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Holy smoke:
the crux of the matter


Louis J. Tofari


Occasionally the question arises in sacristies—along with eyebrows—just before the start of a sung (High or Solemn) Mass: can blessed incense or a cross be carried for the procession of a non-pontifical Mass?

In this treatise, we will clear the smoke surrounding this burning issue, and show from rubrical authorities that both practices are recognized as legitimate options. In fact, in some places, these are well-established customs which even have force of law.

The origin of the question

The question at hand arises from the fact that both of these features are described in the Caeremoniale Episcoporum,[1] in relation to Pontifical Mass at the Throne,[2] but not for Solemn Mass. Thus because neither the use of blessed incense or of cross[3] are mentioned in connection with the processional for Solemn (or High) Mass, this has caused some to posit that only bishops have the privilege of these items.​This omission though is ably explained by Dr. Adrian Fortescue in his 1934 edition of The Ceremonies of the Roman Rite Described[4]:

At Rome it is not the custom that a processional cross be borne before the procession to the altar when a priest sings High Mass;[5] so the Roman books of ceremonies do not usually speak of it.


But he goes even further to explain (citing Gavanti[6]) a shortcoming concerning the missal’s rubrics; namely that sometimes these lack precision,[7] and to our purpose, are “incomplete in describing the preparation for High Mass”. Thus in Fortescue’s mind, the omission of these items within the missal’s rubrics for Solemn Mass is not per se the determining factor in this question.


​Rubrical support for the practices

Fortescue then states an incontrovertible fact of rubrical law concerning the processional cross:


There is no rule against the cross being carried in front of the procession when a priest celebrates; in many churches this is the custom.


​That is, there is no proscription from the Sacred Congregation of Rites against this custom, while we shall see further on what rubricians have to say.


Continuing with the use of blessed incense, Fortescue says:


If it is the custom of the church that the thurifer precede the procession with incense, the celebrant will put the incense in the thurible and blesses it in the usual way, the deacon assisting [or the MC in the case of High Mass—Ed.], in the sacristy before the procession goes out.


And what was said above about the SRC also applies to this point.


As for a positive opposing opinion, it is interesting to note that Fortescue provides the citation of the rubrician who comments against the practice of bearing blessed incense—Msgr. Pio Martinucci[8] from Rome, where as described above, this is not customary.


Fortunately, we do not need to solely rely on Fortescue’s words on these points, as several other rubrical authorities also lend support—and to keep this article brief, I have grouped the citations per circumstance.


Use of cross and incense described in the same place:



Use of a processional cross:



Use of blessed incense:



The preponderance of English-language citations makes it apparent that the use of a cross and blessed incense have long been recognizable customs in countries such as the United States and those of the British Commonwealth—but other citations show this was also true in France and Belgium.


But perhaps the most applicable authority on this subject is made by J.B. O'Connell within his chapter on liturgical law:


Other usages [193-Not contra, but praeter, rubricas.] which, possibly, have become—in certain places—customs with force of law are:


-constructing an altar against a wall (instead of being free on all sides, as the ceremony of consecration supposes it to be);

-the use of gradines on altars; [194—Cf. S.R.C. 3759, 2, 4322.]

-retaining a cerecloth on a consecrated altar;

-using three charts on the altar for Mass [195—Cf. S.R.C. 4165-2. Cf. R.M., n. 527.] (not one, as R.G. XXX supposes);

-the use of two servers at low Mass on certain occasions [196—Cf. S.R.C. 3059-7.];

-ringing the bell before the Consecration, at the little Elevation;

-washing the hands after Mass;

-using a cross-bearer, and carrying a smoking censer, at the head of the procession to a nonpontifical solemn Mass. [my emphasis][13]


What should be immediately noticeable is that the list contains many practices readily accepted by nearly all as rubrically-correct, and yet are held by J.B. O’Connell to be on par with our specific question of contention. Thus, the use of blessed incense or a crossbearer at a sung Mass of a priest are also matters of praeter rubricas (not contra) and thus considered legitimate options.


Some might contend that there are a few rubricians who are opposed to these practices. But in fact, either they merely do not mention them—and without any further comment—or simply make the factual statement in a footnote that the practices in question are features of a pontifical Mass. These examples however, hardly compare with what one typically associates with a rubrician's condemnation of an outright abuse, and thus I would suggest that these citations should be considered as neutral, rather than positively negative (or at the very most, a certain frowning upon based on individual preference).


Not always “pontifical”—a final consideration

It might be useful by way of background to demonstrate that the use of the thurible and cross is not as strictly restricted to pontifical functions as some might believe.


For example, both items are prescribed for the non-pontifical processions of Candlemas and Palm Sunday, the Eucharistic ones of Holy Thursday and Corpus Christi, funeral processions, and even for para-liturgical ones.


Furthermore, neither practice is categorized among the list of "pontificals"—privileged items reserved to prelates (e.g., mitre, bugia, bacile, crosier, etc.).


A legitimate option

Thus hopefully from this examination, it is now clearly understood that the use of carrying a cross or blessed incense in procession before a sung Mass is a legitimate option.


Furthermore, both Fortescue and J.B. O’Connell make the point that where this practice has been well-established, it probably has force of law as a custom, and thus should be retained under this circumstance.


It should even be mentioned that it is not required to use both options simultaneously, for example, a thurible without blessed incense can be carried along with the processional cross and vice versa.[14]


Finally, the cross is also carried during the recessional.


Specific rules for each position

Before concluding this treatise, it might be useful to anticipate some commonly-asked questions concerning the positions of the crossbearer and thurifer by giving some specific rules.


  • The stand for the cross should be positioned on the Epistle side.[15]

  • The crossbearer, and the flanking acolytes, do not make any reverence while the cross is being carried, because the crossbearer is carrying an image of Christ while the acolytes are accompanying it.[16]

  • The processional cross is not held during the Gospel.[17]



On Sundays before the Asperges, the thurifer processes in carrying the aspersory, not the thurible.[18]


A more comprehensive set of rules can be found in the High Mass serving notes for the thurifer and crossbearer, as well as in my book, The General Principles of Ceremonies of the Roman Rite.


1 The Latin title of The Ceremonial of Bishops, an official rubrical book that outlines the ceremonies and positions of Pontifical Mass, and which serves as the basis for Solemn Mass. The last edition was published in 1886.


2 Lib. II, viii, 23 & 24.


3 An exception of course is the archepiscopal, or metropolitan cross—but this special item is only carried before a metropolitan archbishop in his ecclesiastical territory.


4 The following quotes from Fortescue are from the section “The Procession to the Altar: Processional Cross” found on pp 91-92 (High Mass, §2).


5 Note that the British call the “Solemn” form “High”, while in America “High” refers to the missa cantata form. Furthermore the 1960 code of rubrics clarified that the term missa cantata only refers to a sung Mass with incense, but without other sacred ministers. Thus a sung Mass without incense is now considered as merely a “sung Low Mass”.


6 From ff 4 of Thesaurus sacrorum rituum, Gavanti-Merati, Pars II, tit. ii, ad rubric. V (ed. cit., vol. I, p. 106); available in PDF via Google Books.


7 Thus the need for the Sacred Congregation of Rite and rubricians. One case (now past, since having been clarified by the SRC) concerned how the altar should be incensed during Solemn Mass, since the missal’s rubrics only mentioned “triples”.


8 On p 92, ff 1 referencing Manuale Sacrarum Caeremoniarum (I, ii, p. 34, n. 2).


9 The full title of this book is Ceremonial for the use of the Catholic Churches in the United States of America, first compiled by Bishop Joseph Rosati, C.M., and then revised by Rev. W. Carroll Milholland, S.S. (H.L. Kilner, 1935), p 144 and ff 6. Interestingly, the footnote is actually citing the Caeremoniale Episcoporum's description of Pontifical Mass at the Throne (lib., ii., ch. viii.) as the authority for the same practice at Solemn Mass.


10 An excellent 2-volume set compiled by auxiliary bishop, Most Rev. J.F. Van der Stappen (Dessain, 1933); the citation comes from Pars Prior: De Ministris; VI, Officium in Processionibus; p 33.


11 Available here in PDF.


12 While this altar server’s manual is not a major authority, nonetheless, it does provide additional proof that this was considered a common practice in the United States.


13 From the section on Custom, pp 31-32; note that I broke up the examples into bullet points for easier reading and put O’Connell’s footnotes inline with the text. It is interesting to note that on p 98, ff 2, in his edited version of Fortescue’s rubrical work (1962 edition—reprinted in 1996), he merely states:


Putting into the thurible and blessing incense to be carried at the head of the procession, and the use of a processional cross, are features of a pontifical Mass celebrated at the throne (C.E., II, viii, 23, 24).


14 The use of blessed incense is mentioned in the Caeremoniale Episcoporum in connection with the processional cross, but not for purpose of incensing it as some might be inclined to believe (in fact, such a notion is not mentioned by any rubrician).


15 Fortescue, J.B. O’Connell and others; thus this should be the first preference. However, if adequate space does not exist in the sanctuary to accommodate this, then the stand can be placed on the Gospel side.


16 Cf. p 55 in The General Principles of Ceremonies of the Roman Rite (For Inferior Ministers), Louis J. Tofari (Romanitas Press, 2011).


17. The holding of the cross during the Gospel is actually a Dominican Rite practice.


18 This is mentioned by all rubricians.

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