What to Expect at the Mass

Everything is done in our chapel to keep the worshipper's attention focused on the presence of our Lord on His altar. The rosary recited by a group of worshippers before Mass, the lack of conversation inside the sanctuary, the traditional music of the organ and choir, the modest dress and many beautiful feminine head coverings that reflect our reverence, and the compact and easy-to-use Latin-English Missals available to all in the vestibule—all help to focus our attention on the altar and the prayers and movements of the holy Mass.

A misunderstanding about the Latin Mass was that the Faithful in attendance had nothing to do. In fact, it is the outward appearance of “doing nothing” that frees us to give all of our heart, all of our mind, to praying the Mass rather than focusing on the logistics of trying to stay in unison with everyone.

QUIET– You may notice the silence. We talk in the vestibule, on the spacious balustrade landing at the top of the steps to the chapel, in the arcade at the side of the chapel, or in St. Vincent's quad. We try to refrain from talking in the presence of our Lord in the Tabernacle, to set this sacred space apart and so that others may pray.

MUSIC – You will hear music from the sacred treasury of the Holy Catholic Church—Gregorian chant and sacred polyphony sung by our schola and the gorgeous harmonies from the rich history of liturgical organ music. At a first visit, many people can be seen looking around trying to figure out where the beautiful music is coming from; we use our choir loft.

DRESS – Please dress modestly out of respect for the Lord and others.

COMMUNION ON THE TONGUE – Simply kneel on the cushion at the communion rail, with your hands clasped for prayer. Father stands in front of you, he will be saying the same words you are used to hearing in the Novus Ordo, but in Latin. In the Usus Antiquior you do not need to say "Amen." As Father finishes speaking, simply open your mouth, extend your tongue about an inch and Father will place the Host on your tongue.


Dr. John M. Haas, Founder and President of the International Institute for Culture, has spoken of how certain of our practices made such an impression on him before he became Catholic. He has written of how the "adverting to Our Lord" manifest in the Catholic custom of bowing the head in honor of the Real Presence when passing a Catholic church affected him.

Catholics live in a world imbued with supernatural truths, beauty, and tradition: some profound, some a source of comfort, others the source of light-hearted humor. Catholic practices make up the daily life of a Catholic individual and a Catholic society. The morning offering, the invocation of Jesus, Mary and Joseph, the sprinkling of holy water on children at bedtime, the incantation to Saint Anthony ("Tony, Tony, come around; something's lost and can't be found"), the pleas to Saint Jude to prevent a bankruptcy, the novenas for a sick spouse.

All of these many practices fill the lives of the faithful, enrich, comfort, and orient them. Often it is difficult to trace their origin. Often the ones which seem most intimate and natural to a people were never even introduced by ecclesiastical authority. They emerged as natural, faith-filled expressions of love or joy or thanksgiving or grief or desperation.

The one characteristic these Catholic practices all seem to share is their ability to turn people away from the mundane, the worldly, the everyday, and direct them toward the sacred, the transcendent, the eternal.

Below are instructions on some of these ways of "adverting to Our Lord" by the use of posture and gesture.

Bow of the Head
How: Simply lower your chin toward your throat and hold a moment
  • When you pass by a Church, bow your head and make the Sign of the Cross to honor the Real Presence of Christ in the tabernacle.
  • Any time you hear the Name "Jesus" (note that "Christ" is His title, meaning "Anointed One"; there is no need to bow the head at just the mention of the word "Christ"). Men should remove their hats and bow their heads when passing a church or when His Name is spoken; this practice is for both inside and outside of Mass. All Catholics bow their heads at these times (yes, if you're having a casual conversation with someone on a bus or train and you pass a church or mention His Name, you actually are supposed to bow your head, removing your hat if you are a man).
  • Cross yourself and bow the head when the priest and the Crucifer walk down the aisle before and after Mass. After Mass, as the priest leaves the Altar, it is also customary to pray for him. (Some make a profound bow instead at these times).
  • Not commonly known and practiced: any time you hear "Father, Son, and Holy Ghost (or "Holy Spirit")" mentioned together; any time you hear the name of Mary; and, during Mass, when the name of the Saint in whose honor the Mass is being celebrated.
Striking of the Breast
How: With either a fist or with the tips of the fingers, held close together, strike your chest over the heart to express regret and sorrow
  • At the Mass, formally: at each "mea culpa" during the Confiteor; at the Nobis Quoque Peccatoribus (priest); three times during the Agnus Dei; and three times during the Domine, Non Sum Dignus
  • Informally: at the "forgive us our trespasses" ("dimitte nobis debita nostra") in the "Our Father"; any time to express penitence or remorse inside or outside of the Liturgy
Bow at the Waist (or "profound bow")
How: Bow at the waist in the manner of the Japanese (about 30 degrees forward)
  • At the Asperges at Mass when the priest sprinkles the congregation with holy water
  • When the Altar boy incenses the congregation during the Mass
  • Cross yourself and make a profound bow when the priest and Crucifer walk down the aisle before and after Mass.
  • After Mass, as the priest leaves the Altar, it is also customary to pray for him. (Some simply bow the head instead of making a profound bow at these times)
  • When greeting a hierarch who doesn't have jurisdiction over you (e.g., the Bishop of a diocese other than one in which you live). As you bow, kiss the hierarch's ring. This bow and ring-kissing are only done if the Pope is not present.
Genuflection on Left Knee
How: Kneel on your left knee for a moment, bringing the left knee all the way to the floor and keeping the back straight. Hold for a moment, then stand. (The word is pronounced "jen-you-flek'-shun")
When: When greeting or leaving the Pope or other hierarchs with the rank of Bishop or above and who have jurisdiction over you (only when the Pope is not present)—e.g., to the Bishop or Archbishop of your diocese, not of a neighboring diocese. During the left-knee genuflection, a kiss is given to the hierarch's ring. Then stand.

