Saturday, September 26, 2015

Incense and Thuribles in the Dominican Rite

Fr. Lawrence Lew, O.P., of this blog has suggested that I republish this post since the question of Dominican practice in incensing was raised by a combox query after the article on the recent Dominican Rite Missa Cantata in the Dominican Central Province.  Students of my province have also asked about this, so I think this summary of Dominican Thurible Etiquette is timely.

I have occasionally commented that the Dominican and Roman practices concerning incense are often quite different.  So I thought readers might appreciate an overview of traditional Dominican usage.  The beautiful Gothic thurible to the right is virtually identical to the anniversary thurible at St. Albert the Great Priory in Oakland CA, our House of Studies.

A. Occasions when Incense is Used.

1. Although properly a Solemn Mass (with deacon and subdeacon) would normally be said every day in a priory with sufficient numbers, not all Solemn Masses use incense.  Incense is used at the Gospel, Offertory, and Elevation on all Sundays and Third Class (previously Simplex) feasts and above.  It is not used on ferials or at Requiems (except at the Absolution after Mass).

2. Incense is also used at Missae Cantatae on those days.  In fact, a recognition of this practice was requested by the Order and received from the Congregation of Rites every five years up to Vatican II to settle doubts about this practice. Today incense is universally used.  Although it is not required at Missae Cantatae.

3. The altar is traditionally incensed during the Gospel Canticle of Lauds and Vespers on those days as well.

B. How the Thurifer Handles the Censer when Loading it.

Although in parishes, perhaps because of the number of available altarboys, it was and is common practice for the thurifer to be accompanied by a boat-bearer, this was not the case in the conventual Mass.  And, as the priest in our rite never handles the spoon, this required certain techniques that seem complicated but are actually very simple.The presence of a boat-bearer actually complicates the handling of incense.  This method is used (at the sedilla) in preparation for the Gospel and at the Epistle Side of the altar in preparation for the Offertory. The thurible used must be a conventional one with a cover that can be pulled up the three outside chains using a center chain.

When entering before the Gospel, the thurifer holds the chains near the disk (or the disk ring) with the little finger of the left hand; with his left forefinger and thumb he holds the boat (which must have a little pedestal base).  With his right hand he holds the chains just above the cover, holding the thurible at about waist height on his right side. This is how he always holds the thurible when it is not in use: it is never carried or held with the chain at full length, except during the singing of the Gospel, as will be explained below. As the Alleluia or Tract begins, he approaches the priest.  He lowers the thurible and, with his right hand, pulls up the center chain ring and hooks it on the ring finger of his left hand.  This will raise the thurible cover about four or five inches: more than enough to get access to the coals.  Then, with his right hand, he grasps the four chains just above the cover and raises them up so that he can grasp them with the last three fingers of his left hand.

The open thurible is now at waist height, and the thurifer's right hand is free.  With it, he opens the boat, and takes out a spoonful of incense.  He offers this to the priest, saying, "Benedicite."  The priest blesses the incense, the thurifer responding "Amen." The thurifer then puts the incense in the censor, places the spoon back in the boat, closes the boat, and takes the chains off the three fingers of the left hand, letting the chains extend completely.  He then takes the center chain ring off the left ring finger and lowers the cover of  the thurible.  He then takes the chains just above the cover with his right hand, so as to assume the position for holding or walking with the thurible.  One should note that the sliding ring around the chains, if present, is never pushed down onto the cover of the thurible.  It remains at mid-point of the chains at all times.  If it is pushed down, these movements would be hindered or impossible. This sounds complicated, but once the movements have been executed a couple of times, nothing could seem more natural.

C. Other Rules Governing the Thurible.

1. When the thurible is carried, whether there is incense lighted in it or not, it is never held with the full chain extended.  It is held or carried as explained above.  This means that the chains are in the proper position if the thurible is to be given to a major minister to hand to the priest.  If the thurifer is to hand the thurible to the priest himself, he must reverse his hands first--so that the priest will receive the thurible correctly oriented for use.  This manner of holding the censer renders it less visible and mobile, and so less distracting.  I also solves the usual awkwardness of genuflecting with the chain fully extended.

2. The thurifer never swings the censer back and forth (supposedly to keep the coals burning) as is usually done in the Roman Rite. Again, this prevents the object from distracting attention from the liturgical activities in process.

3. There is only one occasion when the thurible is held is held with the full chain extension (and again by the left hand).  This is during the chanting of the Gospel.  And, again, there is no swinging of the thurible.  This would distract attention from the Gospel.

4. When the thurifer (or priest or deacon) incenses, this is done without any swinging of the censer during the ductus.  Thus there is no chain-clanking.  The motion is straight up and down, entirely silent.  Dominican incensing is always silent: it should not distract from the music or the liturgical actions it embellishes.

