Catholic Culture Resources
Catholic Culture Resources

Bowing at Holy Names at Mass and Elsewhere

by Antonio Ortiz


There used to be a time when Catholics practiced great amounts of piety, a word that might sound foreign to the modern Catholic. Arturo Ortiz writes about the traditional practice of bowing the head at the Holy names of Jesus and Mary, as well as to the Three Divine Persons of the Trinity, and lastly in regards to the patron Saint of that particular day.

Publisher & Date

Walking in the Desert, April 5, 2016

[Update: I was just told that there is a difference between the use of the General Instruction of the Roman Missal in regards to the requirement for the Roman Missal. The edition that is used in this article seems to be Instruction of the Roman Missal (4th Edition) (Prot. 0) March 27, 1975. It seems that the commonly used General Instruction of the Roman Missal that is used by both the USCCB and the Vatican states that this requirement falls under Section 275 and not 234.]

We should strive to once again piously bow in the Holy Names of Jesus, Mary, the Blessed Trinity, and the Patron Saints of the day at Mass and elsewhere

There used to be a time when Catholics practiced great amounts of piety, a word that might sound foreign to the modern Catholic. As Father John Hardon, whom I hope will one day will be canonized, defines Piety the following way; “PIETY. Honor 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”1. Fr John Hardon furthermore 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.”2

Now as much as piety is important in general and which is something that should be talked and written about this is not the post to do it. Maybe in the near future, but not right now. No rather here I am going to write about a specific pious practice that has recently been lost despite a great historical Tradition in the Church and which is actually, for most practical purposes still a requirement of Holy Mother Church despite the fact that many Catholics have long since abandoned this practice. This practice is namely in regards to doing solemn, pious, bows to the Holy names of Jesus and Mary, as well as to the Three Divine Persons of the Trinity, and lastly in regards to the patron Saint of that particular day. This is most definitely true in regards to the Catholic Mass, but is not limited to it.

According to the General Instruction, number 234

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 is made before the altar, if the Blessed Sacrament is not present; at the prayers, Almighty God, cleanse, and Lord God, we ask you to receive; in the profession of faith at the words, by the power of the Holy Spirit, in the 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. The priest, moreover, bows slightly when he says the words of the Lord at the consecration. (GIRM 234)

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.”3

Examples of Holy Scripture

Throughout Scripture we can see that many names are extolled more than others. Amongst some of the most extolled include the Holy name of Jesus, our Lord, our God, our King, and our 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 since they are God. 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. In1 Chronicles 29:20 we see how upon 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 such as Saul in 1 Samuel 24:8 (RSV CE) or (1 Kings 24:8 DRV) we see how David upon seeing King Saul bowed his face to the ground and prostrated himself. Similarly a few chapters later King Saul upon seeing the prophet Samuel, bowed with his face and payed homage.

This continues well into the New Testament. This is most definitely true in regards to Jesus and Mary. In Matthew 2:11 the Magi upon seeing the Child with Mary His Mother fell down and worshipped Him. In Matthew 17:6 we see the disciples falling down in fear, upon what Jesus their Divine Master had said. In Luke 5:12 a leprous man upon seeing Jesus fell on his face and implored his help. We furthermore 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 straight forwards as to the significance of the name of Jesus, and of our duty to pay homage, piety, and reverence, than Philippians 2:5-11

[5]For let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus: [6] Who being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: [7] But emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being made in the likeness of men, and in habit found as a man. [8] He humbled himself, becoming obedient unto death, even to the death of the cross. [9] For which cause God also hath exalted him, and hath given him a name which is above all names: [10] That in the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those that are in heaven, on earth, and under the earth: [11] And that every tongue should confess that the Lord Jesus Christ is in the glory of God the Father.(Philippians 2:5-11)

The Blessed Virgin Mary whose role in the Incarnation and her Fiat in saying yes to God also obviously extols her above all humans. The archangel Gabriel says to her “Full of Grace” (Luke 1:26). Sts. Elizabeth and John the Baptist both also extol Mary upon 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: [42] And she cried out with a loud voice, and said: Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb. [43] 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 extolled position God has graced her, by giving us her wondrous Magnificat:

And Mary said: My soul does magnify the Lord. [47] And my spirit has rejoiced in God my Saviour. [48] Because he has regarded the humility of his handmaid; for behold from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed. [49] Because he that is mighty, has done great things to me; and holy is his name. [50] 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 extolled creation including his Holy Mother Mary, and his extolled Saints that we can’t even do profound bows? This is most definitely true 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 (Glory to God in the Highest) 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.

Here is a very good example of the parts of the Gloria that Catholics should profoundly bow in:

This also includes whenever the names of Jesus or Mary come up in either of the readings for the day including the Gospel. This obviously also includes 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 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”

(Note 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).

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.”

Lastly as stated you bow whenever you hear the holy name of Mary being said at any point in the Mass.

Here is a personal story of someone growing up when profound bows were done when the Holy name of Jesus was stated. This story also shows the presence of other pious acts of reverence that were given as well:

As Boston Catholic Journal documents:

A flood of memories came rushing in upon me one day recently at Mass.

I noticed an impeccably dressed elderly woman with stark white hair nodding. Not just nodding, but nodding at what I began to realize were predictable times. To be sure I continued to observe this almost imperceptible movement of her head downward until I became aware that it occurred precisely each time the priest uttered the Name, “Jesus”. It did not occur when the priest uttered “Christ”, —- except when it was preceded by “Jesus”.

