QUAERITUR: Bowing during the Creed

From a reader:

Why do we bow during the Nicene Creed for the lines “by the power of the holy spirit…” and who started this practice?

These lines are at the heart of the Creed.  They are, as it were, the pivot point, of the Creed.  In them we express our belief in God’s ineffable communication of His mercy.

“For us men and for our salvation he came down from heaven, and by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary, and became man.”

Since at least the 11th century people fell to their knees at this declaration.  Dropping, lowering ourselves, or even descending to our knees seems the least we could do at this awesome article of faith about the condescension of God.

In the Novus Ordo at those words people are to bow, instead of kneel.  People are to kneel only twice: on 25 March and 25 December.  In the Extraordinary Form, people kneel every time the Creed is recited and it is used more often than in the Novus Ordo.

According to Josef Jungmann’s monumental The Mass of the Roman Rite, Peter of Cluny (+1156) wrote that the genuflection at the words et homo factus est was a custom everywhere.  Some religious orders such as Premonstratensians and Carthusians had this custom rather early.  However, it seems not to have been universal back in the day.  It obviously took while to be become uniform.  But it did become universal, and it was so for centuries…. until after the Second Vatican Council.

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  1. tjtenor2 says:

    I, for one, still choose to interpret “bow” as genuflect during OF Masses.

  2. markomalley says:

    What I find tragic is the number of people “participating” in OF masses who won’t even bother to bow (despite the fact that the word “bow” is clearly written in the missalette)

  3. Speravi says:

    Is bowing too numinous?

    Every Sunday I find myself wondering why the people don’t bow (or strike their breast at the Confiteor), even though the priests do it (at least at my parish). Perhaps bowing is not concrete enough to remember or to take seriously?

    Consider the variety of bows seen in the communion line. Some are slight nods, others are profound. Nods and slight bows are almost imperceptible in a crowded congregation. A profound bow in a crowded congregation, on the other hand, might feel awkward, especially if no one else around is doing it.

    Perhaps the implementation of the new translation may provide priests an opportunity to instruct their congregation on this discipline at the same time as they explain the words, “and by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary.”

  4. Paul says:

    In my rather large parish, as far as I have seen, I am the only person who bows during the Creed. In the other Catholic churches I have visited in traveling, I have seen perhaps three or four others bow.

    Such a shame….

  5. Sword40 says:

    I know that we are not supposed to mix the Forms of the Mass but because I attend both Forms I have chosen to do as many of the EF gestures as will fit in the OF. at least I don’t make many mistakes at the EF. Old age is the pits.

  6. thereseb says:

    Fascinating. In the 40 years or so I have being going to the NO, I never remember kneeling on Christmas Day – never knew that at all. I do remember people genuflecting well into the 70s. I remember the day we got a homily on moving to “We believe”. I thought it was nonsense then, and I am glad that we no longer have to do it. I now genuflect in both forms.

  7. TomG says:

    People may not be bowing, but they sure as heck are doing a lot of thrusting and stabbing – and those who do the latter never seem to do the former.

  8. disco says:

    I think kneeling is where it’s at. I find that when the creed is recited in English that particular part of the creed is not so prominent as it is in Latin and it’s therefore easy to forget to bow or kneel.

  9. Clinton says:

    I’ve never understood the mindset of some of our liturgical trendsetters who insist upon
    “unity of gesture” for a congregation, yet invariably also insist that the mandatory posture
    be a novelty that replaces a gesture formerly universal . Kneeling– whether it be during
    the Creed, to receive Communion, or to make one’s thanksgiving– seems to be one posture
    that was once universally used but is now disparaged in the name of promoting “unity of
    gesture”. Evidently these liturgical professionals never tire of reinventing the wheel.

    It’s also curious to me that one never hears these trendsetters here in the USA address the
    need for “unity of gesture” with the rest of the Church outside this country. Ditto the
    “unity of gesture” with the generations of Catholics who came before us. Has a liturgist
    advocating the replacement of a formerly universal gesture ever addressed the de facto
    rupture and disunity created between congregants here and those two groups?

  10. Josh Jones says:

    “In the Novus Ordo at those words people are to bow, instead of kneel.”

