Question: I have several questions about bowing in Mass. First, are we still supposed to bow during the Creed? Very few people seem to do this. Does the person going up to do the readings bow to the altar or to the priest? And does a bow involve just the head or the whole body?
By Fr John Flader
I will begin with your third question, basing the answer on Sydney Auxiliary Bishop Peter Elliott’s book Ceremonies of the Modern Roman Rite.
Bishop Elliott points out that there are two types of bows used in the liturgy: the bow of the body, or deep bow, and the bow of the head.
A bow of the body, in which the person leans forward from the waist, is made to the altar during Mass, to the celebrant before and after incensing him, and to a bishop, on approaching, leaving or passing in front of him. (n. 202)
Since Bishop Elliott writes primarily for ministers of the liturgy, not for the faithful in the pews, one could add the deep bow made before receiving Communion, if the person chooses to bow rather than genuflect or receive Communion kneeling.
Also to be added is the bow made by all during the Creed, at the words “by the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man.”
On two days of the year, Christmas and the feast of the Annunciation, instead of bowing everyone genuflects on saying these words.
As you say, many people do not make this bow, but that is sad.
Before the reform of the liturgy some 40 years ago, the whole congregation and the priest genuflected at these words every time the Creed was said. No one questioned this gesture of respect for the great mystery of the Incarnation of the Son of God as man.
Yet since the genuflection was changed for a bow, many people make no sign of reverence at all.
In answer to your second question, Bishop Elliott points out that the reader, on going up to the sanctuary, bows first to the altar and then to the celebrant, before going to the lectern to do the reading. (n. 258)
Both bows are deep, made from the waist.
While the bow to the priest celebrant is not specified in the liturgical books, as it is in the Ceremonial of Bishops when a bishop presides (nn. 76-77), it may be taken as a customary sign of respect for the priest.
For this reason Bishop Elliott includes it in his book. (n. 258)
Some people may wonder why the reader does not genuflect to the tabernacle when going up to the sanctuary. The reason is that the General Instruction of the Roman Missal provides that if the tabernacle with the 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 the sanctuary, but not during the celebration of Mass itself.” (GIRM, n. 274)
The other type of bow is the bow of the head alone, often accompanied by a slight bow of the shoulders.
This bow is made by the celebrant of the liturgy at the mention aloud of the three Divine Persons (e.g. during the first part of the “Glory be to the Father”), and on pronouncing the holy names of Jesus, Mary and of the saint in whose honour the Mass is being celebrated. (cf. GIRM n. 275)
Many of the faithful have the custom of bowing their head whenever they pronounce the name of Jesus or Mary.
Also, it is sometimes customary to bow to the priest when the faithful take up various objects in the procession of the gifts, before and after handing them to him.
In this regard Bishop Elliott says, “A slight bow also expresses mutual respect and gratitude before and after receiving an object or being assisted in some way during a ceremony.” (n. 203)
For the same reason the acolyte or server often bows before and after presenting the cruets or the lavabo bowl to the priest. The priest too may bow. (cf. Ceremonies of the Modern Roman Rite, n. 277)
All of these bows should be looked upon not as a mere formality or empty ritualism, but as elementary signs of respect for Our Lord or for another person, whether bishop, priest or lay person.