Incensing the Congregation

And More on Homilies

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ROME, FEB. 3, 2009 ( Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.

Q: I know of a priest who has the altar servers incense the congregation after he has incensed the altar at the offertory. There is one family who objects to this and states that it should be a priest or deacon that incenses the congregation. Can you provide documentation on the correct procedure? — B.L., Caney, Kansas

A: The relevant documents are found, above all, in the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM) and the Ceremonial of Bishops.

GIRM Nos. 75 and 144 sum up most of what needs to be said:

«75) The bread and wine are placed on the altar by the priest to the accompaniment of the prescribed formulas. The priest may incense the gifts placed upon the altar and then incense the cross and the altar itself, so as to signify the Church’s offering and prayer rising like incense in the sight of God. Next, the priest, because of his sacred ministry, and the people, by reason of their baptismal dignity, may be incensed by the deacon or another minister.

«144) If incense is used, the priest then puts some in the thurible, blesses it without saying anything, and incenses the offerings, the cross, and the altar. A minister, while standing at the side of the altar, incenses the priest and then the people.»

From this it is clear that the incensing of the priest and the people is a role of the deacon if one is present. When there is no deacon, this task may be undertaken by an instituted acolyte or an altar server, but it would never be the task of the priest, who at this time is washing his hands and preparing to invite the congregation to pray as soon as the incensing of the people is concluded.

Unlike the Roman rite, some Eastern Churches limit the use of the thurible to those who have received at least the subdiaconate or even diaconate, and in these rites it is not possible for non-clerics to substitute the ordained ministers in these functions at Mass.

A point of debate is involved in the case of concelebration, especially when a bishop presides. The Ceremonial of Bishops, No. 149, says that the deacon incenses the bishop, then the concelebrants, then the people.

On the other hand, the more recent GIRM No. 214, in referring to concelebrated Masses, simply says that the preparation of the gifts is to be carried out according to Nos. 139-146 and there is no reference to a separate incensing of the concelebrants.

Likewise, personal observation of some celebrations in the Vatican in which there was no separate incensing of concelebrants would seem to indicate that the incensing of the principal celebrant is considered as representing all clergy present.

However, it might also be explained by the fact that the concelebrants in the basilica are generally not in a distinct presbytery but are placed in front of the assembly; this makes it impossible to distinguish a separate incensing of clergy and faithful.

Since both these documents remain in force, I believe that both options are viable, at least at an episcopal concelebration. Pending further official clarifications, either form may be chosen according to the concrete circumstances such as the number and location of the concelebrants, the structure of the presbytery, or the time required.

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Follow-up: Applause at Homilies

Related to our Jan. 20 piece on applause during homilies, a few readers had inquired about the propriety of some rhetorical devices.

One Canadian reader asked: «In our parish, our pastor usually begins his homily with a joke. There is no connection between the joke and the homily that follows. While many at Mass seem to enjoy his jokes — judging by the laughter after the punch line — some of us find this irreverent. I have a difficult time making the transition from the comedian priest to the priest who is in persona Christi, and is about to help the Catholic faithful better understand the Gospel and the readings. Are there any guidelines for homilies that would indicate whether this is appropriate or not?»

Another, a deacon, inquired, «I have a simple question about greeting the people during the homily. Is it all right to say good morning? Last Monday I opened the homily with this greeting and moved on to a reflection on the Gospel. The celebrant priest was of the opinion that to say good morning is superfluous, since I had already said, ‘The Lord be with you.’ I had just noticed the people looked a little tired after a long weekend, and to get another response from them would help their attention and participation.»

While there is no official teaching on how to start a homily, many great preachers have reflected on the art of preaching, for example, St. John Chrysostom and St. Augustine in his De Doctrina Christiana. There are myriad modern books and Internet sites on preaching effective homilies, many of which offer useful indications.

Although I believe that the preacher should greet the faithful at the beginning of the homily, I am not convinced that «Good morning» is the most appropriate line. The liturgical salutation «The Lord be with you» is a preparation for hearing God’s word in the Gospel and is not a personal greeting as such. However, a greeting that provokes a natural response from the congregation such as «You’re welcome» is more likely to break the flow between Gospel and homily than a «My dear brothers and sisters» or words to that effect.

Something similar could be said about jokes, especially if unrelated to the content of the homily. While this method is a legitimate opener in some cases, it becomes trying if applied week after week.

All the same, I would not wish to be hidebound regarding either point. There can be circumstances when evoking an immediate response is necessary in order to connect with the congregation. Likewise, preachers of the caliber of Fulton Sheen wielded the amusing introductory anecdote with masterful effect.

The first lines of a homily often determine whether the faithful sit up and take notice or settle into a wakeful slumber. Therefore it is salient that the preacher does not placidly repeat the bland, but rather strives to engage his listeners from the first moment in order to bring them closer to Christ.

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Readers may send questions to Please put the word «Liturgy» in the subject field. The text should include your initials, your city and your state, province or country. Father McNamara can only answer a small selection of the great number of questions that arrive.

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