Genuflection on Right Knee
How: Looking at what you are genuflecting toward, kneel on your right knee for a moment in the manner of a man proposing to a woman, bringing the right knee all the way to the floor, close to the heel of the left foot, keeping the back and neck erect. Hold for a moment, then stand.
  • Genuflect toward the Tabernacle where the Blessed Sacrament is reserved, and each time you pass in front of it (except when you're in procession, such as standing in line for Communion, or returning to your seat afterward). While this should, on one level, be a matter of habit, it shouldn't be done thoughtlessly. Remind yourself when genuflecting toward the Tabernacle that you are kneeling before God. Praying mentally, "My Lord and My God" is a good habit to get into while genuflecting on the right knee. If the Tabernacle is not on the Altar, genuflect toward the Altar and the Altar Crucifix.
  • Before a relic of the True Cross when it is exposed for public adoration.
  • On Good Friday to Holy Saturday, after the ceremony of the Adoration of the Cross, genuflect when passing in front of the exposed Crucifix on the Altar.
Kneeling (Double Genuflection)
How: Kneel on both knees
  • Any time the Blessed Sacrament is exposed, to show adoration and humility.
  • Many times during the Mass: during the Prayers at the Foot of the Altar, after the Sanctus, after the Angus Dei, at the altar rail, and at the Last Blessing.
  • During Confession, inside or, in emergencies, outside of the Confessional.
  • When receiving a priestly blessing, inside or outside of the Liturgy. If you are unable for some reason to kneel, then bow your head.
  • During private prayer. (see St. Dominic's "Fourth Way" of prayer)

How: Keeping your legs together, drop to your knees and then lie down flat on the floor on your face, crossing your hands underneath your forehead forming a "pillow" on which to rest your forehead
When: Prostrations, which signify total humility and penance, are made during the Rite of Ordination, during rites of religious profession (e.g., entry into religious orders), as penance in religious orders, and by anyone during private prayer before a Crucifix or the Blessed Sacrament. It is also occasionally made by adults, at the priest's invitation, before the Profession of Faith in the solemn Rite of Baptism. (See St. Dominic's "Second Way" of prayer)

How: To paraphrase Lauren Bacall in "To Have and Have Not," you know how to kiss, don't you? You just put your lips together... but don't blow.
  • Kissing Crucifixes and Icons (2-D or 3-D): In icons that depict more than one person, kiss first Our Lord (His Feet, Hem of His garment, or hands), then Our Lady (her hands or veil), then the the angels and Saints. To reverence a Crucifix or icon that you can't reach too well with your lips, kiss your fingers and then touch where you would kiss.
  • Kissing rings of hierarchs: see above under "Genuflection on Left Knee"
  • Kissing a priest's hands: the priest's hands may be kissed when greeting or leaving him because they alone are able to confect the Holy Eucharist. They are also kissed on Palm Sunday when receiving a palm (which is also kissed). During the Mass, the priest's hands are kissed by the acolytes/altar boys.

For more information on when to kneel, etc., during Mass, see the Missals listed at the Masses tab. For an interesting work that shows how St. Dominic used posture in prayer, see "The Nine Ways of Prayer of St. Dominic."

1 The custom of bowing the head at the mention of His Name was formally written into law at the Second Council of Lyons, A.D. 1274, convened by Pope Gregory X: "Those who assemble in church should extol with an act of special reverence that Name which is above every Name, than which no other under Heaven has been given to people, in which believers must be saved, the Name, that is, of Jesus Christ, Who will save His people from their sins. Each should fulfil in himself that which is written for all, that at the Name of Jesus every knee should bow; whenever that glorious Name is recalled, especially during the sacred Mysteries of the Mass, everyone should bow the knees of his heart, which he can do even by a bow of his head."

2 The Catholic Encyclopedia cites St. Augustine (A.D. 354-430) as saying in his Sermo de verbis Domini, "No sooner have you heard the word 'Confiteor' than you strike your breast. What does this mean except that you wish to bring to light what is concealed in the breast, and by this act to cleanse your hidden sins?"

It also cites St. Jerome (ca. A.D. 340-420) as saying in Ezechiel, c. xviii, "We strike our breast because the breast is the seat of evil thoughts: we wish to dispel these thoughts, we wish to purify our hearts."

3 The orans position is frequently depicted in the art of the Catacombs where figures praying in this manner represented departed souls praying for the soul of the one whose tomb the figures adorn. The Catholic Encyclopedia says, "Numerous Biblical figures, for instance, depicted in the catacombs—Noah, Abraham, Isaac, the Three Children in the Fiery Furnace, Daniel in the lions' den—are pictured asking the Lord to deliver the soul of the person on whose tombs they are depicted as He once delivered the particular personage represented." It goes on to say that in addition to the Biblical Orans figures, there are idealized figures in that "ancient attitude of prayer" which symbolize the soul of the entombed one in heaven, praying for its friends on earth. "This symbolic meaning accounts for the fact that the great majority of the figures are female, even when depicted on the tombs of men."