Bowing in church is commonplace, but there is also a protocol for when and how a priest, minister, lector and the person sitting in the pew should bow.

For example, in some churches the lector bows twice before proceeding to the ambo to read the day’s readings. According to individual local custom, the lector enters the sanctuary and bows first to the altar, and then to the celebrant before proceeding to the ambo. 

The first bow, according to The Ceremonial of Bishops, which is a book of the reform of liturgical rites ordered by the Second Vatican Council, is a “deep bow” made toward the altar by all who “enter the sanctuary, leave it or pass before the altar.”

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The second bow, which is explicitly prescribed in liturgical books but is dependent on local practices, is based on reverence for the celebrant, especially if a bishop is celebrating Mass. According to the Ceremonial, “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.”

Additionally, when the bishop’s chair is behind the altar, ministers out of reverence for the altar or the bishop should avoid passing between the bishop and the altar.

However, it should be noted that if the readers are in the sanctuary from the beginning of Mass and have no need to cross in front of the altar, they might not have to bow at all.

There are also two types of bows to be used at different times. A bow of the head is made when the three persons of the Holy Trinity are named together, and at the name of Jesus, Mary and the saint in whose honor the Mass is being celebrated.

A profound bow, which is known as a bow of the body, is made toward the altar if there is no tabernacle with the Blessed Sacrament during the prayers. This is the same bow made by the deacon before he asks the blessing before the Gospel reading and the priest during the consecration. 

One might also question why readers, ministers or even the congregation bow toward the altar if the tabernacle, which contains the actual body of Christ, is off to the side, as is the case with many of the more modern churches. 

The general rule is always bow toward the altar because there is no act of veneration toward the tabernacle during the Mass. However, there is always an exception, in this case when the Eucharist is reserved in the tabernacle after Communion.

It should be noted, however, the church desires all attention be focused on the celebration of the Holy Sacrifice, the altar, which is where ordinary bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ.