In large part, the use incense symbolizes our prayers rising up to the throne of God. The Roman Missal provides for the optional use of incense at any Mass. It identifies five points at which incense can be used: 1) the entrance procession, 2) the altar and its cross at the beginning of Mass, 3) the Gospel, 4) the preparation of the gifts, and 5) the elevations during the Eucharistic Prayer (General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM) 276). In each case, the traditional gestures of the ministers involved can help to make each of these parts of Mass more graceful and more conducive to prayer.
The Entrance Procession and the Altar
In the traditional practice, incense was not used at the entrance procession of a priest prior to Mass. Its use was reserved for the entrance procession of a bishop. Moreover, when incense was used, it was always accompanied by the use of a processional cross and processional candles. All this demands a sufficient number of ministers at any given celebration. Thus, there may be times when it is more practical to forego the use of incense at the opening procession of Mass even if one desires to use it at other points during the same Mass.
If incense is used during the opening procession of Mass, the celebrant “imposes” incense (i.e., places incense on the coals within the thurible) in the sacristy or in another location where the procession will actually begin. The thurifer opens the censer, holding the ring of the chain(s) in his left hand and the chain(s) close to bowl of the censer in his right hand. Normally, the deacon or another server holds the open incense boat (the vessel that contains the grains of unburned incense) in his left hand and presents the spoon to the celebrant with his right hand.
Then, transferring the boat to his right hand, the deacon holds the incense boat close to the bowl of the censer or thurible, with his left hand resting on his chest. The celebrant, meanwhile, holding the spoon in his right hand and with his left hand resting on his chest, imposes incense three times before returning the spoon to the deacon. The deacon then transfers the incense boat to his left hand once again in order to receive the spoon with his right. The celebrant joins his hands and then, with his left hand to his chest, makes the sign of the cross in the shape of a Greek cross toward the open censer with his right hand, saying nothing, before joining his hands once again. The thurifer closes the censer (with the boat in his left hand before his chest, unless another minister holds it), holding the censer in his right hand at the ring of the chain(s). The thurifer then goes to the head of the procession to await its beginning.
As the procession makes its way to the sanctuary, the thurifer, holding the censer from its ring in his right hand, gently swings the censer backwards and forwards. In some larger churches, depending on the circumstances, the thurifer may swing the censer from right to the left as he goes forward, then from left to right before him. Whichever method is chosen should be proportionate to the size of the church and the importance of the occasion. Upon arriving at the sanctuary, the thurifer bows his head and proceeds to a position to the right of where the celebrant will stand at the altar. If the altar is oriented to the liturgical east, the thurifer will go the right; if the altar is oriented to the assembly, the thurifer will go to the left in order to arrive at the celebrant’s right when he faces the assembly at the altar. If necessary, the thurifer or another server can add more incense at this time.
Once the celebrant rises from kissing the altar at the center, the thurifer stands to his immediate right. If incense was not used in the entrance procession, either because of a lack of a minister or other practical difficulties, the minister acting as thurifer can simply approach the celebrant at the altar from the sacristy or from an incense stand in the sanctuary where the censer with burning coals was left prior to the beginning of the entrance procession. At the center of the altar, the celebrant imposes incense as described above, if necessary. In this case, when blessing the incense just imposed, his left hand rests on the altar. The thurifer passes the censer to a deacon or a master of ceremonies who in turn passes it to the celebrant.
The celebrant receives the ring of the chain(s) of the censer in his left hand and then grasps the chains near the bowl in his right hand. (Historically, the rubrics have made no accommodation for celebrants who are left-handed.) The minister passing the censer to him makes sure to place the ring of the chains in the celebrant’s left hand and the chains near the bowl of the censer in the celebrant’s right hand. This means that the minister will need to hold censer in the opposite manner so as to pass them directly to the celebrant without any confusion. The deacon or another minister may accompany the celebrant to his right as he incenses the altar, or the celebrant may do so unaccompanied.
If the altar cross is before him, the celebrant, with the left hand holding the ring at his chest, bows to the altar cross, and incenses the cross with three double swings, then bows to the cross once again. He begins to incense the altar with no further reverence (See Ceremonial for Bishops, 91) Historically, all the surfaces of the altar, both vertical (such as the faces of each side) and horizontal (the mensa of the altar itself) are incensed. The incensing of a freestanding altar is carried out in the following way, regardless of which direction the celebrant will be oriented for Mass.
First, the celebrant incenses the right side of altar top (the mensa) with three single swings as he walks from the middle of the side of the altar where he will stand for Mass to the right-hand edge of the altar. (In the traditional practice, a single swing is the forward movement of the censer toward the thing or person being incense, without swinging back and forth.) Arriving at the right corner of the altar, he drops his right hand to incense the right-hand vertical end of the altar with two swings as he walks toward the opposite side of the altar. While walking at a measured pace, he then incenses that entire vertical side of the altar with six single swings (that is, the side of the altar opposite from where he will stand during the Liturgy of the Eucharist). He then turns and incenses the other vertical end of the altar with two single swings. Still at the left-hand corner of the same side from which he began, he remains stationary at the corner and from that position incenses the left side of the top of the altar (the mensa) with three separate single swings of the censer from the left edge to the center. The celebrant then incenses the entire vertical portion of the remaining side of the altar (that is, the long side from which he will celebrate the Liturgy of the Eucharist) with six distinct single swings, concluding his circumambulation of the altar at the right-hand corner. There he hands the censer back to the deacon or minister, and proceeds directly to his chair.
