Blessings When the Eucharist Is Exposed

And More on Incensing

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

Q: I seemed to have learned in the seminaries I attended in Spain and in Rome that a priest does not give a blessing at the end of lauds and vespers when the Liturgy of the Hours is prayed in community before the exposed Blessed Sacrament. Is this true? Is this a liturgical principle, of sorts? Another example might be blessing the incense in the thurible during Mass, but refraining from doing so when it is placed in the thurible during exposition or Benediction? I e-mailed another liturgist, and he responded, no blessing at the conclusion of lauds / vespers when the Blessed Sacrament is exposed in anticipation of the Benediction that trumps all other blessings. But that then raised the question in my mind, what if there will be no Benediction, but a simple reposition of the Blessed Sacrament, due to the circumstance of the adoration in the monstrance taking place for an hour before the beginning of Mass? — K.B., Bloomingdale, Ohio

A: The liturgist consulted by our reader is correct. No public blessings are ever imparted in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament exposed.

Apart from the reason regarding Benediction, another reason commonly given is that no minister gives a blessing if a higher minister is present. Thus, during exposition Christ, the supreme high priest, is present and so no inferior minister should impart a blessing.

It must be admitted that, theologically, it is not a strong argument, for Christ is equally present in the closed tabernacle and thus it could follow that no blessing could be imparted in a church. Whatever the reason, these ideas contributed to the longstanding custom of not imparting most blessings during exposition.

Thus, whenever the Blessed Sacrament is exposed toward the end of Mass for a procession or a prolonged adoration, the blessing and dismissal are omitted. The Mass concludes with the prayer after communion, and the ministers incense the Blessed Sacrament and either retire in silence or continue with the procession.

When lauds or vespers are prayed before the Blessed Sacrament exposed, they should conclude with the priest or deacon saying: «May the Lord bless us, protect us from all evil and bring us to everlasting life. Amen,» rather than «May almighty God bless you ….»

This is done in all cases, even if the adoration is going to continue for some time and even though those present at the office will not be present at the eventual Benediction.

There are, however, some exceptions. The current rubrics for exposition and Benediction indicate that the celebrant «blesses the incense without saying anything» (Ceremonial of Bishops, No. 1109). The same rule would apply if incense is carried out during the Divine Office. This exception would also have been true for the extraordinary form on the few occasions when vespers were prayed before the Blessed Sacrament, such as on the feast of Corpus Christi.

Another similar exception before the liturgical reform was when Mass was permitted to be celebrated before the Blessed Sacrament exposed. This was done only in cases of grave necessity with permission of the bishop or on occasional solemn feasts, such as Corpus Christi and the third day of the Forty Hours devotion. In this case practically all the usual blessings imparted during Mass were carried out.

In the ordinary form it is never permitted to celebrate before the Blessed Sacrament exposed. It may occur in the celebration of the extraordinary form but would be quite exceptional.

The novelty in the present rite is the blessing of incense during exposition itself and not during another liturgical rite. Traditionally the incense was not blessed once the Blessed Sacrament was exposed.

The probable reason for this change was to simplify and unify the rite of putting incense by eliminating the differences among several ritual situations.

In recent years some liturgists have requested that the earlier practice of no blessings during exposition be restored. Personally I think a return to past practice is unlikely. Exposition is now far more common and no longer requires the permission of the ordinary. This means that liturgical rites such as lauds and vespers during exposition are more frequent and, as we have seen above, were already exceptions to the general rule. The unification of the practice for the rite of blessing incense during exposition and Benediction thus follows a certain logic corresponding to current practice.

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Follow-up: Incensing the Easter Candle

In the wake of our April 14 column a reader from the Democratic Republic of Congo asked for some more specifications regarding incensing. He writes: «Would you like to share a bit of light on incensing? What does «three double swings» mean? For instance, when incensing the Book of Gospels, the celebrant, the assembly? Is this three times three, or is a back-and-forth movement considered as one swing?»

In reply, we repeat in part what we first wrote in a June 6, 2006, column.

In order to clarify the subject of incensing, the Ceremonial of Bishops adds several footnotes taken from the 1886 edition of the ceremonial regarding the manner of approaching the bishop. It recommends placing three spoonfuls of incense into the thurible, and describes 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 would add the indications offered by Monsignor Peter Elliott in his excellent Ceremonies of the Modern Roman Rite:

«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 a
ltar 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.»

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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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Fr. Edward McNamara

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

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