Ask Alice about Catholicism
When and where is it appropriate to bow inside Catholic churches?

The poet William Stafford wrote about the spirit of reverence in which he describes this human imperative: "A great event is coming, bow down." He reflects, "And I, always looking for something anyway, / always bow down" (Things That Happen, 1970). Folks like Stafford with a highly cultivated sense of reverence know there's never a wrong time to bow, because every moment is a miracle. But it's also good to know what folks may be bowing to as they maneuver around the sacred space of Catholic churches.

First and foremost there's the altar, officially called the Table of the Lord. Because Catholic worship is centered on the celebration of the Eucharist, this table is the most important piece of furniture in the church. When entering a church it's appropriate to make a bow of the head and shoulders toward the altar. That is an act of faith in the presence of Christ in the Eucharist.

The bow itself is an ancient symbol of surrender to a higher authority: baring the back of the neck made you vulnerable to the person before whom you subjected yourself. Bowing toward the altar whenever you cross in front of it is proper. (But if you're cleaning or decorating the church or otherwise crossing frequently, the protocol is naturally suspended.)

Later in church history it became common to reserve some part of the Eucharist in a receptacle known as the tabernacle. The tabernacle is placed variously around churches, from directly above the altar (from the days when the altar was against the wall of the sanctuary) to the present practice of reserving the Eucharist at the side of the sanctuary space or sometimes in a separate chapel entirely.

Because the tabernacle contains the consecrated Body of Christ, it—like the Table of the Lord—are reverenced with a bow or even a genuflection (going down on one knee and making the Sign of the Cross over yourself). When the tabernacle is in line with the altar or shares the same sanctuary space, it is not necessary to reverence both. The proper bow is always primarily toward the Table of the Lord. Of course you'll see folks bow toward images of Jesus, his mother Mary, favorite saints, or the cross. These are devotional gestures and not obligatory. Inside the church reverencing the altar is sufficient.

Exodus 3:4-6; Leviticus 19:30; 26:2; Psalm 86:9; Revelation 4:6-11

Stories That Could Be True: New and Collected Poems by William Stafford (Harper & Row, 1982)
The Spiritual Life: Recognizing the Holy by Robert Fabing (Paulist Press, 2004)
The Holy Way: Practices for a Simple Life by Paula Huston (Loyola Press, 2003)

Ask Alice a question.
Alice L. Camille
Alice Camille is a gem among contemporary writers on scripture and Catholic teaching. She has received numerous awards for her books, columns, and exegetical reflections. She received her Master of Divinity degree from the Franciscan School of Theology in Berkeley, where she also served as adjunct faculty in ministry formation, preaching and proclamation. Alice is an author, religious educator, and parish retreat leader. Learn more at

Before sending Alice a question, please check below to see if she has already responded to it. Also, please send only questions of general interest. Not all questions can be used. Thank you!
Got a question for Alice?

   Ask her now!

More questions...and responses

Where did Lent come from?

What’s so important about the Council of Trent?

What are the “Precepts of the Church”?

Do Catholics take the biblical creation story literally?

Why can’t a woman be ordained?

Why does the liturgy change?

Is Purgatory still “on the books”?

Why is it important to participate regularly in the Mass?

Why pray the rosary?

Why can people go to Mass on Saturday evening instead of Sunday?

Did King David compose the psalms?

Who were Jesus' “brothers and sisters”?

Is there really a Catholic Index of Forbidden Books?

What are the corporal and spiritual works of mercy?

Is a long or short discernment process better for someone interested in becoming a priest, nun, or brother?

What’s the difference between celibacy and chastity?

Is it “Catholic” to be vegetarian? Do Catholics care about animal suffering?

What does the Bible say about Judgment Day?

Why do Christians believe Jesus is God incarnate?

What’s that picture of Jesus with rays flowing from him?

What is the Triduum?

Who chose the "Seven Deadly Sins"?

"What should I believe about hell?"

Is the Mass a “holy sacrifice” or a “celebration”—or both?

Pulpit, lectern, ambo: What’s the difference?

What was the Reformation?

What is “discernment of spirits”?

Is environmentalism “Catholic” or a political football?

Why do Catholics believe in the Immaculate Conception?

Why are there parishes?

Do Catholics believe in ghosts?

Who was Saint Augustine?

What is "sanctuary"?

What is the Liturgy of the Hours?

How does God “answer” prayers?

What does “salvation history” mean?

Why do Catholics believe in the Assumption of Mary?

Why do priests wear vestments?

Do miracles still happen?

What do deacons do?

How is the Mass “prayer”?

What is Catholic decision-making?

Who wrote the gospels?

What is “original sin”?

How does the Catholic Church view other religions?

The "Five C's" of Confession

What's the difference between chapels, churches, cathedrals, and basilicas?

Where do the Stations of the Cross come from?

What's the relationship between the Old Testament and the New Testament?

Can I come back to the church?

Why does the priest talk after the readings at Mass?

What's the difference between catechesis and evangelization?

Didn't Saint Paul write all the letters attributed to him?

Are we supposed to believe in angels and demons in the 21st century?

Who are the saints and why do we pray to them?

Why pray for the dead?

Who are the "Doctors of the Church"?

How were the books of the Bible chosen?

What's the difference between saying "set" prayers and prayers in my own words?

What do Catholics have to believe?

Who were the prophets? Does God still call people to prophecy?

What is the lectionary?

Why do Catholics bless themselves, genuflect, and so on?

Did Jesus establish a church? How did we get from following “the Way” of Jesus to this big institution?

What do we mean by the church’s “magisterium”?

Is there salvation outside the Catholic Church?

What do people in religious life do for fun?

Why is celibacy important to religious life?

Vocation: For all of life, or only "religious life"?

What is contemplation?

Is my vocation from God or just my imagination?

What does the Bible say about discipleship?

How do I know whether be an order priest or a diocesan priest?

What do Catholics believe about scripture and tradition?

"Sin" is such a negative word. Can't we just talk about “failure”?

Should I read the Bible?

How can I be happy?

How can I live a holy life?