Question about incensing the altar at vespers

I got a good question from a priest friend via e-mail.  This could be a good point of discussion.

Any word on why the Holy Father did not incense the altar personally at vespers [that is, papal vespers on 31 December], or why it was done using two deacon-thurifers instead of one?

With all of the restoration going on, I couldn’t imagine the Pope or Marini innovating – is it some obscure part of former Papal ritual?

Just curious, and I haven’t seen any further discussion about it on any of the comboxes.

Here is an image I posted a few days ago.


As you can see, the (Non-cardinalatial) deacons  incensed the altar.

I have been celebrant for solemn vespers quite a few times.  In that role I incensed the altar. 

What’s up with this?

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  1. Cristhian says:

    that’s a good question, maybe there’s something about it in the rules of the solemn pontifical vespers.

  2. Brian Mershon says:

    As in the Sacramentary for the Novus Ordo Missae where it often says, “Use this or similar words,” perhaps this is a case where it says “Use this or similar gestures and incensations.”


  3. Different says:

    Are we sure this deacon did the incensing of the altar, perhaps he was just walking around the altar at a point during vespers?

    Also, on there is a photo on the vatican website that shows two thuribles being used.

  4. Augustinus says:

    I was in St Peter’s for Vespers and was also struck by this, having expected the pope to do the incensation as celebrant. There was no explanation in the bokklet.

    Given the prediliction most of the congregation has for standing on their seats to get a better view every time the pope moved, I wondered if it was perhaps for practical reasons that it was decided the deacons would do it! The old sedia had its practical benefits!

    All else apart, the whole ceremony and the Mass the next day were beautiful – liturgically wonderful, with good music. Missa Cum Iubilo was used for the Mass (a nice change from De Angelis) and people sang it.

  5. TNCath says:

    I consulted the good old Ceremonies of the Roman Rite Described, and I found no provision for deacons incensing the altar at Solemn Pontifical Vespers prior to Vatican II. However, perhaps there is an updated version of this rule. It does seem a bit on the inconsistent side, though. If a priest celebrant (and not a deacon) incenses the altar at the offertory of the Mass, why would the celebrant at vespers not do the same? Odd. Perhaps it was an honest mistake. Even the best of ceremonies have their snags.

  6. Vincent Uher says:

    Perhaps the Holy Father wished to bestow a new responsibility upon and a new gift to the diaconate in Christ in the Latin rite.

  7. Paul Goings says:

    I have wondered about this myself. There is no reference to the practice–that I can find–in either the old or new Ceremonial of Bishops. It’s hard to imagine either the Holy Father or his new Master of Ceremonies “making things up,” but I am at a loss to explain it otherwise.

  8. fr.franklyn mcafee says:

    I have seen it done at Pontifical Vespers.

  9. Mike says:

    This is a bit off-topic, but was there any reason that the morse used on the Holy Father’s cope was the Penitential formale?

  10. Fr. B. Pedersen says:

    Seems rather Byzantine to me!

  11. Fr. P says:

    If it is not in the Ceremoniale think what we may have here is a practical solution to the problem of carrying out the incensing of the Altar and assembly with some sense of the ars celebrandi at a Pontifical ceremony in which the celebrant is vested in an elborate cope and would have to go down and up and then down and up a significant number of stairs

  12. Ellen says:

    I have seen two deacons incensing the large free-standing altar in the Abbey Church of St. Joseph in St. Benedict, Louisiana, at very solemn vespers there … with the mitred abbot being the presider. It was all done very formally and with great devotion, liturgical choreography at its best, I thought.

    At Mass the principle celebrant incenses the altar and gifts upon it, but others also do incensations even at Mass. The deacon incenses the principle celebrant, then the other attending clergy, and then the congregation after the celebrant’s incensation of the altar and gifts just before the Eucharistic Prayer. Another server incenses each species of the Blessed Sacrament just after its consecration, during the elevation of it.

    I think too that everyone needs to remember that Pope Benedict is not a young man, and he was wearing a cope which would have made walking and incensing (not to mention just going up and down steps) awkward.

  13. Berolinensis says:

    I am glad this question (which I had asked twice without answers in the comments of the original post) is being taken up. I was quite surprised. At the I Vespers of the first Sunday of Advent, the Holy Father had performed the incensation Himself. It will be interesting to see what happens the next time. Personally, I don’t think we will see a repetition of this experiment.

  14. Father J says:

    Perhaps the Holy Father was using his “perogative”…? Just as mystified as everyone else… no precedent and he always censes at Mass himself…?!