I looked around the congregation and saw to my surprise that this gentle gesture was accompanied by other nods — mostly among what one “Minister of Music” described to me as the “Grayheads”. I even observed it, much to my surprise, in one young man. Out of a congregation of perhaps 300, this almost imperceptible but curious behavior was instantiated in perhaps 5 or 6. And always — always and only — at the Name of Jesus.

Memories returned. Memories of my father. A tall man (to me as a child, anyway) with a gentle voice; strong, in the quiet way that only gentleness can be remarkably strong, he walked beside me, straight and assured, proud but not arrogant. Holding my hand we walked the several blocks to Church with my younger brother alternately walking and being carried effortlessly in the strong arms of my father. It was Sunday morning 1957. Upon entering Church (Saint Clement’s), he removed his hat and made sure we blessed ourselves properly. In those days matrons wore fur stoles that still had the eyes of the poor Minks in them, which endlessly fascinated my brother, and frightened me. Dad would have to prevent Mikey from poking at them during Mass.

It was here that I first remembered Dad nodding his head, too. I did not know why … but he did, and so did everyone else. I remember asking him if his tie was too tight. He put his fingers to his lips and pointed in the direction of the Altar. As time went by I began to understand that one simply nods one’s head whenever the name of Jesus was uttered. Catholics just did that. The priest did it. Dad did it. Even Mikey did it! And so did Tommy Mason, the freshest kid on the block! Soon it became second nature, in Church and out of it. I remember my father gently scolding me once when I deliberately said the “Holy Name” several times in a row to make the boys around me nod their heads! I even did it twice to Aunt Vickie!

But I also noticed two other peculiar things about Dad (and, in fact, a lot of other Catholics back then). Whenever we walked in front of a Church — even on the other side of the street — Dad would make a tiny Sign of the Cross over his heart in a hidden kind of way, and quietly utter :

“Gloria (presumably Aunt Gloria), Tea and thee, Dom and knee”.

I thought it a cute riddle that rhymed, although I never had an Uncle Dom. Later Dad unraveled the mystery to me one day when I finally asked him who “Dom” was. I distinctly remember that it was winter, for Dad crouched down beside me in the snow, threw his muffler around our faces to keep out the snow and wind, and told me, “It is Latin, son. “Gloria tibi, Domine”, which means, “Glory to You, Lord Jesus.” Yup, even as he spoke he nodded his head when he said “Jesus” — and so did I. I was learning. “Whenever you pass in front of a Catholic Church you always say that, son, and make the Sign of the Cross over your heart.” But Mom does it over her forehead, I protested. “Well, Mamma is right, too”, he said. “The important thing is that you always do it, because Jesus is inside the Church.”

Walking, driving, on the bus — wherever — Dad did it and I felt it was like a little secret between us, and, of course, Jesus (yes, I just now bowed my head).

There was one other thing that Dad did that stayed with me all my life. Whenever he spoke with someone who was either angry or just crude and said something like, “Jesus Christ! I told him he was a crook!” or, “Jesus, was I angry!”,

I noticed that Dad very unobtrusively did two things! First, of course, he slightly bowed his head. Then he would usually cross his arms and underneath them secretly make a small, totally unnoticeable movement with his thumb, pressing it against his heart.

It took a long time for me to catch on to that one. Again, it was something he did so naturally and quietly that it almost escaped me. “Dad”, I later asked, after he had a very animated conversation with one of my uncles, “what do you do with your thumb when people are angry, like Uncle Mario was a few minutes ago? And why? This really escaped me — but stayed with me all my life as perhaps no other gesture he taught me.

He paused a moment, as though trying to look for simple words to explain it.

“What”, he asked me, “is the Third Commandment?” I told him, “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.” proud that I remembered it quickly (back then we had to memorize them and nuns taught us our Catechism — and boy, you had better remember!)

“Well”, Dad continued, “Uncle Mario just used the Lord’s Name in vain. Instead of just letting it pass as blasphemy (I did not know what “blasphemy” exactly was at the time, but knew it was not good) against God, I just “finished” the sentence for him, adding, “Have mercy on us” and striking my heart as we do at Mass. That way, it brings something good out of a sin — I make it an opportunity to ask God’s mercy both for Uncle Mario and for myself.”

I began to understand what kind of man my father really was — and what kind of man I should try to be, too. So often it is the little things a person does — especially when they do not know that they are being observed — that leave the most lasting impressions.

Dad would not recognize most Catholics today. Neither, I think, would Saint Paul. What was second nature to them seems to have disappeared altogether —except for a few of those beautiful elderly women or old men at Mass.”


San Francisco, CA

It is my hope that this article encourages Catholics to take piety more seriously again. This includes profoundly and reverently bowing down in the Holy names of Jesus and Mary, the invocation of the Holy Trinity, such as in the Glory Be, and when a holy Saint is invoked at any part throughout the Mass. It is only then that the world may see our piety, our reverence, and our Love for Holy Mother Church and ultimately for God. It is only then that these many people who happen to see these examples of great piety may at the same time move them to take such acts of piety, and in this case the pious and loving practice of showing profound respect by bowing to God and his beloved Mother Mary, as well as to his beloved Saints.


  1. Hardon, John A. Pocket Catholic Dictionary. Garden City, NY: Image, 1985. Print. Pg. 329
  2. Hardon, John A. Pocket Catholic Dictionary. Garden City, NY: Image, 1985. Print.
  3. Second Ecumenical Council of Lyons convened by Pope Gregory X in 1274 Constitution 25

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