The Pious Practice of Bowing at Holy Names

by Church Militant  •  •  April 17, 2016   

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By Arturo Ortiz

There was a time when Catholics practiced great piety, a word that might sound foreign to the modern Catholic. As Fr. John Hardon defines it, piety is "[h]onor and reverence given to someone in any way responsible for our existence or well-being. Thus God as our Creator and constant Provider, parents, near relatives, country, tribe, or people.” Father Hardon further states regarding the gift of piety that it is a

special gift of the Holy Spirit; it perfects the virtue of religion, which is the practice of justice toward God. It produces an instinctive filial affection for God and devotion toward those who are specially consecrated to God. As an infused gift of God, it is ready loyalty to God and the things of God, arising not so much from studied effort or acquired habit as from a supernatural communication conferred by the Holy Spirit. ... It engenders in the soul a filial respect for God, a generous love toward him, and an affectionate obedience that wants to do what he commands because it loves the one who commands.

As much as piety is important in general and something that should be talked and written about, this won't be the focus of this article. Rather, here we are going to write about a specific pious practice that has recently been lost, despite a great historical tradition in the Church, and that is actually, for all practical purposes, still a requirement of Holy Mother Church. This practice is namely the solemn, pious bows at the holy names of Jesus and Mary, as well as at the Three Divine Persons of the Trinity, and lastly at the name of patron saint of that particular day. This is especially true with regard to the Catholic Mass, but is not limited to it.

According to the General Instruction of the Roman Missal:

234. There are two kinds of bow, 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 name of Jesus, Mary and the saint in whose honor Mass is celebrated.

b) A bow of the body, or profound bow, is made: toward the altar if there is no tabernacle with the Blessed Sacrament; during the prayers, Almighty God, cleanse and Lord God, we ask You to receive; within the profession of faith at the words, by the power of the Holy Spirit; in Eucharistic Prayer I (Roman Canon) at the words, Almighty God, we pray. The same kind of bow is made by the deacon when he asks the blessing before the gospel. In addition, the priest bends over slightly as he says the words of the Lord at the consecration.

The custom of bowing the head at the mention of Jesus' name was formally written into law at the Second Council of Lyons, A.D. 1274, convened by Pope Gregory X:

Those who assemble in church should extol with an act of special reverence that Name which is above every Name, than which no other under Heaven has been given to people, in which believers must be saved, the Name, that is, of Jesus Christ, Who will save His people from their sins. Each should fulfil in himself that which is written for all, that at the Name of Jesus every knee should bow; whenever that glorious Name is recalled, especially during the sacred Mysteries of the Mass, everyone should bow the knees of his heart, which he can do even by a bow of his head.

Throughout Scripture we can see that some names are extolled more than others. Among some of the most extolled include the Holy Name of Jesus, Our Lord, God, King and Saviour. The name of Mary, the Mother of God, is also highly extolled. Obviously implicitly the names of the Holy Trinity, the three Divine Persons, are also highly extolled. Lastly, even earthly representatives of God, be they kings, priests or prophets, are also honored and given homage.

In the Old Testament we have many examples of profound bows and prostrations. In Numbers 20:6, we see how Moses and Aaron upon going to the presence of God in the Tent of Meeting fell on their faces. In 1 Chronicles 29:20, we see how at the words of David praising God those assembled there bowed low and did homage to the Lord. Joshua tells us in Joshua 7:6 that he prostrated himself before the Ark of the Lord until the evening. Similarly profound bows were given to earthly representatives of God. This included the Old Testament kings like Saul in 1 Samuel 24:8 (or 1 Kings 24:8), where we see how David, on seeing King Saul, bowed his face to the ground and prostrated himself. Likewise, a few chapters later King Saul, when seeing the prophet Samuel, bowed with his face and payed homage.

This continues well into the New Testament, and is certainly true with regard to Jesus and Mary. In Matthew 2:11, the Magi, on seeing the Child with Mary His Mother, fell down and worshipped Him. In Matthew 17:6, we see the disciples falling down in fear when hearing what Jesus their Divine Master said. In Luke 5:12, a leprous man falls on his face and implores the help of Our Lord.