    Didn’t realize that kneeling at those words wasn’t provided for in the current GIRM. I attend the NO mass at the cathedral in Los Angeles, and everyone genuflects at the “incarnate” part of the Creed. I must say, it’s quite a lovely and profound posture when done in unison.

  11. APX says:

    Is this something that is specific to the Nicene Creed only, or am I supposed to be doing it during the Apostles Creed too?

  12. Centristian says:

    “Is this something that is specific to the Nicene Creed only, or am I supposed to be doing it during the Apostles Creed too?”

    The Apostles’ Creed isn’t recited (or sung) during the liturgy, so the issue would never arise.

  13. Rouxfus says:

    St. Mary Cathedral in downtown Austin sounds the Noon Angelus bell throughout the Angelus prayer just before the 12:05 Mass begins. The congregation genuflects during the line “And the Word was made Flesh: And dwelt among us.” It would seem to be a recognition of the supreme importance of the Incarnation of our Lord and God.

  14. danphunter1 says:

    I was taught as a young boy to always kneel at these words, even in the NO.
    I still do.

  15. Centristian —

    Yes, the Apostles’ Creed is used in liturgy in some places. It’s an option. Usually you only encounter it on some weekday Masses, these days, in my part of the US, but usages vary greatly.

    As far as I remember, the Apostles’ Creed doesn’t have any Mass rubrics for us laypeople. But check your Missalette or whatever you’ve got, to be sure.

  16. debval says:

    When I first saw this headline I thought it said, “Bowling during the creed.” Whoops!

  17. Geoffrey says:

    The 3rd edition of the Roman Missal says:

    “Loco symboli nicæno-constantinopolitani, præsertim tempore Quadragesimæ et tempore paschali, adhiberi potest symbolum baptismale Ecclesiæ Romanæ sec dictum Apostolorum” (n. 19).

    “Instead of the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed, especially during Lent and Easter Time, the baptismal Symbol of the Roman Church, known as the Apostles’ Creed, may be used” (n. 19).

    The rubrics go on to say that you do indeed bow during these words of the Apostles’ Creed:
    “qui concéptus est de Spíritu Sancto, natus ex María Vírgine… who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary…”

    Personally, I try to observe this when praying the Apostles’ Creed at other times, such as the Rosary, Chaplet of Divine Mercy, etc.

  18. SonofMonica says:

    @ debval

    Well, that’s a strike against you!

  19. Mike says:

    As a once a month (maybe) EF attender (NO rest of the time), the kneeling is perfect. The bow–by about 4% of the congregation, shows the Cartesian nature of the NO rubrics for sure.

  20. In my pre-conversion days as a seminarian at Nashotah House, MANY of us genuflected during the Creed!

    At our parish in Wisconsin, many bow, and on Christmas and at the Feast of the Annunciation, some still do genuflect. (Including my family!)

  21. APX says:

    The Apostles’ Creed isn’t recited (or sung) during the liturgy, so the issue would never arise.

    I’m from Canada, and the norm has always been in any Catholic Church I’ve been to, whether it be in BC, Alberta, Saskatchewan, or Ontario, that it’s the Apostles Creed which is recited, save for the very rare occasion of a solemn feast day and the priest actually chooses to do so.

  22. Cincinnati Priest says:

    For Masses at the parish where I am pastor, at the prescribed times of the year, I gently remind my parishioners at the beginning of Mass that, if physically able to do so, they should genuflect at the appropriate words of the creed, and bow if genuflection is not possible. (We have a lot of elderly parishioners with knee replacements, etc.) I give an extremely brief (one sentence) explanation as to why.

    I also instruct the altar boys before Mass to watch me carefully, and genuflect at the same time I genuflect, so they can cue the congregation to do so if they happen to be watching them rather than the priest.

    It seems to work.

    Of course, one has to slow down substantially at that point to give people time to prepare. (We usually recite rather than chant — one brick at a time here!).

    I am sure that some of the parishioners might be a little puzzled by this, but it gets the job done.

  23. ArtND76 says:

    I remember this kneeling during the creed as a boy attending pre-Vatican II mass with my family.

    My parents had us leave the kneelers down during the creed for this reason, and I remember the 2 pauses in the creed where the floor of the church thundered – first with the congregation going to their knees and then standing again after the phrase was spoken.

    Nowadays in different parishes I see few bowing during the phrase (including a number of folks older than me who should, in my opinion, know better) – and most of those are the happy young nuns at one particular parish.

