The Use of Incense During the Liturgy of the Eucharist
Jan 28, 2021

The Use of Incense During the Liturgy of the Eucharist

This post continues the discussion of the use of incense at Mass in the Ordinary Form. As mentioned earlier, the General Instruction on the Roman Missal (GIRM) identifies five occasions when incense may be used during the celebration of Mass: the entrance procession, the incensation of the altar at the beginning of Mass, at the Gospel, at the preparation of the gifts, and during the elevations of the Eucharistic Prayer (GIRM, 276). The latter two occasions, which occur during the Liturgy of the Eucharist, are the topic for this discussion.

At the Preparation of the Gifts

While the Roman Missal enumerates five different occasions during Mass when incense can be used ad libitum, historically there have been two degrees of solemnity in the use of incense. Either incense was used at all the possible occasions when servers with candles could accompany the entrance and gospel processions, or incense was simply used at the offertory and at the elevations, without being used at any other point in Mass. Thus, it seems that if a choice has to be made as to when to use incense during Mass, priority should be given to the use of incense at the offertory and the elevations (Mutel and Freeman, Ceremonial de la sainte messe, 71).

During the preparation of the altar, after the celebrant rises from saying the silent prayer “With humble spirit and contrite heart may we be accepted by you, O Lord, and may our sacrifice in your sight this day be pleasing to you, Lord God,” he turns to his right, without stepping away from the center of the altar. The deacon takes a step back to receive the incense boat. The thurifer approaches the celebrant within an arm’s length of him. The thurifer passes the incense boat to the deacon, and the deacon holds the open incense boat in his left hand while he presents the spoon to the celebrant with the right hand. The thurifer opens the censer and holds the bowl elevated so that the celebrant can impose incense while standing erect. The deacon holds the boat close to the bowl of the censer, and the celebrant imposes incense three times, holding his left hand to his chest. Then returning the spoon to the deacon, the celebrant places his left hand on the altar (Ceremonial for Bishops, 108) while blessing the incense with his open right hand in the shape of a Greek cross. The deacon (or a master of ceremonies) first places the ring of the chain(s) of the censer in the celebrant’s left hand with his own right hand, and then places the chain(s) near the bowl in the celebrant’s right hand with his own left hand.

The celebrant begins by incensing the gifts, with no further sign of reverence to the altar (Ceremonial for Bishops, 91; GIRM, 277). Traditionally, while the celebrant is incensing the gifts, the deacon places the joined fingers of his right hand on the base of the chalice to steady it. He keeps his left hand at his chest during this time. The celebrant holds the ring of the chain close to his chest with his left hand. He swings the censer from the wrist of his right hand, and controls its movements with the thumb, index, and third finger of his right hand. He may incense the gifts with three double swings or by making the sign of the cross with the censer over them (GIRM, 277). He makes the sign of the cross by swinging the censer in the same way he would make the sign of the cross with his hand, always keeping the censer in the same horizontal plane. Authors are divided whether the rubrics means a single sign of the cross, or three signs of the cross, as has been the traditional practice (Mutel and Freeman, 120).

Having incensed the gifts, the celebrant (and deacon) bows to the altar cross and incenses it with three double swings if the altar cross is directly before them. Customarily, the deacon moves the chalice to the right of the corporal when the celebrant incenses the altar cross in order to prevent any mishap (Fortescue, O’Connell and Reid, The Ceremonies of the Roman Rite, 139). The deacon replaces the chalice to the middle of the corporal and the celebrant and the deacon bow after having incensed the altar cross. 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, bows, incenses the cross with three swings, bows again, and resumes the incensation of the altar where he left off.

Having incensed the gifts and altar cross, the celebrant then begins to incense the altar in the same way he did at the beginning of Mass by first turning to his right. 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 celebrant incenses the altar with a series of single swings, meaning that the censer is swung forward, before being swung forward once again, etc. The deacon (or a master of ceremonies) may hold back the folds of his chasuble if necessary and accompany him as he incenses the altar, unless the celebrant prefers to do so unaccompanied. If the celebrant is accompanied by a deacon or other minister, these ministers bow with the celebrant whenever he does. The incensation of a freestanding altar is carried out in the same manner described at the beginning of Mass. Historically, a server (or the master of ceremonies) removed the missal from the altar at this time so that the celebrant could more easily incense the entire top (mensa) of the altar on the left side. That same server then replaced the missal at an angle to the left of the corporal, off the corporal. Having concluded his circumambulation of the altar, the celebrant hands the censer to the deacon.