  15. Jonathan says:


    Are you from New Orleans? The Northshore? The Abbey is truely a beautiful liturgical space and a very Holy place.

  16. When we have solemn Vespers from the Book of Divine Worship, the deacon incenses the altar during the Magnificat, not the celebrant. But I do note that the customary for the Church of the Advent (VERY high Anglo-Catholic in Boston) with which we share much in common, stipulates that the Officiant should cense, with the deacon and subdeacon holding the cope.

  17. You’re all looking for a provision for this action. What you should be looking for is a prohibition. Since there seems to be none then it is perfectly OK. The “maybe” questions could go on ad infinitum: Maybe the Holy Father didn’t want to do it; Maybe with his large cope it would have seemed impractical; Maybe he was borrowing from the Benedictine Monastic tradition; Maybe he was borrowing from the Eastern Tradition; Maybe on the most solemn occasions the deacons will do this as they serve the celebrant, etc., etc., etc.

    The bottom line remains the same: since there is nothing prohibiting it then it seems OK. I have been to pontifical Vespers before where I have seen this done, as well as seeing the celebrant do it. This seems a case of both/and not either/or. I am certain of one thing: it is NOT particular to papal liturgies.

    Also, for those comparing what happens at mass to this you are comparing apples and oranges. The celebrant incenses the altar at mass because he is the one offering the sacrifice. So, he incenses first the gifts to be offered and then the altar on which the sacrifice is offered. At Vespers this is not the case. I noted at this solemn Vespers that when the Eucharist was placed on the altar for adoration it was the Holy Father himself who performed the thurification.

  18. Nick says:

    It is common practice in the Orthodox Church for two deacons to cense the altar at vespers. I suspect this is another adaptation similar to the deacon holding the Book of the Gospels aloft in procession before Mass – something that I do not believe was done in the Tridentine Mass.

  19. Michael O'Connor says:

    The root of the issue is the fact that the novus ordo Liturgy of Hours represents a complete break for the Roman tradition. It was concocted by Bugnini literally as the bishops were packing to leave Vatican II. There is probably no real ceremonial for it since the liturgy doesn’t even have music for the new antiphons and the Revelation canticle. I wish Benedict would set a good example and use the EF Vespers. The LOH was meant as a book to be read, not a set of public ceremonies.

  20. Stephen says:

    Concocted by Bugnini, but approved and promulgated by Paul VI. You can’t be a supporter of the Pope, and reject the Novus Ordo now, can you?

  21. Joshua says:


    I think you present a false dichotomy. László Donszay, for instance, pretty much proves that in an historical and liturgical sense the LOTH is not of the Roman tradition (he also argues that the Roman rite for the Divine Office was mortally wounded by Pius X). I think his essays on the topic should be read well by all interested. In his “The Bugnini Liturgy and the Reform of the Reform” he states this following clarification (after being attacked for using the term “Bugnini Liturgy”

    “The life life structure expressing the character of the Hours has fallen victim to the enforcment of a principle contrived at the office-desk. The structure that had been followed by 500 Office rites through 1500 years of liturgical history has been rejected, indeed prohibited (!) by the 501st option. … Can this inconsiderate procedure claim our inner loyalty and affection beyond external compliance? The adiventiones suæ, defying the overwhelming majority, are audacity; if, however, they are aimed at eliminating the majority, an impudence; and if for achieving this my obedience to the Church is required, violence.” (pg 18)

    Again, he harps on how we must obey and do what we can within existing structures, but rejects the reform from a liturgical standpoint. He makes a strong point about how, legally, the novelties can demand our reverence to them, as the usage of the Roman Church, but in view of its contents, this is contestable compared to the basis of reverence towards the usage in itself (apart from legal issues), which is centuries old patrimony. Take that away and you have only legal reverence, not a true basis for reverence based on usage.

    My 2 cents anyway.

  22. Jordan Potter says:

    Stephen said: Concocted by Bugnini, but approved and promulgated by Paul VI. You can’t be a supporter of the Pope, and reject the Novus Ordo now, can you?

    Yawn. Yeah, nobody saw that rhetorical question coming (again), did they?

  23. Paul Cavendish says:

    Consulting the only work I have on papal ceremonies, Moroni’s ‘Le Capelle Pontificie’, (Venice, 1841 edition), the description for Vespers celebrated by the pope has incensation of the altar being carried out by the pope as one might expect: removal of mitre, putting on incense, then censing the altar etc. After that though the pope gave the thurible to the first Cardinal priest who appears to have censed some persons before in turn passing the thurible to a Cardinal deacon. However, that description is from 1st Vespers of the Epiphany as the author only describes ceremonies for Mass on the Feast of the Circumcision.

