|ROME, 6 JUNE 2006 (ZENIT)
Answered by Father Edward McNamara,
professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.
Q: Are they any indications concerning the movement of the thurible when
incensing the Host; the altar at the beginning of the Mass; at the
preparations of the offerings; bishops, priests and the people? In
various churches there are different styles concerning the times the
thurible is raised or turned around the offerings.
J.M., Seville, Spain
A: Most indications regarding how to incense are contained in the
General Instruction of the Roman Missal and in the Ceremonial of
Bishops. The GIRM specifies:
"276. Thurification or incensation is an expression of reverence and of
prayer, as is signified in Sacred Scripture (cf. Ps 141 :2, Rev
8:3). Incense may be used if desired in any form of Mass:
"a. During the Entrance procession;
"b. At the beginning of Mass, to incense the cross and the altar;
"c. At the Gospel procession and the proclamation of the Gospel itself;
"d. After the bread and the chalice have been placed upon the altar, to
incense the offerings, the cross, and the altar, as well as the priest
and the people;
"e. At the showing of the host and the chalice after the consecration.
"277. The priest, having put incense into the thurible, blesses it with
the sign of the Cross, without saying anything.
"Before and after an incensation, a profound bow is made to the person
or object that is incensed, except for the incensation of the altar and
the offerings for the Sacrifice of the Mass.
"The following are incensed with three swings of the thurible ["Ductus,"
or three double swings as explained below]: the Most Blessed Sacrament,
a relic of the Holy Cross and images of the Lord exposed for public
veneration, the offerings for the sacrifice of the Mass, the altar
cross, the Book of the Gospels, the Paschal Candle, the priest, and the
"The following are incensed with two swings of the thurible: relics and
images of the Saints exposed for public veneration. This should be done,
however, only at the beginning of the celebration, after the incensation
of the altar.
"The altar is incensed with single swings of the thurible in this way:
"a. If the altar is freestanding with respect to the wall, the priest
incenses walking around it;
"b. If the altar is not freestanding, the priest incenses it while
walking first to the right-hand side, then to the left. The cross, if
situated on or near the altar, is incensed by the priest before he
incenses the altar; otherwise, he incenses it when he passes in front of
"The priest incenses the offerings with three swings of the thurible or
by making the sign of the cross over the offerings with the thurible,
then going on to incense the cross and the altar."
To these general indications for Mass, the Ceremonial of Bishops (Nos.
84-98) adds further details. Incense is used:
for the rite of the dedication of a church or altar.
in the rite of blessing of oils and consecrating the chrism as the
blessed oils and consecrated chrism are being taken away.
at exposition of the Blessed Sacrament when the monstrance is used.
during solemn processions such as the feast of the Presentation, Palm
Sunday and Corpus Christi.
during the singing of the Gospel canticle at solemn Morning or Evening
The ceremonial further notes that only the bishop may put incense into
the thurible while seated and that the Blessed Sacrament is incensed
from a kneeling position.
All those who receive the incensation do so from a standing position.
Concelebrants are incensed as a body followed by the people. Bishops and
canons who are not concelebrating are incensed along with the people.
But in those cases where a bishop presides but does not concelebrate, he
is incensed after the concelebrants.
Where customary a head of state in official attendance at a liturgical
celebration is incensed after the bishop.
The celebrant should not begin any prayer or commentary until after the
incensation has been completed. During the divine office the antiphon
for Benedictus or Magnificat should not be repeated until the completion
of the incensation.
It also adds several footnotes taken from the 1886 edition of the
ceremonial regarding the manner of approaching the bishop, recommending
placing three spoonfuls of incense into the thurible, and describing the
manner of holding the thurible. For example, footnote 75 states:
"The one incensing holds the top of the censer chain in the left hand,
the bottom near the censer in the right hand, so that the censer can be
swung back and forth easily. The one incensing should take care to carry
out this function with grave and graceful mien, not moving head or body
while swinging the censer, holding the left hand with the top of the
chains near the chest and moving the right arm back and forth with a
To these official documents we may add the indications offered by
Monsignor Peter Elliott in his excellent ceremonies book:
"216. The grace and skill of using the thurible depends first of all on
how the chains are held when incensing a person or thing. Each person
should work out what is most convenient by practice, but an easy method
may be proposed. (a) Take the disc and the upper part of the chains in
the left hand, letting it rest against the breast. With the right hand,
let the chains pass between the index and middle finger. Secure them by
the thumb, so that the swinging bowl of the thurible may be directed and
controlled easily. (b) With the right hand, bring the bowl in front of
the breast. Then raise the right hand to eye level (lower when censing
an altar) and move the bowl backwards and forwards towards the person or
object, swinging it steadily and smoothly without haste by manipulating
the chain. (c) Having completed the required number of swings, lower the
bowl once more. Then bring it to your side or return it to the thurifer
"217. There are two kinds of swing or "ductus." To make a double swing,
the thurible is swung twice at the person or object to be incensed, and
then lowered. To make a single swing, it is swung once and then lowered,
except when incensing the altar, when these single swings are made
continuously as the celebrant walks around it.