5. The incensing of the deacon and subdeacon, as well as of the two acolytes, is done by the thurifer during the Preface.  The minsters face him in their positions: he gives the deacon two lifts of the censer; the subdeacon, one lift; and each acolyte, one lift, the senior acolyte first.  He then incenses each friar in choir: the provincial receives three lifts; each priest, two lifts; other friars, one lift.  Our liturgical books do not mention the incensing of the people because, as ours is a monastic rite, it is assumed they are absent.  But it is common in parishes to give each side of the congregation one lift, and the choir in the loft one life. The image to the left shows the thurifer in position for the Preface. The photo shows Fr. Joseph Fulton (RIP) celebrating Mass at St. Albert the Great Priory in the mid-1950s.  

D. Particularities in when incense is used in the Solemn Mass.

1. The thurible is NEVER carried in the entrance or exit procession. Nor is the Cross ever carried in these processions. The thurifer, boat-bearer, and crucifer do NOT participate in these processions: they sit in the sacristy (which is preferred) or sit uietly and unobtrusively in the sanctuary on the Gospel side until they have functions to perform.  For the thurifer, his first function is at the Gospel.

2. There is no incensing of the altar during the Officium (i.e. Introit) chant.

3. The priest directs the preparation of the censer for the Gospel while seated at the sedilla (the bench for the three major ministers) as explained above.  The priest never touches the spoon.  The thurifer stands throughout this ceremony.

4. The deacon incenses the Gospel book with three simple, silent, lifts of the thurible.  He then hands the incense back to the subdeacon, who hands it back to the thurifer.
Blessing of Incense at the Offertory
Position of the Thurifer after the Offertory
5. The incensing at the Offertory is simpler than in the Roman Mass. The deacon offers the incense to be blessed and then hands the priest he censer.  With it, he makes a single Sign of the Cross over the gifts. After this he raises and lowers the censer three times before the host and chalice (never lifting higher than his shoulder). If the tabernacle or Cross (or both) is present, he incenses it (them) with one set of three lifts.  If there are reliquaries, he makes a moderate bow, and from the center, without moving, he incenses as a group those on the Gospel side with two lifts, then those on the Epistle side with two lifts.  If there is only one reliquary on the altar, he incenses it with two lifts.  Making a profound bow, he then incenses with three lifts above he altar as he moves to the Epistle end, once toward each candlestick.  He lowers the censer and returns to the middle.  In the same way he incenses the top of the altar while while going to the Gospel end.  Then then returns incensing the lower part of the altar three times as he returns. He stops before the Cross to make a profound bow, then completes the three lifts of the lower part of the Epistle side. On arrival there he surrenders the thurible to the deacon.

6. The deacon incenses the priest (using three lifts), when he has finished incensing the altar at the Offertory. As he does the three lifts, the deacon lifts the front of the priest's chasuble so as to incense under it---this prevents any sparks from landing on the chasuble and damaging it. The incensing of the other ministers is done by the thurifer during the Preface, as already explained. At the left you can see the deacon (Fr. Paul Raftery) holding up the chasuble and incensing as Fr. Anthony-M. Patalano elevates the chalice during Solemn Mass at Holy Rosary Church in Portland OR in the 1990s.

The deacon incenses at the Elevation
 7. Just before the Consecration, the thurifer, who is kneeling between the acolytes at the foot of the altar, loads the censer with unblessed incense.  He then passes it up to the deacon, who incenses the Sacred Species continuously during each elevation.  He then passes it back to the thurifer who rises, genuflects and leaves for the sacristy, as he has no functions during the rest of Mass.

E. The Thurifer at the Missa Cantata

1. The thurifer stays in the sacristy or (more properly) sits in the sanctuary until the priest prepares the chalice after the Epistle.  As the priest begins to pass to the north side of the altar for the Gospel, he turns and faces the Epistle side of the altar.  This signals to the thurifer to arrive and come up the front of the altar steps to meet the priest at the center as he passes over. (See the positions of the priest and thurifer in the image of the Solemn Mass Offertory above.) He there receives the blessing of the incense for the Gospel, descends and leads the acolytes around the corner of the steps for the Gospel.

2. At the Offertory, when the priest makes a half-turn, as at the Gospel, the thurifer comes up the front of the altar steps with the censor for the priest's blessing of it before he incenses of the altar.  The thurifer then goes and stands at the Epistle side. The incensing over, the thurifer receives the censer back, incenses the priest with three lifts, and goes to the center of the sanctuary and waits.  He incenses the acolytes in order of seniority with one lift, the community (using the number of lifts explain for the solemn Mass, and possibly the people, all during the Preface, as at Solemn Mass.

3. The Thurifer then stands in the center, when the acolytes are to kneel in the canon, kneels in center of the first step as the acolytes ascend for the elevations.  He puts unblessed incense in the thurible if needed.  He then incenses the elevations continuously as the deacon would at Solemn Mass.  His work finished, he rises, genuflects and departs to the sacristy.

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: