiplying. If one is prevented from kneeling due to circumstance or size of the congregation it might be understandable to make some simple act of reverence, but it seems this is simply an act of piety imposed on the liturgy. Also, it's my understanding that, according to the GIRM a bow is prescribed for those in the sanctuary, that is, those ordained: deacons or concelebrants. — A.R., Mishawaka, Indiana

A: This question is addressed in the Introduction of the Roman Missal, nos. 274-275:
"(274) A genuflection, made by bending the right knee to the ground, signifies adoration, and therefore it is reserved for the Most Blessed Sacrament, as well as for the Holy Cross from the solemn adoration during the liturgical celebration on Good Friday until the beginning of the Easter Vigil.

"During Mass, three genuflections are made by the priest celebrant: namely, after the showing of the host, after the showing of the chalice, and before Communion. Certain specific features to be observed in a concelebrated Mass are noted in their proper place (cf. above, nos. 210-251).
"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.

"Otherwise all who pass before the Most Blessed Sacrament genuflect, unless they are moving in procession.

"Ministers carrying the processional cross or candles bow their heads instead of genuflecting.
"(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. 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.

"b. A bow of the body, that is to say a profound bow, is made to the altar; during the prayers Munda cor 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."

And also No. 43:

"In the dioceses of the United States of America, they should kneel beginning after the singing or recitation of the Sanctus until after the Amen of the Eucharistic Prayer, except when prevented on occasion by reasons of health, lack of space, the large number of people present, or some other good reason. Those who do not kneel ought to make a profound bow when the priest genuflects after the consecration."

Some other countries and dioceses follow the same custom for kneeling as the United States; others prescribe kneeling only during the consecration until the "Mystery of faith." There is no mention here of bowing while kneeling but only of bowing when for some good reason one is unable to kneel.

The practice of bowing while kneeling is not a novel custom. In the extraordinary form it is a general rule that kneeling does not substitute a prescribed bow. But the vast majority of the ritual gestures where this might occur refer to ministers and clergy in choir rather than to the faithful in general.

In some countries the double genuflection before the Blessed Sacrament exposed, which incorporates a bow while kneeling, is still normative.

In the ordinary form the practice of bowing while kneeling is not common except for celebrant and acolytes before and after incensing the Blessed Sacrament exposed. It is not foreseen while incensing the sacred species during Mass.

I would hazard to guess that some people have acquired the practice of bowing when the priest genuflects after showing the host as a consequence of seeing concelebrants bowing at this moment. This bow while kneeling is not required, but I don't think it does any harm and would likely be very hard to eliminate once someone has acquired the habit.

The same cannot be said for those who bow during the showing so as not to look at the host. While such a gesture is understandable in the light of the divine majesty, the practice contradicts the very reason for raising the host and chalice in the first place. They are raised precisely in order to be seen, contemplated and adored.

These gestures entered relatively late into the Roman rite in the 12th century. At a time when reception of Communion was at an all-time low, a popular movement arose among the faithful desirous of at least beholding the sacred host. The showing of the host by the priest responded to this devotion. The parallel gesture of raising the chalice followed more than a century later.

Finally, our reader understands that "according to the GIRM a bow is prescribed for those in the sanctuary, that is, those ordained: deacons or concelebrants." Actually the bow is carried out ordinarily only by concelebrants. The deacon would normally be kneeling. However, he kneels only during the consecration, even in countries where the faithful kneel for the entire Eucharistic Prayer. If, for some just cause, the deacon is impeded from kneeling, then he would also make a deep bow.

* * *

Follow-up: Bowing While Kneeling [10-5-2010]

In the wake of our comments on bowing during the elevation of the host (see Sept. 21) a reader commented: "In the Cathedral Parochial School in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (1956-1964), I was taught to look at the elevated host (and later the chalice), then to bow my head and contemplate and acknowledge belief in the Real Presence by silently repeating the words of St. Thomas: 'My Lord and my God.' So bowing the head was to be a way to have a private moment to contemplate and adore the real presence of Christ. I recall that some of my classmates (probably myself included) and some of the congregation would bow their heads during the entire elevation so as not to look at the host. We had a priest in the Cathedral Parish In the mid-1960s who (without admonishing those who bowed their heads) said that the elevated host and chalice were to be seen by the congregation. He had a practice of elevating the host and the chalice for what seemed to be an extremely long time (10 to 15 seconds) so that even those who had the practice of bowing their heads during the showing of the host and chalice would see the Body and Blood of Christ."

This comment proves the point that the practice of bowing during the elevation is not novel. I suppose that the religious sisters in the school taught the children to bow their heads as the priest genuflected after showing the host and chalice. Since the time for both gestures was usually very brief, it is understandable that some got confused. While it is true that the concluding elevation of the Eucharistic Prayer ("Through him …") is of greater liturgical importance, a paused showing after the consecration can be pastorally very effective in fomenting prayer and adoration.

Another reader asked: "For the sign of peace, is it still OK to bow your head or is it going to be shaking hands? I personally prefer bowing my head." The norms say that the sign is made according to local custom, so both practices are legitimate as well as some others. It seems that the bow or nod of peace has been gaining ground in some quarters as it is less likely to lead to confusion and disorder just before communion.

Finally, an Australian reader asked about the Sept. 21 follow-up which mentioned the case of a married couple acting as extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist. To wit: "If the bride and groom were from the parish and were recognized as extraordinary ministers of holy Communion, could they, after receiving Communion from the celebrant and should there be large numbers of communicants, then administer holy Communion along with the celebrant to those present in their capacity as extraordinary ministers? Or is this best left to some other person who is an extraordinary minister?"

This is clearly a rare situation and one not contemplated by the norms forbidding ad hoc naming of spouses as extraordinary ministers. In this case, the fact that they were just married would not per se impede them from exercising their extraordinary ministry. Whether they do so or not requires prudent judgment as to the circumstances and their probable state of emotion during the service. If there is any danger of the groom or bride fainting, then they should advisably refrain from distributing Communion.

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