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Handling the Censer


Peregrinus Gasolinus: Wandering Notes on the Liturgy

Chapter 8

The Antiquary had just successfully negotiated a rather bad S curve in a none too smooth country-road, and the Liturgiologist was recovering from the trepidation with which he always viewed such performances. His remonstrances, against the high rate of speed with which the Antiquary had made the turn, fell on deaf ears. “Even a flivver has four wheels,” said he, “if they weren’t all meant to be used, do you suppose Henry would put ‘em on his machines? Or perhaps you think they’re there only so you can use them alternately, those on the left when you turn that way, and vice versa!”[1]


“It’s all a matter of knowing how to handle a car,” replied the Antiquary imperturbably. “There really isn’t any danger, as you very well know, else why endanger your precious neck day after day by coming out with me.”


“But my dear Father—” began the Liturgiologist, but his voice died to a whisper as the Antiquary swung the little car sharply to the right and ran it gently and comfortably into the ditch just in time to avoid a collision with a truck which speeded out of a cross road without the slightest warning. The older priest got calmly out of the flivver and began to crank the motor, but the younger, and balder, and, be it said the stouter, also tumbled out and stood uncertainly in the long grass gazing at the cloud of dust which followed the retreating truck down the pavement. “This, my dear confrere,[2] is the end! I’m through! No, I shall not shut up and climb in. Go along with your rattle trap, and sell my share in it to anyone who’s fool enough to buy it. I’ll walk home.”


“Twenty one and seven tenths miles,” said the Antiquary, submissa voce.”[3] Have you arranged with someone to say Mass for you in the morning?”


“There is a railroad,” gasped the Liturgiologist.


“But no train on it till around noon tomorrow,” retorted the Antiquary.


The Liturgiologist capitulated, but as he clambered into the front seat of the flivver his remonstrances continued.


“It’s all a matter of knowing how to handle your car,” said the Antiquary again, as they started off with a jerk and a rattle.


“Which reminds me of that article I promised to write on ‘Handling the Censer’” mused the Liturgiologist.” Some priests do it the way you run this Lizzie, adequately and, secundum quid,[4] safely, but neither gracefully nor properly.”


“Why, it’s simple enough, isn’t it?” asked the Antiquary.


“Perhaps that’s why so many don’t do it right,” was the reply. “One sees the most extraordinary things as one goes about the country. There’s the priest, for instance, who, in incensing the Blessed Sacrament at Benediction, simply raises the censer in a straight line vertically to the height of his eyes, and then lowers it again without any sort of swing towards the object being censed. At the other extreme there’s the priest who swings the censer too and fro from right to left two or three times and then suddenly shoots it outward and upward almost to the length of the chain, and repeats the performance a half dozen times before giving the thurible back to the boy.”


“Yes,” said the Antiquary, glad to have his friend’s mind diverted from the exigencies of the road, “I’ve seen it done both ways. You say neither of these ways is correct?”


“I didn’t say so, but it so happens,” was the tart reply, as the flivver slewed out of a rut.” Fortescue gives the directions for the proper handling of the censer in such a plain manner that there should be no mistake about it.’ The rubrics,’ says he, ‘distinguish two kinds of incensing, with a simple swing (ductus simplex) and a double swing (ductus duplex). The ductus simplex is made in this way. Lift the right hand—’ oh yes, he tells us, of course before this, that the way to hold the censer is with the cover closed, and the ring snug down over the tip of the cover, the top of the chains held by the left hand against the breast, the right hand grasping the chains about four inches above the shut cover. Very well then, to resume. For the single swing ‘Lift the right hand to the level of the breast only, at the same time swing the thurible out towards the thing to be incensed and let it fall at once to about the knees. As it falls it should make an audible click against the chains.’”


“Rather dangerous when the priest is on his knees,” interjected the Antiquary.


“But the priest kneeling never uses the single swing. Give Fortescue a chance, can’t you,” rumbled the Liturgiologist. “‘There are two ways of making the ductus duplex. One is to lift the thurible to the level of the face. It will here click against the chains. Then swing it out and let it fall, so that it makes another click against the chains.’”


“Describing the shape of a harp in the atmosphere,” chuckled the Antiquary. “Ought to be not only intelligible but gratifying to the Irish clergy.”


“Your habit of interrupting is most annoying, dear Father,” rasped the Liturgiologist. “I was about to say that the other method of making the ductus duplex is simply to repeat the ductus simplex.”


“It’s obvious, man, it’s obvious, as Msgr. Tierney used to say (and still does, no doubt, more power to him).[5] But how is one to know when to do one and when t’other?”


“Rubrics of course,” said the Liturgiologist. “This may all seem an academic and merely curious affair, but it’s governed by rubrics, so it must seem of some importance in the eyes of the the Church. Generally speaking, however, the double swing, thrice repeated, is given:

  • To the Blessed Sacrament exposed,

  • To the altar cross in censing the altar,

  • To the Relic of the True Cross, or other Relics of the Passion,

  • To the celebrant, thrice repeated,

  • To the bishop, pontificating at the throne, thrice repeated (on which occasion the celebrant receives two double swings),

  • By the deacon at High Mass, to the Gospel book, three double swings,

  • And finally, to statues other than those on the high altar when, on certain occasions, they are censed during ceremonies. [NB: this rubric is now defunct per the 1962 rubrics]


Two double swings are given in censing prelates, one double swing to priests in the sanctuary, and three double swings to the sides of the liturgical choir if such be present. About the single swing this much may be said (and we are still ‘generally speaking’) it is used in censing the altar, other than as noted above. It is given to minor ministers and altar boys when, in the ceremonies, they are incensed.”


“But what about the censing of the candlesticks on the altar at High Mass?” queried the Antiquary, a gleam of humor in his eye.


“Father, Father, can this be ignorantia crassa?[6] Affectata,[7] I hope! It isn’t the candlesticks that are censed, but the top of the altar, the censer being swung towards the candlesticks merely to give a graceful uniformity to the swings.”


“Graceful uniformity, eh!” said the Antiquary, as he swung the flivver around a sharp bend in the road, effectively silencing the Liturgiologist, for a time at least. “Yes, yes! It’s all a matter of how you handle a car—or a thurible either!”



1 Latin for the other way around (or, the opposite).


2 French for "fellow member".


3 Latin for "in a subdued voice".


5 A reference to Monsignor Thaddeus Tierney, a well-known Irish-American priest of the Bronx in New York City.


6 Latin phrase for "crass ignorance".


7 Latin for "pretended".

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