    One suspects a little bit of ‘cut and paste’ is going on. C

  24. William Young says:

    1. We need to remember that what came down to us as the “Tridentine” rite was in many respects an attenuation of the riches of the wider Roman and Latin liturgical tradition, which needs judicious and careful restoration.
    2. At the offertory of a Carthusian Mass, the priest begins the incensation of the altar, and the deacon continues it, by incensing behind it (yes, by walking round it!). Perhaps this is an indication that in the Roman tradition, deacons can do things for the priest, when appropriate.
    3. Vespers on 31st December in St Peter\’s continued into Exposition and Benediction, when the Pope went on to incense the Blessed Sacrament. Perhaps the deacons were sent to incense the altar during the Magnificat so that the Pope was not seeming to repeat a liturgical action, and so that there could be a liturgically visible escalation in solemnity.
    4. In doing this, the Pope is indicating perhaps that there must be a legitimate development of ceremonies. The motu proprio Summorum Pontificum clearly (yes, clearly!) establishes that there is one Roman rite. Therefore there is no forbidden mixing of rites involved, but a cautious exploration of the possibility of ceremonies being used and adapted to enable authentic development.

  25. Ellen says:

    I am originally from New Orleans, moved away to Lafayette many years ago. But with lots of family and friends all over I manage to get around. I discovered the Abbey a long time ago. Beautiful place, and the spirituality of the monks is as beautiful as the surroundings.

  26. The reformed Ceremonial for Bishops/Ceremoniale Episcoporum (1984), certainly the most traditional and most ignored of the new liturgical books, makes no provision for the incensing of the altar by two, or even one deacon. Comparing this with the Cer. Epis. of Benedict XIV (1752 — essentially unchanged from the edition of Clement VIII, published in 1600) I note that in both versions the cross and altar are incensed by the celebrant, be he priest or bishop, as at Mass.

  27. Stephen says:

    Joshua, most interesting, thank you. Where I am, much is made of the term “cafeteria Catholics”, a phrase which strives to capture an alleged mentality that one can pick and choose doctrine and still receive communion in good standing and at no risk of cognitive dissonance. Usually it is directed at those perceived to be left of center by those who perceive themselves more traditionalist or right of center; but the liturigical chaos of the last 40 years, all ultimately resulting from Papal approval and promulgation of the Novus Ordo, has put the shoe on the other foot, as it were. Must one accept the Novus Ordo? If it is a mistake, wrong, distasteful, heretical, whatever, who’s responsible for this if not the Pope? If it is such, how serious is it? If I discount it’s seriousness, what am I jeopardizing? If it is serious, what does that say about how it came to pass?

    It’s an important dynamic, and an evolving one as you know, among traditionalists to reconcile their professed loyalty to the Pope and their understanding of the Papacy with their distaste for said Papal approved liturgical innovation. How it unfolds will be the future of the Church, I think, and appreciate your historical insights into this critical evolution.

  28. Henry Edwards says:

    Stephen: Given the state of catechesis today, the confusion about faith and discipline you mention is understandable. However, it is not inevitable, since the questions to which you allude have clearcut answers.

    For instance, a Catholic in good standing will accept the totality of Magisterial teaching of the Church — as stated, for instance, in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

    This includes due respect for the authority of the Papacy and the Episcopacy. Though it does not require ignorance of specific mistakes of particular popes or bishops. (No more than a respect for the liturgy requires that abuses of it be ignored. Indeed, the pain one feels as a result of liturgical abuse may indeed be a measure of one’s love of Holy Mass.) Most papal actions involve not matters of faith but of prudential judgment, where history shows popes may be no less prone to mistake than the rest of us. The difference is their authority to make those judgments, whether right or wrong.

    For instance, due respect and recognition of the papal office required acceptance of Pope Paul VI’s decision to introduce the Novus Ordo. Even though many thought it a mistake, and some even anticipated it would turn out to have the grievous pastoral consequences that are now evident throughout the Church.

    And even though some — including theologians who enjoy the highest respect of the present Supreme Pontiff — apparently doubt that the pope actually has the proper authority to change the liturgy as Paul VI did. You might find it informative to read the summary of Cardinal Ratzinger’s expressed views in the section “Breaking with the Past” of

    Benedict’s Revolution: Old Rite, New Rite, and the Holy See
    Thomas E. Woods. Jr.