  24. Cath says:

    I have witnessed several priests not bow. My former one rarely if ever did. It makes a difference to see the priest bowing deeply with reverence. More people were starting to bow at my former parish. Now at my new parish, I don’t think many do. But I am usually not watching what others are doing (except my kids), because I am bowing with my eyes closed.

  25. Trad Tom says:

    At my very “with it,” today parish in Ohio, not one other person (except my Mass companion) — including the celebrant! — ever, ever, ever bows during those beautiful lines in the Creed. Since we are both bowing and closing our eyes, we were never sure about this; one Sunday we decided to keep our eyes open and bow just a little so that we could find out. We wish we hadn’t: we assumed that everyone, while saying the black, would also do the red. Silly us.

  26. Robert_H says:

    We attend the EF 99% of the time, so we’re kneelers. But at the OF we bow profoundly. IIRC maybe 10% of the parishioners bowed at our old parish.

    OT but related: At an EF Missa Cantata, if Father genuflects while reciting the Creed silently but the schola or choir hasn’t got to that point yet, do we kneel with Father, wait for the schola/choir, or both?

  27. TKS says:

    In my ‘mega’ parish, I’m the only one who bows, including the priests. I remember surrepticiously thumbing through the missalette to see what it said just in case I had it wrong. In bold, it says ‘bow’. Hopefully, along with many other things, people will read the new translation and catch some other mistakes. Including me.

  28. Phillip says:

    As a convert, whose first Masses were at very “up to date” parishes, I honestly had no idea that one was meant to make a bow during the “Et incarnatus…” in the OF until I lived in London for awhile, where it seemed, like striking the breast at the Confiteor, to be far more common than in the US parishes I had been to. There also seemed to be a lot more reverence at Mass in general, at least at Westminster Cathedral, which is where I usually went. It was very touching to see the number of people who are willing to kneel for extended periods on both knees on stone floors when the Eucharist is exposed – something I don’t think I’d ever see at home, unfortunately. But I digress.

    I usually attend the EF nowadays, where genuflecting during the Creed is done by everyone able to do so. It took me awhile to get used to the sudden drop to my knees, and remember to have the kneeler out at that point in the Mass. Still can’t seem to get used to the sudden genuflection during the Last Gospel, though…

  29. Speravi says:

    On bowing in Apostle’s Creed:
    Midwest Theological Form has a prayer book out with the new translation of the Ordo Missae. The Apostle’s Creed also contains the rubric: “At the words that follow, up to and including the Virgin Mary, all bow.” So yes, you would bow in the Apostle’s Creed as well (though the lines during which you bow are very short; it will have to be a quick bow).

  30. David2 says:

    My understanding (I attend the EF pretty much exclusively, so this doesn’t directly effect me) is that the latest editio of the Missale for the Novus Ordo permits the Apostles Creed to be substituted for the Nicene Creed at any Mass where the Creed is said.

    Indeed, in my Diocese, the Bishop has “imposed” the Apostles Creed as the “ordinary” form of the Creed to be used on most Sundays and Holy days “as a sign of unity”.

    Bearing that in mind, I wonder:

    1. Can the local ordinary “impose” the Apostles Creed in this way; or is the choice of Creed something properly within the perview of the individual priest offering Mass? Could a Bishop “impose”, say the Roman Canon in this way?

    2. If the Bishop can impose the Apostles Creed in this manner, should he in fact do so? It seems to me that the old Christological heresies that led to the more explicit formulations in the Nicene Creed have re-surfaced in some so-called liberal circles, and I question whether this decision represents either a type of archeologism, or, perhaps, a search for unity of the “lowest common denominator” as opposed to a zealous striving for the fullness of truth. It seems to be turning away from part of our heritage and identity as Catholics (think of the many musical settings of the Credo). I do not understand it. It seems a retrograde step.

  31. MarkJ says:

    Thankfully not an issue if you never have to go to an OF Mass…

  32. DavidMiller says:

    I read in the Lasance Missal that the custom of kneeling at the words et homo factus est originated with St. Louis, King of France, in his private chapel. From there it spread to the Universal Church. He is also credited with the rubric of kneeling and pausing for a while at the moment when the death of Christ is read during the reading of the Passion in Holy Week.

