Jon DeBellis/Catholic SentinelJesson Mata, director of the Office of Divine Worship for the Archdiocese of Portland, models a head bow, profound bow and genuflection.

Jon DeBellis/Catholic Sentinel
Jesson Mata, director of the Office of Divine Worship for the Archdiocese of Portland, models a head bow, profound bow and genuflection.

At Mass recently, my daughter leaned back to look up at me during the Nicene Creed when the congregation does a profound bow. You know the part. “By the power of the Holy Spirit, he was born of the Virgin Mary, and became man.”

“Papa, why are you looking down at me?” she asked.

“Because Jesus became man, Marian,” I said.

“Oh, ok.”

Leave it to a 2-year-old to question the whys of sacramentals during the sacrifice of Mass.
Why do we genuflect and bow at Mass, and when are the right times to do each?

“Catholics are a sacramental people. We not only profess our faith through our words, but also through our actions,” says Jesson Mata, director of the Office of Divine Worship for the Archdiocese of Portland.

There are many physical gestures in the Mass, says Mata, but because of their repetition, we often don’t stop to think what they mean.

“For Catholics, gestures made with the body constitute an acknowledgement of God’s presence. We genuflect as a sign of adoration and belief in the Real Presence, that is, of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist,” said Mata.

“We bow as a form of reverence to signify our belief and to give respect for that which we are bowing to.”

According to the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM 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 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 . . . and became 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.

A genuflection is made by bending the right knee to the ground. It signifies adoration and 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. 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.
It is also customary for parishioners to genuflect before and after Mass when entering or exiting the pew, toward the tabernacle, acknowledging the presence of Christ in the Most Blessed Sacrament.

The central issue concerning genuflection or bowing is simply this — showing respect both to the altar symbolizing Christ, and to the reserved Sacrament in the tabernacle.
“When we genuflect or bow we are literally saying, ‘I believe’ without uttering a word. How awesome is that?” said Mata.

“The custom of genuflecting or bowing is the external-ritual-bodily expression of acknowledging the presence of Christ,” wrote Deacon Owen Cummings, professor at Mount Angel Seminary in a column for the Catholic Sentinel in 2013. “The important thing is that such an expression takes place. It is important not least because we are not Gnostics. Our religious faith especially in liturgical assembly is expressed through material things and gestures. We are material beings. If a person cannot easily do so, a bow is in place. A gesture of reverence ought always to occur.”