  29. Stephen says:

    Henry, many thanks, an excellent article, cautious and respectful yet daring in its own way. Perhaps too much use of the passive voice (a face saving diplomatic gesture?), but to me when a Thomas Woods uses words such as “petty” and “unjust” to describe Paul VI’s and other bishops’ actions regarding the old rite and its adherents, that’s pretty strong. And, the article points to as well a counter-revolution in the Church among traditionalists to understand the limits of papal authority. Pre-Vatican II, I would bet my house that was not a topic ever considered among traditionalists; but, once the power of the Papacy was controlled by liberals post Vatican II, the light bulb went off among traditionalists. Papal power was ok so long as it supported our goals, but it hurt when that power was directed against traditionalists. For how does one reconcile the strong words in support of papal authority in Vatican I, with the spirit of understanding the limits of such authority as Woods describes? If you have anything else that seeks to address this seeming conflict, please let me know.

  30. John Polhamus says:

    “There is probably no real ceremonial for it since the liturgy doesn’t even have music for the new antiphons and the Revelation canticle. I wish Benedict would set a good example and use the EF Vespers. The LOH was meant as a book to be read, not a set of public ceremonies.”

    Every one of these points whacks the issue right over the head. It is undeniable that the modern breviary is not only fundamentally, but demonstrably NON-liturgical. In fact, it is by design ANTI-liturgical, since it reflects the destructive, chop-and-changey objectives of its designer, the unlamented Bugnini. Non-liturgical, that is, unless we wish to follow the example of the Anglicans and adopt the pared down practices upon which this breviary is modelled. That, however, is not an acceptable approach, either in a parish or in the Vatican. The fact remains, however, that the Roman Breviary has been modelled and remodelled any number of times, even for decades at a time, so there is unfortunately plenty of precedent for jerking it around. It usually seems to come back into shape eventually, though, by default, since whatever textual alterations one makes to it, the ceremonial customs tend to endure. Personally I don’t absolutely hate the LOH (for private use – although I prefer the “Day Hours of the Church” EF Diurnal), but I would never use the LOH liturgically in my parish, ever. EF offices are the only liturgical option. Here endeth.

  31. Henry Edwards says:

    Stephen, apparently the understanding of “the limits of papal authority” has swung back and forth as circumstances and issues changed. I suspect a survey of Church history would suggest that the rather absolutist attitude (as you mention) of “traditionalists” in the period between Vatican Councils I and II was an exception rather than the rule over the centuries.

    As an aside, I might mention that some aspects of the current situation may render the use of the term “traditionalist” a bit unproductive in such discussions. For instance, most of the members of my own TLM community might be termed traditionalist by some — merely by virtue of attending the TLM on Sundays — but the most typical one is fully imbedded in the life of his own mainstream parish, perhaps singing in the choir, teaching RE or RCIA, attending daily (ordinary form) Mass and Eucharistic Adoration, etc. So the former categories have blurred to the point that a preference for the older form of Mass does not necessarily imply the former ecclesiological assumptions.

  32. “There is probably no real ceremonial for it since the liturgy doesn’t even have music for the new antiphons and the Revelation canticle. I wish Benedict would set a good example and use the EF Vespers. The LOH was meant as a book to be read, not a set of public ceremonies.”

    No so! The monks of Solesmes have published the Hymnal with all the hymns of the LOH. The Psalterium Monasticum (1981) includes all the new canticles and antiphons of the Ordinary, since these are also used in several of the approved two week schemas approved for the monastic office. In addition, the proper antiphons for the revised Temporal Cycle can be found in the Antiphonale Monasticum (2005). I used these books along with the Latin Liturgia Horarium to follow along on New Year’s Eve. As for the ceremonial, it is clearly set forth in the 1984 Ceremoniale Episcoporum.

  33. sigil7 says:

    Also, one could use the 1983 editio typica of the Ordo Cantus Officii, published by the CDW (prot. CD 389/83), which states where to find the music for the hymns, antiphons, etc. for the current LotH, though you would have to have several other texts (the Psalterium Monasticum mentioned by Fr Logan above, the Vesperale Romanum, etc.), many of which can be found in PDF form on the Musica Sacra website.