The deacon (or in his absence the thurifer) takes a step back and incenses the celebrant. He bows, incenses the celebrant with three double swings, and then bows again (GIRM 277; Ceremonial for Bishops, 91, 92). The celebrant, likewise, bows to him. The deacon (or the thurifer) then proceeds to incense those in the sanctuary, beginning with any concelebrants and proceeding with the remaining ministers. He incenses the concelebrants, first those to his right and then those to his left, as he faces them standing in the middle of the sanctuary either before or behind the altar as the circumstances suggest. He first bows to the group on the right and incenses them with three double swings, once to the center of the group, then to the left, and finally to the right, then bows again. He repeats the same gestures with the group to his left in the sanctuary. He then does the same with the ministers in the sanctuary, first to his right, and then to his left. Each group to be incensed stands in turn in order to receive this mark of respect. The deacon (or the thurifer) then turns to the assembly and incenses them as a group. He bows to them, incenses with one double swing to the center of the assembly, one to the left, and one to the right before bowing and departing.

Traditionally, the deacon himself was incensed. After the deacon incenses the celebrant and those in the sanctuary, he could pass the censer to the thurifer, who would bow, incense the deacon with three double swings, and bow again before proceeding to the center of the sanctuary toward the front to incense the assembly as described above (Mutel and Freeman, 121). However, at Requiem Masses in the past, only the celebrant himself was incensed, not any of the ministers or the assembly. A celebrant might also follow this custom at Masses for the Dead, depending on the circumstances.

At the Elevations

Connected to the incensation of the gifts, altar, cross, and celebrant is the incensation of both the Sacred Host and Precious Blood after their respective consecrations. While the Roman Missal (GIRM, 276) places this among those times when incense can be used at Mass ad libitum, the traditional practice has been to join the use of incense at the preparation of the gifts with the use of incense at the two elevations (Mutel and Freeman, 71). The extraordinary form of the Requiem Mass establishes the precedent where incense can be used at the elevations without two or four torches being used (Fortescue, O’Connell, and Reid, 158-159).

When incense is used at the elevations, the thurifer exits the sacristy holding the censer by the length of its chain in his right hand, without swinging it back and forth. The thurifer or another server has imposed incense in the sacristy or some other discreet place. The thurifer leads the torches bearers (two, four, or six depending on the circumstances, or even eight for a pontifical Mass) out of the sacristy during the singing of the Sanctus. Whenever possible, the torchbearers walk in pairs, carrying the torches in their outside hands, the other hand resting on the chest as usual. They form up in front of the altar, either in a straight line across the sanctuary (or just outside it) with the thurifer in the middle, or in two lines facing each other on either side of the sanctuary, again with the thurifer standing between the two lines in the middle of the sanctuary. It is perhaps best for all to kneel when the assembly kneels, that is, at the conclusion of the Sanctus.

At the elevation of the Body of the Lord, the thurifer, still kneeling, bows from the waist and then incenses the Blessed Sacrament with three double swings using his right hand at the height of his face. He bows profoundly once again at the waist. The same procedure is repeated after the consecration of the Precious Blood. At the doxology which concludes the Eucharistic prayer, the thurifer leads the torchbearers back to the sacristy (Elliott, Ceremonies of the Modern Roman Rite, 405). The thurifer carries the censer by its ring in his right hand without swinging it back and forth. The censer is put away and the torches are extinguished.

Alternatively, an additional deacon might incense the Blessed Sacrament at the two elevations. This deacon would lead the torchbearers to their places and incense the Blessed Sacrament from their midst, or he might go to his place alone if torches are not used. If torches are not used at the elevations, this deacon could kneel directly in front of the altar to incense the Blessed Sacrament in the manner described above. Or, he could kneel facing the end of the altar to the right of the priest and incense the Blessed Sacrament from there, which is the customary position in the extraordinary form of the Requiem Mass (Fortescue, O’Connell, and Reid, 159). This position has the advantage of being closer to the sacristy where the censer will be loaded, and brought to the deacon. It may be more graceful as well for a deacon to leave the right side of the priest to kneel at the right side of the altar than to leave the altar to position himself in the middle of the sanctuary facing the altar (Mutel and Freeman, 130). When a thurifer incenses the Blessed Sacrament without torchbearers accompanying him, he can also incense both species from a kneeling position as he faces the end of the altar to the right of the priest as described above for the deacon.

According to tradition, the censer is not carried out in procession at the end of Mass (Elliott, 152; Mutel and Freeman, 181).

Monsignor Marc B. Caron

Monsignor Marc B. Caron, S.T.D., is the vicar general and the 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. In 2021, he received the doctoral degree from the University of St. Mary of the Lake/Mundelein Seminary, writing on the sacramental nature of the diaconate. He is the author of a number of articles which have appeared in The Jurist, Worship, Catechumenate, and Homiletic and Pastoral Review.