A Summary of Common Gestures, Part I — Liturgical Traditions
Jun 22, 2021

A Summary of Common Gestures, Part I — Liturgical Traditions

As a conclusion to this series of posts on the celebration of Mass in the Ordinary Form according to the traditional practice of the Roman rite (General Instruction on the Roman Rite (GIRM), 42), it is fitting to offer a summary of the various gestures which are commonly repeated throughout the course of Mass. These are the building blocks of the grammar which make up the body language of the Roman liturgy. Celebrants will want to become so familiar with these gestures that they are made effortlessly and without hesitation. They should be so internalized as to be second nature. At that point, the celebrant is free to pray without concern as to how something ought to be done.


All clergy and ministers walk at a slow and deliberate pace, neither too fast nor too slow. It should never appear that one is in a rush or a hurry. All take care to maintain a straight back, and look ahead, with eyes slightly downcast (Fortescue, O’Connell, and Reid, Ceremonies of the Roman Rite, 46). All walk with hands joined before them at chest level unless they are carrying some liturgical object. It may be necessary at times, especially at the altar, to take a single step back from one’s position. However, in general, one never walks backwards in the sanctuary (Elliott, Ceremonies Explained for Servers, 50).

Apart from emergencies, all movement ceases during the time of the Consecration. It is also best to observe this during the Gospel, and preferable during the readings as well. If two servers standing side by side must walk in the opposite direction, after washing the hands of the priest at the altar for example, they turn toward one another, and then walk away (Elliott, 53).


When changing from standing to kneeling, one goes down on one knee first, and then the other; one does not fall on both knees from standing to kneeling. When changing from sitting to kneeling, one stands first. Then one kneels from the standing position. One does not slide from a seated position to a kneeling position. The body remains erect when in the kneeling position, without supporting itself on the heels of the feet.


Genuflection is distinct from kneeling. Genuflection on one knee is an action of reverence or greeting to the Lord in the Blessed Sacrament by the one who comes into the Real Presence or departs from it. Genuflection is done by drawing the right leg back and bending the knee to the ground at the point where the right knee touches the ground momentarily, more or less at the location of the heel of the left foot (Ceremonial of Bishops, 69). One rises immediately, without rushing but without delay, and without any bowing of the head or of the body (Elliot, 73). One should be attentive to have come to a complete stop and be oriented clearly in the direction of the Blessed Sacrament before attempting to genuflect. If the priest celebrant is at the altar and has nothing in his hands, he genuflects by placing both hands flat on the altar (Mutel and Freeman, Cérémonial de la sainte messe, 34). One is never to raise the front of the alb or cassock before genuflecting or kneeling. More importantly, the act of genuflection should be made with some attention so that, spiritually, the heart might bow before God as well as the knee.

As a general rule, one reverences the Lord in the Most Blessed Sacrament by genuflecting every time one enters into and departs from his Presence, as well as every time one passes before the Sacrament reserved or exposed. In addition, the Blessed Sacrament, when exposed on the altar in a monstrance or in a ciborium, is reverenced with a genuflection on one knee even when approaching it from the side. When taking the Blessed Sacrament from the tabernacle, one opens the door first, and then genuflects. When reposing the Blessed Sacrament to the tabernacle, one genuflects before closing the door (Mutel and Freeman, 35). In general, one genuflects before taking the Blessed Sacrament in hand, and after placing it on the altar and departing.

One never genuflects to the Blessed Sacrament when carrying the Blessed Sacrament under either species. In addition, those in procession do not make the genuflection when they pass the place of reservation during that procession (Ceremonial of Bishops, 71). Those carrying the cross and candles in a procession and the deacon carrying the Gospel Book do not genuflect (GIRM, 274). Finally, the Missal excludes genuflection (other than those cases indicated for the celebrant and concelebrants) during the course of Mass by any other ministers: “If the tabernacle with the Most Blessed Sacrament is situated 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” (See GIRM,173, 274). An exception to this rule exists on Holy Thursday and Corpus Christi, where the ministers in the sanctuary genuflect to the Blessed Sacrament resting on the altar after the distribution of communion awaiting the beginning of the procession whenever they approach the altar (Mutel and Freeman, 267-68). By extension, one could argue that the same gesture should be made toward the Blessed Sacrament on any similar occasion, whenever one approaches, departs, or passes before the Presence, even from the side, while the Blessed Sacrament rests on the altar between the time that Communion has concluded and the time the Blessed Sacrament is placed in the tabernacle.