  34. Stephen says:

    Henry, I don’t disagree about the seesaw appreciation of papal authority through time; Vatican I was a line in the sand, however, as was the Code of Canon Law promulgated in 1917, which codified the apex of papal authority. The 1983 Code didn\’t change things much in this regard. So how does one reconcile the shift? Perhaps Paul VI did the Church a favor – in a way he never intended, mind you – in scaring traditionalists about having unbridled power in the Papacy. If Benedict XVI sees his authority limited by liturgy, that represents a major shift. And yet Benedict himself is at pains in the SP to remind the ordinaries they are still in charge liturgically, even as he goes around them to the priests. But that he is using the SP to remind them that they – and he – are not above the liturgy is not less huge. Fascinating seesaw.

  35. John Polhamus says:

    “No so! The monks of Solesmes have published the Hymnal with all the hymns of the LOH. The Psalterium Monasticum (1981) includes…”

    Greetings Father, I hope things are going well in Annapolis. We miss you in San Diego. But the questions is not whether what the Benedictines have produced CAN be used for the LOH, but whether it constitutes both an Editio Typica of the Roman Rite, which it isn’t, it’s a monastic usage – notthe Roman psalter or usage; and whether it does anything to address the liturgical vacuum: it doesn’t. There are still no liturgical instructions, because Bugnini et al never provided any. You’re supposed to make it up, and that we will not do, those of us who are even willing to try to view the LOH in the hermeneutic of continuity. Come to think of it, I’m not one of those, though I have personal uses for it. It’s an invention, and a disruption and needs to be redressed.

  36. JoeyG says:

    The General Instruction on the Liturgy of the Hours, 261: “During the gospel canticle at morning prayer and evening prayer there may be an incensation of the altar, then of the priest and congregation.”

    Since it doesn’t say by whom, it would seem that Father Sylvester’s point above about there being no prohibition is the most salient and germane to this discussion.

  37. Fr Christopher says:

    I wonder if this is part of the gradual Milanisation of the Roman liturgy. I’m pretty sure that in the Ambrosian Rite two deacons encircle the altar with incense at the beginning of the Pontifical Mass (and maybe during Pontifical vespers too).

  38. Henry Edwards says:

    Stephen: But that he is using the SP to remind them that they – and he – are not above the liturgy is not less huge.

    This is a fascinating point. I infer from from the totality of Benedict’s earlier writings — though the conclusion is certainly debatable — that he himself does not think that Paul VI had the right to alter the liturgy as he did (nor was it right for him to do so). But by the same restriction on what it is right for a pope to do, that he himself as pope does not have the right to correct the papal mistake by simple papal fiat. The the correction must instead occur by a process of organic development that he intends to have set in motion with Summorum Pontificum.

  39. Nicola - Ambrosianus says:

    Fr. Christopher wrote:

    I wonder if this is part of the gradual Milanisation of the Roman liturgy. I’m pretty sure that in the Ambrosian Rite two deacons encircle the altar with incense at the beginning of the Pontifical Mass (and maybe during Pontifical vespers too).

    In the reformed Ambrosian Rite, according to a recent custom raised in the Metropolitan Cathedral, and originating from a questionable interpretation of an ancient Ordo, two Deacons incense the altar exactly as the two deacons did at the Papal Mass.
    This, however, doesn’t apply to the Pontifical Vespers!

    So, if this can be considered a “Milanisation”, be sure that it is, as many others in the new liturgical books, definitely a fake one!

  40. Stephen says:

    Henry, given the corpus of his writings, you’d be safe to think that Benedict had to be thinking something like, “How can I re-direct this aircraft carrier liturgically, and ensure that a future pilot can’t get us off course again?” The SP is not a bad start. What it doesn’t account for (and maybe was not intended to or can’t) is what puzzled Michael Davies all those years, namely how fast and overwhelming the NO took hold. Why, for example, is it so hard for traditional messages to be accepted, and so easy for others? Those who derided the Pope for Humanae Vitae, for example, were the first to say, “The Pope approved it” when they made you sing “Joy is like the rain” (which gets my vote for worst song ever.)

  41. Fr. Christopher and Nicola are correct. A (milanese) friend of mine told me that what happened at the Papal Solemn Vespers seems to have been taken from the (Modern) Milanese Rite.

    I, for one, think that it was out of place. True, the Pope cn do anything he wants when he is the Celebrant of the Liturgy, but it is widely known that it has never been wise to mix ceremonies from different Rites. Plus, the Church has frequently forbidden this practice.

    This is especially because the N.O. is in terrible conditions in most parts of the world and people get new ideas by the minute. When this happens at Papal ceremonies, there’s some motive to begin to worry, especially when most people have their hopes high for an improvement at public Papal functions.

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