We further see how the name of Jesus was profound, full of authority and sacred. Luke 2:21 tells us that the name of our Lord was Jesus. Apocalypse 3:8 tells us: "I know thy works. Behold, I have given before thee a door opened, which no man can shut: because thou hast a little strength, and hast kept my word, and hast not denied My Name." Saint Paul tells us in Romans 14:11 that "it is written: As I live, saith the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall confess to God."

Perhaps no passage in Scripture is as explicit and straightforward as to the significance of the name of Jesus and of our duty to pay homage, piety, and reverence than Philippians 2:5–11:

For let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus: Who being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: But emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being made in the likeness of men, and in habit found as a man. He humbled himself, becoming obedient unto death, even to the death of the cross. For which cause God also hath exalted him, and hath given him a name which is above all names: That in the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those that are in heaven, on earth, and under the earth: And that every tongue should confess that the Lord Jesus Christ is in the glory of God the Father.

The Blessed Virgin Mary, whose role in the Incarnation and her fiat in saying yes to God, also makes her extolled above all mortals. The archangel Gabriel says to her "Full of grace" (Luke 1:26). Saints Elizabeth and John the Baptist both extol Mary on her salutation and visitation to them:

And it came to pass, that when Elizabeth heard the salutation of Mary, the infant leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Ghost: And she cried out with a loud voice, and said: Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb. And whence is this to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? (Luke 1:41–43)

Mary herself humbly tells us about the exalted position with which God has graced her in her wondrous Magnificat:

And Mary said: My soul does magnify the Lord. And my spirit has rejoiced in God my Saviour. Because he has regarded the humility of his handmaid; for behold from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed. Because he that is mighty, has done great things to me; and holy is his name. And his mercy is from generation unto generations, to them that fear him. (Luke 1:46–50)

How is it then that we Catholics have lost such piety, such reverence, such profound expressions of love towards God and His creation, including His Holy Mother Mary and His saints, that we no longer bow at their names? We are at the very least called to bow our heads at Mass when we hear the names of Jesus, Mary and the Holy Trinity, as they are invoked throughout the Mass. Various examples include in the "Gloria" when it states: "Domine Fili unigenite, Jesu Christe," ("Lord Jesus Christ") as well as in the end of the "Gloria": "Quoniam tu solus Sanctus. Tu solus Dominus. Tu solus Altissimus, Jesu Christe" ("For Thou alone art holy; Thou alone art Lord; Thou alone, O Jesus Christ").

This also includes whenever the names of Jesus or Mary come up in either of the readings for the day, including the Gospel as well as the Creed when we hear the words "Et in unum Dominum Jesum Christum, Filium Dei unigenitum" ("And in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of God") and lastly and most definitely at the words "Et incarnatus est de spiritu sancto ex Maria virgine: et homo factus est" ("And was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary, And was made man").*

Whenever you hear the "Glory Be" at Mass you bow your head from "Glory be to the Father, to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit." You also bow whenever you hear the holy name of Mary being said at any point in the Mass.

Boston Catholic Journal tells of a beautiful story of an individual growing up when most people were accustomed to the pious act of reverently and solemnly bowing when the name of Jesus was used, as well as of personal reperations people did when His name was abused.

One hopes Catholics will pick up the pious practice once again of profoundly and reverently bowing iat the Holy names of Jesus and Mary, the invocation of the Holy Trinity, and when a holy saint is invoked at any part during the Mass. Such acts serve as examples to the world our reverence and our love for Holy Mother Church and ultimately for God.

Originally published in Walking in the Desert.

*In the Extaordinary Form of the Mass you kneel during this time. In the Ordinary Form of the Mass, the Novus Ordo, the proper norm is to do a profound bow. I personally believe the Church should re-implement kneeling during this part for the Ordinary Form, but this is beyond the scope of this article.


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