  33. moon1234 says:

    Thankfully not an issue if you never have to go to an OF Mass…
    Couldn’t have said it better myself. At times it is almost like being in a different Church. When we attend the NO (very rarely) at the SAME parish as the EF, the attitude of the people is polar opposite.

    All I can say is that I am happy, comfortable and feel like I am “home” at the EF. My kids and I have been going to the EF daily off and on. My daughter is now in junior high where she is required to go to Mass (NO) Mon, Wed and Fri unless she has attended Church already. She had to go ONCE to the NO at the school.

    She came home to tell me that there was female server and that the “Bells” were rung by the priest pushing the play button on a boom box at the appropriate time. She also said that the “homily” for the kids of the school inculded a reference to playboy magazine, hugh hefner, etc.

    She came home almost in tears and said she never wants to go back. She has been up at 5:30am every day since to attend the 6:30am EF at our home parish. Kids DO understand what is holy and right and what has defects. I pray that one day all of the nonsense will stop.

  34. Phil_NL says:

    Contrary to most observations here (and, admittedly, my own when travelling), my own parish, which is exclusively OF, does see a the vast majority of the people bow. And we kneel at Christmas, indeed.

    If anything the practice is on the increase, simply because of people copying such gestures; our parish has NO Masses, but a big chunk of the sung high Mass is sung in latin, including the credo, which is not the standard here in the Netherlands. That has an effect on people coming in from other parishes, they are much less on auto-pilot. A simple way to focus attention on matters like this, which could be used elsewhere as well. Switch to latin for the creed, and have some people – including priests and servers, of course – give the example.

    (additionally, a fairly competent soprano which can sing ‘et incarnatus est’ as a solo on Christmas while the rest of the credo is sung by the choir helps as well on Christmas, but that’s a luxury most parishes will not have)

  35. New Sister says:

    Is it “wrong” (e.g., disobedient, too distracting) to kneel anyway in an OF Mass? [can we kneel for the final blessing?]

  36. bookworm says:

    I bow from the waist at those lines (far enough to be obvious without bumping my head into the backside of the person sitting in front of me) and I believe I have seen a gradual increase in the number of people doing this at typical NO Masses. In every parish I have ever attended, kneeling during the Creed at Christmas (haven’t been present often enough on the Feast of the Annunciation to know) has also been the practice.

  37. JonPatrick says:

    @Robert_H, at my EF Mass we were reminded by Father that we are to genuflect when the choir sings the Incarnatus, not when Father and the altar boys genuflect. Usually they are done with the creed and ready to sit down at the point we get to the Incarnatus.

  38. Supertradmum says:

    Always knelt at the EF, even as a child, I remember doing this. As to the “New Mass” instructions for bowing are written in the cards and sheets, passed out in the Churches here in England. I did not think it was an option anywhere.

  39. Joe in Canada says:

    I don’t remember what we Catholics used to do, but when I was at a High Anglican college in the late 70s they also genuflected at those words during the Last Gospel. Does that still happen in the EF?

  40. Yes, kneeling is still the EF rubric, and people still do it bigtime.

    It occurs to me that, back in the Seventies, most of the older people seemed to keep their head bowed during the entire Creed. Probably this is because they had to bow the head quickly at the Name of Jesus, at the other Names, and so forth, as well as “made man.” So us younger people just kept our heads bowed also, and didn’t know why; and thus were changed away from it during the Eighties, when we were encouraged to speak out the Creed more loudly and clearly and thus had to look up.

  41. Robert_H says:

    @JonPatrick: Thanks, that is the usual practice for my family (& most of the parishioners). A fair number of people genuflect with Father and the choir.

    I find that more and more I enjoy the dignified nature of the EF Holy Mass.

  42. There are a few people besides the priest and deacon at the Mass I attend who do bow during the Creed, as well as strike their breast in the Confiteor. We’ve just had two very traditional priests arrive (both can say the OF) who will probably encourage more people to do this once they’ve settled in.

  43. John Nolan says:

    In the OF the bow at the Incarnatus should be a profound one (GIRM 137). Although the slight bow at ‘adoratur’ and the sign of the cross at ‘et vitam venturi’ are not specifically mandated, they can be included as it is ‘the traditional practice of the Roman Rite’. (GIRM 42)

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