Incensing at the Start of Mass

Date: May 26, 2024
Author: Fr. Edward McNamara, LC

Question: The General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM), No. 276.b, prescribes that incense may be used “at the beginning of Mass, to incense the cross and the altar,” though the Ceremonial of Bishops, No. 86.b, mentions only “the altar.” 1) Some celebrants (even bishops), after incensing the altar and the cross, request with insistence to be themselves incensed. That is embarrassing for the master of ceremonies or the deacon either to do it or to ignore the request publicly. What should be done in such a case? 2) We have observed that the Holy Father, when he could still do it, after incensing the altar and the cross, would go to incense the statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Now, we also observe that in many places, more and more, bishops and priests are imitating that, even if the statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary is at the back of the Church. More than that, after incensing the statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary or if it is not there, the statue of the patron saint of the parish is equally incensed at the beginning of Mass. Is there a new and implicit rule in the Church that, instead of only the altar and the cross being incensed, as prescribed by the GIRM, the statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the statue of the patron saint of the parish be also incensed at the beginning of Mass? -- F.K., Ndola Diocese, Zambia


Answer: Liturgical rules and rubrics are rarely, if ever, implicit. They are, however, sometimes ignored or misapplied.


Incensing is one case where the rules are clear enough in themselves but are often applied incorrectly. We shall largely include material first broached in one of my 2006 columns.


Most indications regarding how to incense are contained in the GIRM 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 [140]: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 people.


"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 it.


"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.


-- at funerals.


-- 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 Prayers.


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 measured beat."


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 or deacon.


"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 bearer.


"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."


Therefore, to answer our reader, there is no change in the general rules. The celebrant is not incensed at the beginning of Mass. If it happens that he requests it, then the master of ceremonies may cede for the moment and explain the rules after Mass so that the situation is not repeated.


In accordance with the rule seen above, “relics and images of the Saints exposed for public veneration” should be incensed “only at the beginning of the celebration, after the incensation of the altar.”


This usually means that such images are incensed when there is a good reason for doing so; for example, the relics or the image are especially exposed for public veneration on a saint’s feast day, or on a Marian feast. Hence, while it is not forbidden to habitually incense the images of the Virgin and patron saint at the beginning of Mass, it is not required and is best reserved for special days.


Liturgical logic would also dictate that these relics or images be in proximity to the altar so that his can be done with due decorum. It would be somewhat absurd for the priest to venerate the altar to conclude the entrance procession and then backtrack to incense a statue or painting.


The incensing of the image is always optional (just as is incensing per se), and it makes little sense to distract from the primary symbolism of venerating the altar at the beginning of the holy sacrifice of the Mass to venerate a relic or image in some other part of the church.


Indeed, if there is some special reason to venerate a relic or image located in a chapel or altar distinct from the place of Mass, it would probably be better to organize some special act of popular piety immediately before or after Mass.

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