Finally, one genuflects before the cross exposed for the veneration of the faithful on Good Friday, until the beginning of the Easter Vigil (Ceremonial of Bishops, 69).


There are two kinds of bows: a bow of the head from the neck and a bow of the body from the waist (Ceremonial of Bishops, 68). One should face the person or object one will reverence in this way, without moving, with the head or the body be lowered directly before oneself without leaning to one side or the other. The legs and hips should not move when one bows. One straightens immediately after bowing; there is no pause made while bowing.

The bow of the body, or the profound bow, is made toward the altar when the Blessed Sacrament is not present there, when approaching it or departing from it, or passing in front of it. The same is the case with the celebrant when he is a bishop. If one is walking between the altar and the celebrant, one bows to the altar if one is approaching it, or the celebrant if one is approaching him, but not to both. A better solution, depending on the circumstances, is to reverence both the altar and the celebrant with one bow, by passing in front of both the altar and the celebrant. A profound bow is made before and after each person or thing incensed, except for the altar and the gifts at the offertory (Ceremonial of Bishops, 91). When incensing the Blessed Sacrament, this profound bow is made from a kneeling position (Ceremonial of Bishops, 94).

The profound bow is required of concelebrants at each elevation, by the deacon seeking the blessing before the Gospel (or by a priest if he is seeking the blessing from the bishop), by the priest preparing himself before the altar to proclaim the Gospel, and during the Creed, at the words, “And by the Holy Spirit was incarnate” (except on Christmas and on the Annunciation when all kneel on both knees at those same words). During Eucharistic Prayer I, the celebrant bows profoundly at the offertory prayer “With humble spirit and contrite heart” and at “In humble prayer, we ask you, almighty God.” He also bows somewhat less profoundly at the words of consecration. Historically, one customarily bowed profoundly before the one from whom the peace is received. Then both parties bow profoundly to each other after having exchanged the peace (Fortescue, O’Connell, and Reid, 50). All bow profoundly when receiving the final blessing.

In any case, candle bearers and the cross bearer do not genuflect or make the profound bow while they holding their liturgical objects; instead, they bow their heads (GIRM, 274). The deacon does not make a profound bow nor bow his head when carrying the Gospel book (GIRM, 173).

According to tradition, the celebrant and ministers bow their heads to the crucifix in the sacristy before making their way to the altar. A bow of the head is required at the names of Jesus, Mary, and saints commemorated at Mass that day whenever they occur in the course of the celebration (GIRM, 275). One bows the head to the priest celebrant when approaching or departing from him or when passing before him (Mutel and Freeman, 41). The celebrant himself does not respond with a bow of the head, except after being incensed and after the washing of the hands (Mutel and Freeman, 42). The cross bearer and candle bearers bow their heads upon arriving at and departing from the sanctuary, rather than make a profound bow to the altar (or genuflect) (GIRM, 274). The deacon carrying the Gospel book makes neither the profound bow nor even the bow of the head upon arriving at the sanctuary at the beginning of Mass (GIRM, 173).

The next and penultimate post of this series will focus exclusively on the gestures made by the hands during the course of the celebration of Mass.

Image Source: AB/US Papal Visit on Flickr

Monsignor Marc B. Caron

Monsignor Marc B. Caron, S.T.D., is the vicar general and the moderator of the curia for the Diocese of Portland, ME. He has served as a pastor, as the director of the diocesan Office for Worship, and as a chancellor of the diocese. Most recently, he was a member of the faculty of St. John’s Seminary, Brighton, MA, where he was also director of liturgy. In 2021, he received the doctoral degree from the University of St. Mary of the Lake/Mundelein Seminary, writing on the sacramental nature of the diaconate. He is the author of a number of articles which have appeared in The Jurist, Worship, Catechumenate, and Homiletic and Pastoral Review.