When to Bow Before Communion

Author: Father Edward McNamara


When to Bow Before Communion

ROME, 11 OCT. 2005 (ZENIT)

Answered by Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical University.

Q: In the dioceses of the United States, the following directive is in force: "When receiving Holy Communion standing, the communicant bows his or her head before the sacrament ..." Now to me, to bow my head "before the sacrament" means I should be in direct view of it, that is, once I get to the head of the Communion line. However, I had a religious sister tell me recently that I should make my reverence before I reach the head of the line. She says this is in the directive, yet I cannot find such a stipulation anywhere. Furthermore, to bow before I reach the head of the line implies to me that I am bowing to the person in front of me. Is there some specification as to when in the Communion line one is to make his reverence before the sacrament? — K.M., Darlington, Maryland

A: Our correspondent refers to the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, No. 160, which we quote in full along with the number which follows it:

"When receiving Holy Communion, the communicant bows his or her head before the Sacrament as a gesture of reverence and receives the Body of the Lord from the minister. The consecrated host may be received either on the tongue or in the hand, at the discretion of each communicant. When Holy Communion is received under both kinds, the sign of reverence is also made before receiving the Precious Blood."

[No. 161] "If Communion is given only under the species of bread, the priest raises the host slightly and shows it to each, saying, 'Corpus Christi' (The Body of Christ). The communicant replies, 'Amen,' and receives the Sacrament either on the tongue or, where this is allowed and if the communicant so chooses, in the hand. As soon as the communicant receives the host, he or she consumes it entirely."

The text does not specify the moment of this bow of reverence and there are few other specific norms. The original text does not specify a bow but merely refers to an act of reverence to be established by the bishops' conference. Some conferences have included the option of making either a genuflection or a bow.

In practice the act of reverence may be made either just before receiving or while the person immediately before oneself is receiving. It really depends on the number of communicants.

A small intimate group of faithful can easily make the gesture just before receiving the sacred host. But if this gesture, although lasting no more that a few seconds, were to be repeated hundreds of times in a large parish, then the rite of Communion could be unduly prolonged. This practical reason probably motivated the recommendation to perform the gesture of reverence while the person in front is receiving Communion.

Does this mean that I am really bowing to the person in front of me? Personally I think not, because one naturally reverences a person turned toward oneself and practically never performs an act of respect toward a person who has his back turned away. Thus the natural direction of the act of reverence is toward the Eucharistic Christ.

Finally, this question offers an opportunity to remember the norm that the Eucharist must be consumed immediately and before the priest, deacon or extraordinary minister of Holy Communion.

In general, it is necessary for priests to remind the faithful of this requirement from time to time, and to insist on its being fulfilled so as to avoid unfortunate incidents due to distraction or even willful profanation of the Eucharist. ZE05101122

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Follow-up: When to Bow Before Communion [10-25-2005]

A couple of questions arose related to our comments (Oct. 11) on the sign of reverence before receiving Communion.

A religious from Boston, Massachusetts, asks: "Some people make the sign of the cross after receiving holy Communion. Some even go to the side and genuflect. Why is this? This person was taught that the sign of the cross and genuflection after Communion is unnecessary because the Lord is in the person already. But what about when we receive the Lord in two species: We make a sign of reverence (a deep bow) before receiving his Body, and again a deep bow before receiving his Blood. Is the second bow all right/proper to do even though the Lord is already within the person? At that point the Lord is before the person and within the person, or rather the person is in God."

Here we are dealing with the meaning of signs, and certain signs are not strictly necessary after receiving Communion.

With respect to the first part of the question, while there is no real need to make a sign of the cross after receiving holy Communion, many people do so for several reasons. For some, making a sign of the cross is a spiritual reflex action for any moment of prayer. For others, it represents an act of faith in the mystery they have received.

Whatever the cause, I personally see no reason to bother people about such a simple gesture, even if it does not form part of the liturgy at this moment.

Regarding those who genuflect after having received Communion, I really do not know why people would do so and there is no theological or liturgical reason to support it. Some people habitually genuflect whenever they pass the center of the church and perhaps continue doing it without thinking when they receive Communion.

For such cases, some personal catechesis on the part of the pastor can probably do more good than making a fuss about it in public.

Another case is the second part of the question regarding the sign of reverence toward the Blood of Christ even though one has already received Communion under the species of bread.

This second sign of reverence is required by liturgical norms for all the faithful and likewise for concelebrating priests who genuflect before partaking of the chalice even though they have already consumed the Host.

The meaning of this sign does not deny the presence of Christ in the person who has received the Host (although as we mentioned in an earlier reply the duration of the physical presence in the communicant is an open question; see follow-ups of June 21 and July 5). Rather, the sign is an act of faith and adoration in Christ really and fully present under the species of wine.

An English reader asked about the Communion procession: "Where the practice has been introduced of the faithful queuing to receive holy Communion standing, do individuals have a right to receive the Host kneeling down or is the priest entitled to insist that they stand? If the faithful are permitted to receive in a kneeling position, is each individual who wishes to do so entitled to kneel at the altar rail, or must he do so in the queue as his turn arrives?"

There are two question involved. The short answer to the question if the individual may choose to receive kneeling is yes. He may do so and may not be refused Communion for adopting this posture. There might be occasions when charity requires that a Catholic sacrifice his personal devotion for the good of others, and so receive standing, but in general it is no great problem.

The present liturgy sees the faithful as coming to receive Communion in processional form (not quite a queue). And so the proper thing to do would be to await one's turn if that is the only way foreseen for the distribution of Communion.

However, a pastor may freely offer the faithful the possibility of using the Communion rail once they have arrived at the entrance to the presbytery, if he so desires. ZE05102523

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