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Liturgy Q&A: Removing the Missal at the Incensation

No Theological Basis for It

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Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and sacramental theology and director of the Sacerdos Institute at the Pontifical Regina Apostolorum university.

 Q: At the time of incensing the gifts during Mass, some priests insist on having the missal removed from the altar. I would appreciate your comments. – C.L., Kiyinda-Mityana Diocese, Uganda

 A: This practice probably stems from the norms used in the extraordinary form of the Roman rite. In this rite, the manner of incensing the altar was described in great detail. Every missal had a diagram explaining how to do so, and the 1962 missal even included a diagram for incensing a freestanding altar.

 For example, we offer a summary of the descriptions offered in The Ceremonies of the Roman Rite Described, of Fortescue, O’Connell, and Reid:

 “Thus, when incensing the oblata the priest made a sign of the cross over them three times. He then forms two circles round them counterclockwise and one clockwise with the thurible [while reciting certain prayers]. Then he incenses the altar cross with three double swings. If there are relics or images between the candlesticks, he next incenses them; first, those on the gospel side of the altar making two double swings for all of them together without moving himself from the middle of the altar, or bowing to them. He does the same for those on the epistle side.

 “Then he continues incensing the altar. […] He walks before the altar to the epistle side and as he does so he incenses it over the back part of the mensa with three single swings of the thurible, one opposite each of the altar candles. At the epistle corner, he lowers his hand and swings the thurible twice along the side, first, low down, then higher up; then he returns to the middle, again making three single swings along the front part of the table and bows or genuflects. He now does the same at the gospel side; first, three single swings towards the candlesticks over the mensa, and then two at the gospel end.

 “Having finished this, he remains standing still at the gospel end and incenses the front of the table of the altar at that side with three single swings. Then, still at the gospel corner, he lowers the thurible and incenses the front of the altar itself three times at the gospel side and three at the epistle side, meanwhile walking towards the epistle corner and genuflecting or bowing as he passes the middle and hands the thurible to the deacon.”

 Since the missal would constitute an obstacle to performing these precise ritual actions, the master of ceremonies or the thurifer is instructed to briefly remove the missal during the incensation.

 Although the reason for removing the missal in the above case would appear to be eminently practical, some people have proposed that the missal was positively excluded from being incensed for theological reasons. These supposed theological reasons might lie behind why some priests continue to insist on removing the missal during the offertory.

 For example, some have sustained that the missal is not incensed because its prayers are mostly a human production and not the divine word which is incensed. This argument forgets that the extraordinary form missal also contained the readings for Mass, and the separation of lectionary and missal is mostly a post-Vatican II reality, although separate lectionaries did exist in the Middle Ages and a separate Book of the Gospels was frequently used for solemn pontifical Masses throughout history. Also, the altar cards, which contain some of the same prayers as in the missal, are not removed from the altar during incensation.

 In short, the supposed theological reasons are rather weak.

 The incensing of the gifts in the ordinary form is much simpler as described in the General Instruction of the Roman Missal:

 “139. When the Prayer of the Faithful is completed, all sit, and the Offertory chant begins (cf. no. 74). An acolyte or other lay minister arranges the corporal, the purificator, the chalice, the pall, and the Missal upon the altar.

 “140. It is appropriate for the faithful’s participation to be expressed by an offering, whether of the bread and wine for the celebration of the Eucharist or of other gifts for the relief of the needs of the Church and of the poor. The offerings of the faithful are received by the priest, assisted by the acolyte or other minister. The bread and wine for the Eucharist are carried to the celebrant, who places them upon the altar, while other gifts are put in another appropriate place (cf. no. 73) ….

 “143. After placing the chalice upon the altar, the priest bows profoundly and says quietly: In spiritu humilitatis (Lord God, we ask you to receive us).

 “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 ….


 “276. Thurification or incensation is an expression of reverence and of prayer, as is signified in Sacred Scripture (cf. Ps 140 [141]: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: 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, which 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 before going on to incense the cross and the altar.”

 As can be seen above, there is no mention whatsoever of removing the missal during the incensation of the gifts, and there is no reason, practical or theological, for doing so. It is certainly not done during papal Masses in Rome.

 Because of this, we would hold that it is not a correct procedure to remove the missal while incensing during the offertory in the ordinary form.

 * * *

 Follow-up: Bishop’s Names in Eucharistic Prayers

 A reader from Beijing wrote in regard to several recent columns: “You have mentioned a couple of times regarding the mentioning a bishop’s name in the Eucharistic Prayers. I was wondering when the bishop’s name must be mentioned in the Eucharistic Prayers. Is it after the Council of Trent?”

 No, the tradition of mentioning the bishop is very ancient.

 It has formed part of the Roman Canon (Eucharistic Prayer I) practically from the beginning, and therefore it comes at least from the fourth century. The mention of the bishop is also found in the most common anaphora used among Eastern Orthodox Christians and attributed to St. John Chrysostom (A.D. 347-407).

 It is unlikely that the practice of mentioning the bishop was a novelty introduced by these Eucharistic Prayers. Although we are not certain exactly when the practice was introduced, it is probably after the year 225, shortly after the appearance of the first written texts that have come down to us.

 However, it is possible that the bishop was mentioned even earlier before the introduction of written texts.

 * * *

 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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