"218. The customary rules governing these different forms of incensation
are as follow: (a) three double swings are made to incense the Blessed
Sacrament, a relic of the Cross, images of Our Lord set up for
veneration, the gifts on the altar, the altar cross, the Book of the
Gospels, the Easter candle, the celebrant (bishop or priest), a
representative of the civil authority officially present at a
celebration, the choir, the people and the body of a deceased person;
(b) two double swings are made to incense relics or images of Our Lady
and the saints set up for veneration. The altar is incensed by single
swings. In procession, the thurifer swings the thurible at full length
from his right hand. In his left hand he carries the boat against his
breast, but his left hand rests flat on the breast if there is a boat
"219. It is not necessary to let the bowl strike the chains. When
incensing a person or the gifts on the altar, the chains should be held
about 20 cm. (8 inches) from the bowl; about 30 cm. (12 inches) when
incensing the altar and cross. Before and after an incensation, a
profound bow is made to the person who is being incensed. While bowing
before and after incensing a person, the thurifer lets go of the
thurible with the right hand, which is placed on the breast.
"220. In placing incense in the thurible, the amount used ought to be
governed by such factors as the size of the church. However, the sign of
incense rising is achieved only if the grain or powder is evenly
arranged on burning coals. Striking or breaking the coals with the spoon
does nothing but dislodge the grains and swinging a thurible which does
not produce smoke is ridiculous."
* * *
Follow-up: Incensing the Host, Altars, Etc. [6-20-2006]
After our exposition regarding the use of incense (June 6) a priest
reader asked for a clarification regarding the use of the expression
He writes: "You quoted Monsignor's instruction to
use a double swing, etc. ... As I understand it, the Church documents
call for swings, not double swings, or triple swings, or loops, etc. Yet
one might think you were suggesting a liturgical practice that is not
presented to us in the Church's documents. Thus the confusion. You are
not suggesting we add or change something in the liturgy, are you? I
realize this is not a big matter, but I am surprised that you would
suggest we do something other than what the Church has given us as part
of the liturgy. Now if there is some commentary that explains why, in
the Latin, we can understand the swings ('ductus') to give latitude to
one or two swings, great, I'd love to hear that. But it does not seem,
from what you quoted from the documents or from Monsignor's work that
this is an explanation, and therefore why it is OK to do it. If you are
able to clarify, I would be grateful."
With the expression "double swing," Monsignor Peter
Elliott describes the mode of incensing which is practically universal
custom, in which each "ductus" consists of two "ictus," or swings. Hence
the thurible is raised, swung twice toward the object or person
incensed, and then lowered.
If we may use the somewhat less technical
expression of another correspondent, the thurible is "clicked" twice
during each "ductus."
The difficulty arises because the present
liturgical books do not distinguish between the simple swing and double
swing (or "double click") during the "ductus," but only the number of "ductus"
in each circumstance or how many times the thurible is raised and
lowered for swinging.
Previous legislation, however, did make this
distinction, and prescribed the double swing for practically the same
persons and objects as the present legislation. There is no reason to
suppose that the practice has been abrogated.
Likewise, as authentic custom is also a source of
law, the use of the double swing as described by Monsignor Elliott is
used practically everywhere
at the Masses of the Supreme Pontiff.
For the sake of completeness I will offer the
description of the double swing found in the Fortescue-O'Connell
pre-Vatican II ceremonies book: "The double swing ('ductus duplex') is
made by raising the thurible to the level of the face, then swinging it
out towards the object or person to be incensed, repeating this outward
swing, and then lowering the thurible."
A Washington, D.C., reader asked: "I recently saw a
papal Mass in Rome and noticed six ministers holding candles and
standing in front of the altar at the Celebration of the Eucharist. In
the middle was the thurifer. Is it legal to practice this same aspect of
Mass, having servers hold candles in front of the altar at the
consecration? If so, are there rules as to how many candles should be
This way of incensing the Blessed Sacrament during
the Eucharistic prayer is common at solemn Masses. The ministers process
and take their places before the altar during the singing of the
"Sanctus" and leave after the final doxology ("Through him, with him
."). They kneel during the consecration.
The thurifer (or a deacon) places incense in the
thurible before the procession and incenses the Blessed Sacrament with
three double swings when the host, and then the chalice, are shown after
Six torchbearers plus thurifer (and a deacon)
usually carry out this function. The rite can be adapted according to
the number of ministers available, the size of the sanctuary and other
similar factors. If necessary the number may be reduced to only two
torchbearers and thurifer, or even just the thurifer alone.
It is permitted at any Mass, but is especially
suited to Sundays and festivities.