When Putting Incense in Thurible

Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and dean of theology at the Regina Apostolorum university.

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Q: Is it acceptable for the priest to remain seated while he places incense in the thurible during the singing of the Alleluia? A liturgist from the Archdiocese of Cape Coast has recently condemned this practice as a «liturgical abuse» and as an attempt to assimilate the dignity of the priest to that of the bishop. — V.P., Cape Coast, Ghana

A: Although I would hesitate to use the term «liturgical abuse» for this practice, I do believe that the liturgist is basically correct in his interpretation of liturgical law. Rather than call it an abuse, I would classify it as an understandable error. Let us examine the relevant laws regarding this practice.

The General Instruction of the Roman Missal states:

«No. 131. Afterwards, all rise, and the Alleluia or other chant is sung as required by the liturgical season (cf. above, nos. 62-64).

«No. 132. During the singing of the Alleluia or other chant, if incense is used, the priest puts some into the thurible and blesses it. Then, with hands joined, he bows profoundly before the altar and quietly says, Munda cor meum (May the word of the gospel wipe away our sins).»

Later, when dealing with concelebration, it says:

«No. 212. During the Liturgy of the Word, the concelebrants remain at their places, sitting or standing whenever the principal celebrant does. When the Alleluia is begun, all rise, except for a Bishop, who puts incense into the thurible without saying anything and blesses the deacon or, if there is no deacon, the concelebrant who is to proclaim the Gospel. In a concelebration where a priest presides, however, the concelebrant who in the absence of a deacon proclaims the Gospel neither requests nor receives the blessing of the principal celebrant.»

In my view, the key to interpreting this text lies in the lack of any exception indicated after the «all rise» in No. 131.

If the legislator had intended the priest to remain seated, it would have been necessary to say so as indicated for the bishop during a concelebration. In other words, the text should have said, «All rise, except for the priest, who puts incense into the thurible.»

Likewise, no distinction is made later in the document at No. 175 when referring to the actions of the deacon.

Therefore, my interpretation of the text is that the priest should arise at the Alleluia and place incense in the thurible and also bless the deacon from a standing position. This interpretation was also held by some former papal masters of ceremonies.

That said, I must admit that not all liturgists agree with this position. Some argue that since the Ceremonial of Bishops makes no such distinction, and this book was designed to be a guide for priestly celebrations in areas where the missal was not clear, then priests should follow the indications given in the Ceremonial.

I would say that such an inference would have been correct before the publication of the third edition of the Roman Missal. This is why I stated above that the practice of remaining seated was an understandable mistake.

However, since the missal is the more recent document, and it does make a distinction between priest and bishop, I think that it has clarified a disputed point and should henceforth be followed.

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Readers may send questions to zenit.liturgy@gmail.com. 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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Fr. Edward McNamara

Padre Edward McNamara, L.C., è professore di Teologia e direttore spirituale

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