Bowing While Kneeling

And More on Extraordinary Ministers

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ROME, SEPT. 21, 2010 ( 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.

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Follow-up: Teens as Extraordinary Ministers

In the wake of our commentaries on teenage extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion (see Sept. 7) a reader asked, “What about the practice in some parishes where at a wedding Mass the priest ‘on the spot’ deputes the bride and groom as Eucharistic ministers so that the couple can give Communion to one another and then to each other’s family, relatives and friends.”

This practice has been specifically forbidden in the instruction Redemptionis Sacramentum, No. 94: “It is not licit for the faithful ‘to take … by themselves … and, still less, to hand … from one to another’ the sacred host or the sacred chalice. Moreover, in this regard, the abuse is to be set aside whereby spouses administer Holy Communion to each other at a Nuptial Mass.”

Related to the theme of extraordinary ministers was the following question from a reader in Atlanta, Georgia: “Regarding GIRM No. 162, do the extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion have the option of when they ‘approach’ the altar? Some feel that the proper interpretation is that the extraordinary ministers leave their pews during the ‘Lamb of God,’ assemble standing at the base of the altar while the rest of the community kneels, and then ‘approach’ the top of the altar stairs after the celebrant receives Our Lord in communion. Others feel that the extraordinary ministers should not leave their pews until the celebrant receives Our Lord in communion, and then come to the top of the altar stairs. In this way, the extraordinary ministers are kneeling with the rest of the community before they approach, while in the first option they are standing.”

The General Instruction of the Roman Missal [GIRM], No. 162, says: “The priest may be assisted in the distribution of Communion by other priests who happen to be present. If such priests are not present and there is a ve
ry large number of communicants, the priest may call upon extraordinary ministers to assist him, e.g., duly instituted acolytes or even other faithful who have been deputed for this purpose. In case of necessity, the priest may depute suitable faithful for this single occasion. These ministers should not approach the altar before the priest has received Communion, and they are always to receive from the hands of the priest celebrant the vessel containing either species of the Most Holy Eucharist for distribution to the faithful.”

I would first observe that the question of whether the extraordinary ministers are kneeling or standing during the “Lamb of God” applies only to most dioceses of the United States and a few other countries. In most countries the people stand at this moment, as foreseen in the general norms (although these norms also contemplate and recommend maintaining kneeling wherever it is customary).

I would say that the meaning of the expression “approach the altar” is that extraordinary ministers should only come to the altar in order to receive the sacred vessels. They should not be present in the altar’s immediate vicinity, in the manner of concelebrants, until their service begins.

However, if the design and logistics of the chapel require it, there is no reason why they could not all gather in a convenient place within or near the sanctuary at a reasonable distance from the altar. They can thus approach the altar immediately after the priest’s communion. The most opportune moment for this gathering would be after reciting the “Lord, I am not worthy,” especially if distances are short. If the number of ministers or the complex design of the sanctuary calls for it, it could also be discreetly done during the “Lamb of God.”

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Readers may send questions to . Please put the word “Liturgy” in the subject field. The text should include your initials, your city and your state, province or country. Father McNamara can only answer a small selection of the great number of questions that arrive.

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