If the altar cross is not located directly in front of the celebrant when standing at the altar, he begins by incensing the altar. When he arrives at a point at the altar closest to where the altar cross is positioned, he stops there, bows, incenses the cross with three double swings, bows again, and resumes the incensing of the altar where he left off.
At the Gospel
When incense is used in the Gospel procession, its use has also been accompanied by the presence to two acolytes bearing candles. Incense and candles can be used even if a separate Gospel book is not used, as was historically the case in a sung Mass without deacon or subdeacon (Fortescue, O’Connell, and Reid, The Ceremonies of the Roman Rite, 165). At other times, such as Palm Sunday or at funerals, two acolytes without candles accompanied the minister who proclaimed the Gospel, without the ministry of a thurifer (Fortescue, O’Connell, and Reid 158, 328). Conversely, there seems to be no precedent for the minister of the Gospel to be accompanied by the thurifer alone without such acolytes bearing or not bearing processional candles (Mutel and Freeman, Le Ceremonial de la sainte messe, 71). In that case, it might be better to have at least one additional server assisting the deacon along with the thurifer when two additional acolytes are not available to serve as candle bearers.
The celebrant imposes incense for the Gospel procession at the chair. The GIRM (131) indicates that “all rise” as the Alleluia or other Gospel acclamation is sung. The Ceremonial for Bishops (140) also confirms that “all rise, except the bishop, as the Alleluia begins.” Thus, if the celebrant imposes incense while the Alleluia is being sung, he clearly does so from a standing position. The thurifer will likewise be standing before him at the chair, as will the deacon who assists him with the boat in his left hand after presenting him the spoon with his right hand.
However, the rubrics of the Order for Massof 1965 made clear that the celebrant imposed incense while seated, and then rose to bless the deacon if necessary (Order of Mass 1965, 42). Thus, it would seem that if incense is imposed during the time after the conclusion of the second reading and before the Gospel acclamation begins (as is the custom in some churches), or during the singing of the tract during Lent, for example, when there is no Gospel Acclamation properly speaking, then there is precedent for the celebrant who is a priest to remain seated (Mutel and Freeman, 95). In that case, the thurifer, depending on his height and the arrangement of the chair might either stand to present the censer, or kneel if this is more convenient (Mutel and Freeman,100). The deacon could kneel or stand before the celebrant, depending on the circumstances, to minister the incense boat and spoon.
The celebrant imposes incense three times with the spoon in his right hand, saying nothing. If he is seated, his left hand rests on his left knee; if he is standing, his left hand rests on his chest. The celebrant returns the spoon to the deacon (or master of ceremonies) who receives it in his right hand and places it in the incense boat he holds in his left, then with his right hand he returns the boat to the thurifer or to a master of ceremonies. The thurifer closes the censer and holds the chain(s) at the ring in his right hand (and the boat in his left, if necessary). The thurifer joins the two acolytes with candles so as to accompany the deacon to the ambo. The group does not stop to reverence the altar on the way to the ambo (Mutel and Freeman,102).
Once at the ambo, the thurifer stands to the deacon’s right. Once the deacon has announced the Gospel passage (i.e., “A reading from the holy Gospel according to N.”), the deacon turns to his right to receive the censer. The thurifer, or another minister, places the ring of the chain(s) in the deacon’s left hand with his own right hand, and the chain(s) near the bowl in the deacon’s right hand with his own left hand. The deacon, after bowing to the Gospel book, incenses it with three swings, one to the center, one to the left, and one to the right. He bows once again to the Gospel book before returning the censer to the minister. The thurifer, holding the censer at the ring in his right hand, steps slightly back from the deacon (or celebrant) to his right, and gently swings the censer to the left and right during the reading of the Gospel (See Mutel and Freeman,104). After the reading of the Gospel, the thurifer returns the censer to the sacristy (or other location), pausing to bow to the altar with the servers. As the thurifer returns the censer to the sacristy, he simply carries the censer from its ring in his right hand without swinging back and forth.
The next post of this series will examine the use of incense during the Liturgy of the Eucharist according to the provisions of the GIRM and the traditional practice of the Roman rite.
Monsignor Marc B. Caron, S.T.L., is a vicar general and moderator of the curia for the Diocese of Portland, ME. He has served as a pastor, as the director of the diocesan Office for Worship, and as a chancellor of the diocese. Most recently, he was a member of the faculty of St. John’s Seminary, Brighton, MA, where he was also director of liturgy. He received his licentiate degree from the Catholic University of America in Washington, DC, and is currently a doctoral candidate at the University of St. Mary of the Lake, Mundelein, IL. He is the author of a number of articles which have appeared in The Jurist, Worship, Catechumenate, and in Homiletic and Pastoral Review.