Incensation of the altar

In Paul Turner's Blog by Paul Turner

Q: We’ve been trying to resolve a liturgical question and I’ve been asking various monasteries for help. Another monk suggested I contact you as a valuable source of liturgical advice.

Essentially, our community is beginning to have solemn vespers every Sunday evening with incensation of the altar during the Magnificat. This liturgy is led by the hebd. of the week who is always in solemn vows but is not always a priest or deacon. Our question is whether it is appropriate for a non-clerical monk to incense the altar. The GIRM and Elliott’s Ceremonies seems to be vague on the topic and while reading between the lines suggests that it should be done only by a priest or assisting deacon, it doesn’t say anything definitive that I’ve found.

What are your thoughts? Are you aware of any documents that either permit or forbid it? Our liturgy committee is concerned that any decision we make should be well grounded in Church documents and tradition and not just “well, John Doe Monastery does it . . .”.

My personal leaning is that absent any specific rubric permitting non-clerical incensation, it should be reserved for a priest, but I think the committee would like something a bit more concrete or formal if it exists.

Anyway, any help or advice you feel able to give would be greatly appreciated. Blessings on this day and peace be with you,


A: I don’t know of anything that addresses this beyond the usual resources: the General Instruction on the Liturgy of the Hours, the General Instruction on the Roman Missal, and the Ceremonial of Bishops.

In my opinion, then, a monastery could combine the clues in the way that its members deem it best to interpret them, but I agree with you that the sense of these documents is that the one who incenses the altar is a priest.

GILH 258 permits a lay person to lead the office, but not to enter the sanctuary, which would be essential in order to incense the altar.

GILH 261 permits an incensation of the altar, and then of the priest and congregation. It implies that the priest has incensed the altar.

CB 204 says that when a bishop presides, the incensation of altar, cross (!), bishop and others is carried out as indicated for the Mass. It references CB 89, among other places.

Significant to me is that CB 204 compares the incensation at solemn evening prayer to the incensation at Mass. Often I advise that you cannot deduce that the rubrics pertaining to Mass also pertain to the office. If that were true, the people would not be able to participate in the gospel canticle at all because the proclamation of the gospel at Mass is limited to a deacon or priest. Therefore, the explicit linking of this incensation with the one for Mass strengthens the argument that it is limited to a priest, not even to a deacon.

Having said that, a counter proposal could be made: If lay people may sing the gospel canticle, then surely a layperson could incense the altar at the same time. But I know of nothing further to clarify that view.