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CNP Feedback - Using Incense

The "Feedback Box" on the CanticaNOVA Publications website has proven quite effective in promoting communications on a variety of subjects, and expressing concerns of liturgists and musicians. From time to time, we'll compile a few of these questions or comments and put them in public view, with the hope that others with similar concerns may benefit from their content.

Q. Dear CNP:

Are there any resources for the traditional instruction of altar servers? Especially pertinent would be in reference to the use of incense - when to use and why. We are currently trying to re-introduce it into our masses and would like some official information.

Liturgist in Pennsylvania

A. Dear Liturgist:

I'm glad your parish is looking into the role of incense in liturgy. I have very fond associations with this (it's one of the few liturgical symbols that appeal to our olfactory sense -- along with beeswax candles and Easter lilies!).

The best "manual" for how to celebrate the rubrics and traditions of the Roman Rite is Ceremonies of the Modern Roman Rite by Msgr. Peter J. Elliot, published by Ignatius Press (San Francisco). I would definitely recommend that you secure this book. It will help with the current issue, and covers many more matters as well. Its particular value is that it explains the current liturgical rubrics, without bowing either to the ultra-conservative or the progressive camp.

There are very few instances in the Roman Rite where incense is required: Dedication of a church or altar, Chrism Mass, Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament in a monstrance, and Funerals. Beyond this, the use of incense is optional but may be used at any Mass. Personally, I would suggest some schema of "progressive solemnity" be drawn up at your parish for the use of incense at Mass, and if possible, heeded by all celebrants as a bow to uniform symbolism in the parish. For example, use incense at every solemnity, at Sundays of the Christmas season, Sundays of the Easter season, and other celebrations of local importance. This will make incense a symbol of heightened solemnity and festivity. One could also make an argument for its use during Advent and/or Lent, as a symbol of greater intensity of prayer. Whatever the parish decides, it should be logical and should be heeded by all, otherwise the symbol's use is lost in confusion and inconsistency. I know a pastor who most imprudently chooses to sing the orations (a mark of a higher degree of solemnity) "whenever the choir is singing at Mass." Consequently, the 11:30 Mass on the 27th Sunday in Ordinary Time may have all the prayers solemnly chanted simply because "the choir is present," while the 9:30 Mass on Easter Sunday is spoken because there is no choir! This kind of schema is ludicrous and certainly based on "extra-liturgical" factors. By the way, this pastor rarely uses incense.

If incense is used during Mass, it may be used at any or all of these points:

  1. during the Entrance procession [swinging in the thurifer's hand]
  2. to honor the altar at the beginning
  3. at the Gospel
  4. at the Preparation of the Gifts (Offertory)
  5. at the Elevations of the Host and Chalice
According to Msgr. Elliot, beyond the required times above, incense should be used at least at:
  1. the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord
  2. Palm Sunday
  3. the Mass of the Lord's Supper (Holy Thursday)
  4. the Easter Vigil
  5. Corpus Christi
  6. any other solemn procession

The altar, celebrant, and people should be incensed during Solemn Morning Prayer or Solemn Evening Prayer during the singing of the Gospel Canticle (Benedictus or Magnificat).

The details of "how" to incense are clearly outlined in Ceremonies of the Modern Roman Rite [#214-220] and are more elaborate than can be related here (although the modern rite is much more simplified than the older Tridentine rite).

I hope this response (and the book mentioned) will be helpful to you and your parish as you proceed to a fuller celebration of the rites.

Gary Penkala
CanticaNOVA Publications

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