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Bows to Book of the Gospels

Date: July 17, 2022
Author: Fr. Edward McNamara, LC

Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and sacramental theology and director of the Sacerdos Institute at the Pontifical Regina Apostolorum university.

Question: In one parish here, as the lector carries the Book of the Gospels during the entrance procession and as the priest or deacon carries the Book of Gospels from the altar to the ambo during the Gospel acclamation (the Alleluia), the faithful in the congregation make a profound bow to the Book of the Gospels while it is still being raised slightly and return to erect posture once the book is laid down. I do not see any explicit provision in the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM) that either allows or prohibits this practice of bowing to the Book of the Gospels by the faithful of the congregation. Is this practice allowed in the Roman rite? -- M.S., Philippines

Answer: The question of bows is often the subject of confusion.

First, we can say that not every liturgical gesture requires a theological foundation or an explicit articulation in the rubrics. Some are customary signs of courtesy and respect that add overall decorum to the celebration.

Concerning bows in general, GIRM, No. 275 says:

"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 (Cleanse my heart) and In spiritu humilitatis (With humble prayer); in the Creed at the words et incarnatus est (and by the Holy Spirit ... and became man); in the Roman Canon at the words Supplices te rogamus (In humble prayer, we ask you, almighty God). 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."

Concerning bows made during the readings, Bishop Peter Elliott describes the reader's bow in his Ceremonies of the Modern Roman Rite which may be related in some way to this parish custom: "The lector (comes to the sanctuary and) makes the customary reverences; first bowing deeply to the altar …, then bowing to the celebrant, before going to the ambo ...."

In this case, two bows are described. The first bow toward the altar is based on the Ceremonial of Bishops, No. 72: "A deep bow is made to the altar by all who enter the sanctuary (chancel), leave it, or pass before the altar."

The second bow, toward the priest celebrant, is not explicitly prescribed in the liturgical books. But it may be considered as customary and based on an extension of the indications for reverence toward bishops in the Ceremonial, Nos. 76-77: "The bishop is greeted with a deep bow by the ministers or others when they approach to assist him, when they leave after assisting him, or when they pass in front of him.

"When the bishop's chair is behind the altar, the ministers should reverence either the altar or the bishop, depending on whether they are approaching the altar or approaching the bishop; out of reverence for both, ministers should, as far as possible, avoid passing between the bishop and the altar."

It is noteworthy that none of these texts explicitly mention readers and are only applicable insofar as they enter or leave the sanctuary or, in a very broad sense, assist the presiding celebrant. It does not appear that these bows form a stable and obligatory part of the rites for those who exercise the ministry of reader.

Indeed, in describing the Liturgy of the Word, the Ceremonial of Bishops, No. 137, makes no mention of any bows: "After the opening prayer, the reader goes to the ambo and proclaims the first reading …."

The above refers to readers. There is no mention of the assembly making a bow when the Book of the Gospels is transferred from the altar to the ambo.

Although the custom described is certainly a sign of reverence toward the Word of God, in my view, it contains a certain liturgical incongruity insofar as the rubrics foresee at this moment that the assembly be engaged in the joyful acclamation of the Alleluia. Since this acclamation is preferably sung by all, a profound bow, such as that described by our reader, does not seem the most appropriate posture to accompany such singing.

Of course, different cultures can express joy and reverence in many ways, so I would be loath to say that such a practice is necessarily forbidden. However, if, as seems to be the case, it is done in just one parish and is not widely diffused, I believe those responsible for the liturgy in this parish should take stock and ask if this custom is good liturgical practice.

As our reader points out, nothing in the current official liturgical books would seem to favor the whole assembly bowing toward the Book of the Gospels at this moment.

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Readers may send questions to zenit.liturgy@gmail.com. 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 many questions that arrive.

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