Throughout the world, there are many different rituals that Christians practice. Some of the most obvious differentiations come from the different denominations—probably most noticeable between Protestants and Catholics. While many people are used to hearing about and understanding the different traditions, there are also more physical representations of this. One of these is the fact that Catholics bow their heads when the name of Jesus is spoken. Although this is not as common of a practice as it used to be, it is still practiced by many laypersons and some priests.
According to an article on aleteia.org, this custom comes from the book of Philippians where St. Paul instructs the church on how to act.
“Therefore God has highly exalted Him and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:9-11).
The tradition of bowing one’s head instead of kneeling can be credited to Pope Gregory X who served from 1271 to 1276 and reformed the assembly of cardinals that elects the pope. During his time as pope, he decided to find another way in which to show honor to Jesus’ name—instead of kneeling every time it is spoken. In 1274, he wrote to the Dominican Order and told them of his thoughts on the matter. Later, his letter was published in the book With God: A Book of Prayers and Reflections by Francis Xavier Lasance.
“We have also judged it proper to persuade the faithful to demonstrate more reverence for that Name above all names, the only Name in which we claim salvation—the Name of Jesus Christ, who has redeemed us from the bondage of sin. Consequently, in obedience to that apostolic precept, ‘In the Name of Jesus let every knee, be bent,’ we wish that at the pronouncing of that Name, chiefly at the Holy Sacrifice, everyone would bow his head in token that interiorly he bends the knee of his heart.”
Pope Gregory X found it important to not only physically show one’s reverence for Christ, but to also use this gesture as an opportunity to turn one’s heart towards heaven.
This continues to be a debated practice to this day. In a 2013 online catholic forum, one user asked the following question: “Could you please tell me why Catholics no longer bow their head at the name of Jesus? I seem to be the only one still doing that—even the priests don’t. When and why did this stop? (Ocean City, N.J.)”
The response from Father Kenneth Doyle is reminiscent of Pope Gregory X’s own thoughts. He writes, “…you are correct in bowing at the name of Jesus, and everyone else should be doing it too. It lifts us all from the mundane and serves as a convenient reminder that there are lofty realities that transcend and beckon us.”
Although gestures may seem small, they hold weight and meaning that goes back centuries.