|ROME, 3 FEB. 2009 (ZENIT)
Answered by Legionary of Christ Father
Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum
Q: I know of a priest who has the altar servers incense the congregation
after he has incensed the altar at the offertory. There is one family
who objects to this and states that it should be a priest or deacon that
incenses the congregation. Can you provide documentation on the correct
— B.L., Caney, Kansas
A: The relevant documents are found, above all, in the General
Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM) and the Ceremonial of Bishops.
GIRM Nos. 75 and 144 sum up most of what needs to be said:
"75) The bread and wine are placed on the altar by the priest to the
accompaniment of the prescribed formulas. The priest may incense the
gifts placed upon the altar and then incense the cross and the altar
itself, so as to signify the Church's offering and prayer rising like
incense in the sight of God. Next, the priest, because of his sacred
ministry, and the people, by reason of their baptismal dignity, may be
incensed by the deacon or another minister.
"144) If incense is used, the priest then puts some in the thurible,
blesses it without saying anything, and incenses the offerings, the
cross, and the altar. A minister, while standing at the side of the
altar, incenses the priest and then the people."
From this it is clear that the incensing of the priest and the people is
a role of the deacon if one is present. When there is no deacon, this
task may be undertaken by an instituted acolyte or an altar server, but
it would never be the task of the priest, who at this time is washing
his hands and preparing to invite the congregation to pray as soon as
the incensing of the people is concluded.
Unlike the Roman rite, some Eastern Churches limit the use of the
thurible to those who have received at least the subdiaconate or even
diaconate, and in these rites it is not possible for non-clerics to
substitute the ordained ministers in these functions at Mass.
A point of debate is involved in the case of concelebration, especially
when a bishop presides. The Ceremonial of Bishops, No. 149, says that
the deacon incenses the bishop, then the concelebrants, then the people.
On the other hand, the more recent GIRM No. 214, in referring to
concelebrated Masses, simply says that the preparation of the gifts is
to be carried out according to Nos. 139-146 and there is no reference to
a separate incensing of the concelebrants.
Likewise, personal observation of some celebrations in the Vatican in
which there was no separate incensing of concelebrants would seem to
indicate that the incensing of the principal celebrant is considered as
representing all clergy present.
However, it might also be explained by the fact that the concelebrants
in the basilica are generally not in a distinct presbytery but are
placed in front of the assembly; this makes it impossible to distinguish
a separate incensing of clergy and faithful.
Since both these documents remain in force, I believe that both options
are viable, at least at an episcopal concelebration. Pending further
official clarifications, either form may be chosen according to the
concrete circumstances such as the number and location of the
concelebrants, the structure of the presbytery, or the time required.
* * *
Follow-up: Incensing the Congregation [2-17-2009]
Related to the theme of our Feb. 3 column on incense, these questions
A California reader asked: "Is incense to be used in the procession
following the Mass? I find no consensus on this question. While the
General Instruction of the Roman Missal, No. 276, does not say that
incense may be used in the procession at the end of Mass, some
(including bishops' masters of ceremonies) have argued that GIRM No. 193
should be understood to say that if a thurifer leads the entrance
procession, he also leads the procession at the end of Mass. Which
position is correct?"
I would say that the point of debate is not so much if incense should
be used at this moment, but rather whether or not the thurifer leads the
Of the two references, GIRM No. 193 is an indication of general
principles whereas No. 276 gives precise instructions. We must presume
that there is no willful contradiction in the two norms.
Since No. 276 lists the moments when incense is used, then it is safe
to say that the thurible is not used for the exit procession. The usual
process in most solemn Masses is that, at the conclusion of the
Eucharistic Prayer, the thurifer and the torchbearers go to a suitable
place outside of the sanctuary. The torches are extinguished and the
thurible put away. In some cases a sacristan removes the carbons from
the thurible so as to avoid them burning out in the thurible itself,
which can make it difficult to clean. Having left the torches and
thurible, the acolytes return to their places.
Having clarified that incense is not used, we must discuss the
position of the thurifer in the final procession.
Regarding this point I defer to the description offered by Monsignor
(now Bishop) Peter Elliott in his manual "Ceremonies of the Modern Roman
Rite." In No. 412 he states:
"After the blessing, the deacon (or the deacon of the Word) dismisses
the assembly. Facing the people, he sings the dismissal with his hands
joined, using one of the options provided. After the assembly has
responded, the celebrant and deacon(s) go to the altar. They kiss it and
go to the pavement in front of the altar, where the final procession
lines up. The M.C. or a server may bring the Book of the Gospels to the
deacon (or the deacon of the Word), so that he can carry it in the
procession. At a signal from the M.C., those who are not carrying
anything bow profoundly to the altar or genuflect if the tabernacle is
in the sanctuary. The procession leaves in the same order as it entered,
except that the thurifer (and boat bearer) without the thurible (and
boat) follows the cross bearer and candle bearers. During the
procession, a final hymn may be sung or music may be played, according
to the occasion or local custom."
The author offers further clarifications in a footnote: "The approved
authors were divided as to whether a thurifer who is not carrying the
thurible should lead the procession. On this minor point it seems
logical that, having ceased to function, the thurifer should join the
other servers behind the cross."
While referring to Monsignor Elliott, a Swedish reader inquired about
some details of his book with reference to incensing:
"1. In 'Ceremonies of the Modern Roman Rite' (CMMR) I have read that
the thurifer is to approach the altar from the credence table side.
However, one of the longest-serving altar servers claims that although
CMRR gives this instruction, this is not part of the official
instruction, so it is something that is up to the local M.C. Is he
correct? If not, what text can I refer to?
"2. If there is a deacon present at the Mass, and incense is used,
may he (and should he) delegate the incensing to the altar servers, and
if so: when, and under which circumstances?”
It should be observed that the then Monsignor Elliott never claimed
official status for his labors which, however, filled an obvious void
among liturgical resources. Some details of his work no longer
correspond to the new GIRM, and it is to be hoped that a new edition may
In this invaluable work, the author strives to reference his
descriptions with official sources, but these do not always provide the
detail required in a ceremonies manual. Thus he has to flesh out the
official texts using approved authors from earlier times, long-standing
custom, common sense, and keen observation of solemn ceremonies in Rome.
He is thus a reliable guide but not an official one.
Therefore while it is true that the indication that the thurifer
approach from the credence table side (usually to the celebrant's right)
might not be officially mandated, it does not mean that it is arbitrary
and that any master of ceremonies can change it. This mode of
approaching is long-standing custom and is also the most practical
position for placing incense in the thurible given that most people are
right-handed. All the same, there could be circumstances or
architectural barriers that would require another means of approaching
and the law does not forbid it.
Regarding the second question I would say that it is not the deacon
who delegates but rather the celebrant who, with the M.C. and before
Mass begins, makes the final decision as to whether the deacon or the
acolyte should do the incensing or if the task is to be divided up.
Under normal circumstances, when there is only one deacon, he would
incense the Gospel before proclaiming it and later incense the priest
and people after the priest has incensed the gifts and the altar during
the presentation of gifts.
Of these two, the acolyte may only substitute the deacon in incensing
the priest and people at the offertory (the deacon is not incensed
separately). This substitution can be done for any reasonable cause; for
example, if the structure of the sanctuary did not allow the deacon to
quickly return to the altar on completing the incensing of the people,
thus impeding his service toward the priest.
The deacon may leave the altar to incense the sacred species during
the consecration. But this is not common practice and, unless there is
more than one deacon, it is usually entrusted to the thurifer.