Take A Bow: Why, When, and How We Bow at Mass

September 13, 2012

At least in America, Catholics are known for the level of movement at every Mass. We stand and sit and kneel, back and forth for an hour each week. The use of the body in worship existed from the beginning, since man is both a body and a soul. And, especially from the Incarnation, a unity between the exterior and interior worship is the expression of true worship, worship in Spirit and in Truth. But there is one bodily expression of worship that may not be as widely known: the head bow. The head bow is prescribed during Mass according to No. 275 of the General Instruction:

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.

The General Instruction defines the general gesture of the head bow. These are for three instances: God, at the mention of the Trinity and Christ’s name, second, Our Lady, at the mention of her name, and, thirdly, the saints. Traditionally, there are three forms of the head bow that correspond to these three categories and, consistently, to the three forms of honor or praise. 
The first category, reverence for God, is the most profound head bow (note: a profound bow is different from a profound head bow). This bow involves the bending of the head and neck from a vertical to a horizontal position, requiring a slight movement of the shoulders as well. This profound head bow is only for God, at name Jesus or mention of the Trinity. Accordingly, this bow corresponds to the notion of latria or worship, which is offered to God alone.
The third category, reverence for the saints, is, by contrast, the slightest bow. This is a simple movement of the head forward and down by a few inches and occurs at the mention of the name of the saint “in whose honor Mass is being celebrated.” This corresponds to the theological term duliaor praise. Just as we congratulate family and friends for accomplishments and, often in the public sphere, recognize citizens for great achievements, most especially do we owe praise to the saints, who have “run the race” and, after a virtuous life, see God face-to-face.
The second category, reverence for our Lady, is a bow that is right between the other two. At the mention of the name Mary, we are to perform a medium head bow. This act of reverence corresponds to a concept that is greater than dulia called hyperdulia, or a lot of praise. Of all the people on earth, our Lord chose our Lady for a singular mission. Prepared for that mission by the grace of the Immaculate Conception, our Lady has been the “highest honor of our race” who lived so conformed to her Son that she serves as the greatest example of a holy life, second only to her Son.
Now, you may say, none of that is mentioned in the liturgical documents. True, the delineation of the three forms of the head bows is not prescribed and therefore is not required. I do not mean that people have to perform head bows in this way. But it is a more specific practice that fulfils the more general rule. Of course, this is not my own practice, but is the traditional practice of the Church. It is a practice that offers a ‘teaching moment’ as well as a daily reminder for us. This practice and understanding then equip us to answer a common question from protestants: “Why do you worship Mary?” Sometimes, it just takes a bow.

About Father Evan Harkins

Father Evan Harkins has written 3 post in this blog.

Ordained a priest of the diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph in 2010. Currently Parochial Vicar at St. Therese in Parkville, Missouri.


  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Alex-Weber/100002354681054 Alex Weber

    I really enjoyed the article. There have been many times that I wanted to bow at the name of our Lord or Lady, but since the priest was the only one doing it I didn’t know if I should. Plus, I never knew that we should bow at the name of the saint that is being honored that day. Fascinating. Thanks Father Harkins.

  • David Thomas

    Having spent 15 years in the Eastern Church, when I attend the Latin rite Mass my reflexes kick in at the invocation of the Trinity and the other places you mentioned. Glad to know there is something I can do during the Western Mass that is liturgically appropriate. Thanks for the article.

  • Fr Bill

    As an Anglican I bow low during the Gloria Patri. How low? Low enough so that my hands can comfortably touchh my knees.

  • silicasandra

    I had noticed our priests doing this and while it seemed fitting I didn’t know if I shouldn’t or not (haven’t noticed any other parishioners doing it, though they don’t bow at the mention of Mary during the Profession of Faith after explicit direction to do so, either.) Now I will do so and be able to explain why!

Our Badge For Your Website

Pray The Mass Badge

Subscribe to Articles About the Beauty of the Mass

* indicates required

Email Format