A ZENIT DAILY DISPATCH
Venerating Icons at Mass

By Father Edward McNamara

Rome, 27 October 2015 (ZENIT)
Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and dean of theology at the Regina Apostolorum university.

Q: Can icons be venerated (incensed, kissed, etc.) during a Roman-rite Mass? Can a particular icon, such as that of the saint of the day, patron of the church, etc., be placed in or near the altar, and can it be reverenced during the Mass? — M.P. Indianapolis, Indiana

A: There are no detailed rules regarding the use of sacred images during Mass, but the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM), No. 277, has the following to say about incensing:

"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: 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 people. 

"The following are incensed with two swings of the thurible: relics and images of the Saints exposed for public veneration, which 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 tothe 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 it. The priest incenses the offerings with threeswings of the thurible or by making the sign of the cross over the offerings with the thurible before goingon to incense the cross and the altar."

Therefore, although it is not explicit, the GIRM does foresee the possibility of there being "relics and images of the Saints exposed for public veneration" in the general area of the sanctuary so that they can be incensed with ease. These would either be permanent, such as the image of Our Lady, or specific to the feast and hence only present for the celebration.

The logical place for such temporary icons would be somewhere in the sanctuary, perhaps near the ambo in the place usually reserved for the Easter candle. They are never placed upon the altar of sacrifice (see Ceremonial of Bishops, Nos. 866 and 921), and it would not be appropriate to place them in front of the altar.

While the GIRM does allow the placing of such icons, the guidelines of the U.S. bishops' document "Built of Living Stones" is more reticent, although without addressing specifically the question of their presence during Mass. To wit: 

"§ 137. The placement of images can be a challenge, especially when a number of cultural traditions are part of a single parish community and each has its own devotional life and practices. Restraint in the number and prominence of sacred images is encouraged to help people focus on the liturgical action that is celebrated in the church. Separate alcoves for statues or icons can display a variety of images through the year. Some parishes designate an area as the shrine for an image that is being venerated on a given day or for a period of time, such as the image of a saint on his or her feast day.

"§ 138. It is important that the images in the church depict saints for whom devotion currently exists in the parish. It is particularly desirable that a significant image of the patron of the church be fittingly displayed, as well as an image of Mary, the Mother of God, as a fitting tribute to her unique role in the plan of salvation. As time passes and demographics change, saints who were once the object of veneration by many parishioners may at another time be venerated by only a few. When this happens, these images could be removed, provided sensitivity is shown with regard to the piety of the faithful and the impact on the building."

These guidelines are quite sensible for the situation in the United States, but they do not exclude the possibility of placing an image of a saint in the sanctuary. Such an option, however, would usually be reserved for Masses celebrated with some solemnity, such as that of the patron saint of the parish, diocese or nation, or of a Marian invocation (Guadalupe, Fatima, etc.) or saint toward whom the faithful of the parish feel particular devotion.

It would not apply to other celebrations of saints or less solemn Masses.

The kissing of such images would not normally form part of the celebration of Mass, although in some places, after Mass has concluded, an image or a relic may be brought to the edge of the sanctuary for personal veneration such as a kiss.

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