Remember when Pope Benedict XVI visited the United States a couple years ago? At the time, a friend of mine asked me why all of these people were raising their hands and bowing toward the pope as he rode by in his popmobile. She’s Lutheran and had no idea why Catholics would revere a mere man in such a way that looks like worship. Since I hadn’t seen the event she was describing—and frankly I’ve never seen such a thing before or since—I really didn’t know what to say.
At Mass the other day for some reason I noticed the ushers bring up the collection and place it next to the alter, walked away from the alter, turn around, and bowed. The priest was behind the alter preparing the bread and wine and it occurred to me that it’d be very easy for an outsider looking in to think that the usher had just bowed to the priest. I’ve been watching ever since and over and over I see Eucharistic ministers, ushers, canters, lectors, and many others bowing (seemingly) directly toward the priest.
In reality, that’s not the case at all. A careful observation shows that not only do the lay people who approach the front of the church bow but so does the priest. In fact, the first thing a priest does is genuflect (kneel briefly on one knee) facing the later and the second thing he does is kiss the alter. In the same way the bowing of the ministers is always directed toward the alter and never toward the priest who happens to be near it.
Catholics reverence the alter in these ways as a sign of our deep respect for what happens on that sacred table; the transformation of common bread and wine into the body and blood of Jesus Christ and the participation in the one sacrifice for all. Few things, if any, connect us more deeply to Christ than the Eucharist and the altar is the place where it all happens; for that we are utterly respectful.
Considering that, I’d guess (but don’t know) that the people bowing toward the pope in my opening example were witnessing a Eucharistic Procession where that behavior is perfectly acceptable since they’re worshipping the very body of Christ. The point is that things aren’t always as they seem when it comes to Catholic rituals. Nearly all actions are deliberate and have rich meaning; down to why—and toward what—the bow of a minister is directed.
If you ever wonder why Catholics do what they do; drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org and we’d be honored to get an answer for you.