Monday, 1 June 2015

Thurification in Theophoric Processions

[UPDATE (21.10.2016): Caption on photo corrected.]

On Thursday, 4 June 2015, Christendom will celebrate the feast of Corpus Christi. As has been done throughout the centuries, from the first celebration of the feast in Liège, the Blessed Sacrament is carried in procession after Mass.

Corpus Christi procession in Venice
with D. Giuseppe Sarto, Patriarch of Venice,
later Pope Saint Pius X, carrying the Sacrament;
two thurifers swinging censers walk ahead.

In many places, this feast is transferred to the nearest Sunday, or the Sunday after the proper feast.

Regulations for the Philippines
In the Rituale Romanum, we read the following rubric concerning the incensations done in the procession:
[…] et duo acolythi vel Clerici cum thuribulis fumantibus praecedunt.
In English, this reads:
[…] and two acolytes or Clerics walk ahead with fuming thuribles.
From this short phrase arose one of the greatest debates in rubrical minutiae: should the thurifers walk normally, their backs to the Sacrament; or should they walk backwards, facing the Sacrament? The former is the practice in Rome; the latter is almost universally frowned upon as supremely indecorous and inappropriate by liturgists. Still, outside Rome, probably under the influence of the Ambrosian dictum, many opt to do the latter.

Which of these two is prescribed for us in the Philippine Islands? The answer, surprisingly, is “None.” It appears to us that, outside Rome, the Sacred Congregation allowed a certain degree of rubrical scrupulosity to determine the position of the thurifers. Thus, the 1962 Manuale Manilense, the version of the Rituale Romanum commanded for use in the Philippine Islands, adds a footnote to this rubric:
Non licet adhibere plures quam duos thuriferarios (Decr. 3448, 9) ; et procedere tenentur hinc inde ante Celebrantem extra baldachinum continuo Ssmum. Sacramentum thurificantes, facie quasi ad invicem versa (Decr. 2368), ne terga Sanctissimo obvertant.
Again, in English, this reads:
It is not lawful to make use of more than two thurifers (Decr. 3448, 9); they are made to proceed from here (i.e., the sanctuary, where the procession starts—Siniculus) onwards ahead of the Celebrant, outside the canopy, continuously censing the Most Blessed Sacrament, with their faces somewhat turned to one another (Decr. 2368), lest they turn their backs to the Blessed Sacrament.
Below we publish the quoted decrees, first in their Latin original, and then in our English translation.

Number of thurifers
Here is the first decree, which forbids the number of thurifers in Theophoric Processions to exceed two.

Corpus Christi procession in San Sebastián in Spain: The procession
has paused; the thuribles are at rest in the hands of the two
thurifers (one behind the cerofer; another behind the bearer of the
ombrellino); the priest is under the canopy, rare in Spain for its rigidity.

DECRETUM 3448 (5728)
R. P. Vincentius Licalzi Sacerdos Societatis lesu, a suis Superioribus deputatus ad componendum Directorium Divini Officii pro duabus provinciis Lugdunensi ac Tolosana eiusdem Societatis, a Sacra Rituum Congregatione subsequentium dubiorum solutionem humillime exquisivit ; nimirum :
Dubium IX. An in Processione Corporis Christi liceat adhibere plus quam duos thuriferarios ; et an tolerandum quod ea die pueri cotta induti circumeant Altare spargendo flores et thus offerendo etiam tempore benedictionis ?
Sacra porro Rituum Congregatio, ad relationem sui Secretarii, hisce dubiis mature diligenterque perpensis, respondendum censuit :
Ad IX. « Negative in omnibus. »
Atque ita respondit ac rescripsit.
Die 11 maii 1878.
The same decree in English:

DECREE 3448 (5728)
Rev. Fr. Vincenzo Licalzi, priest of Society of Jesus, appointed by his superiors to compile the Directorium Divini Officii for the two provinces of Lyon and Toulouse belonging to the same Society, requested from the Sacred Congregation of Rites a solution for the following dubia, namely:
Dubium IX. In the procession of Corpus Christi, is it lawful to make use of more than two thurifers; and should the practice be tolerated, wherein children vested in surplice surround the Altar, strewing flowers and offering incense too at the very moment of benediction?

Hereafter, the Sacred Congregation of Rites, upon the counsel of its Secretary, having maturely and thoroughly considered these dubia, determined the following to be written back in reply:
At IX. Negative in all.
And thus the Congregation responded and replied.
11 May 1878

As we can note from the image introducing this section, only two thurifers are used.

Position of the thurifers
Here is the second decree, mentioning the proper position of the thurifers when censing the Sacrament:

Corpus Christi procession in San Sebastián in Spain: The procession
has started; the thuribles are now swinging in the hands of the thurifers,
both of which are walking forward but looking backward to the Sacrament
(the right thurifer is visible; the left thurifer is hidden behind one of the
bearers of the tasselled cord of the guión).

DECRETUM 2368 (4130)
Propositis in S. R. C. ex parte D. Matthiae Eremitae Camaldulensis Montis Coronae, Prioris Eremi S. [Mariae] Angelorum Civitatis Nolae, nonnullis dubiis circa Processionem tum in solemnitate Corporis Christi tum Feria V et VI maioris Hebdomadae ; S. eadem R. C., audito prius voto unius ex Apostolicarum Caeremoniarum Magistris, rescribendum censuit :
« Praecedat Crux hastata a Religioso cotta induto delata inter ceroferarios cotta pariter indutos ; sequentur viri Religiosi bini incedentes, qui in solemnitate Corporis Christi, monasticis cappis depositis, post communionem Celebrantis sument, non in Choro sed in alio convenienti loco, superpelliceum cereosque accensos gestabunt. In Processionibus vero quae fiunt Feria V in Coena Domini et Feria VI in Parasceve, quia haec infra Ecclesiam peraguntur, cum cappis monasticis procedant. Post digniores Religiosos viros succedent duo thuriferarii itidem cum cottis, qui thuribula cum incenso fumigantia lente ducent ante Celebrantem facie, non dorso, ad Sacramentum semiversa in incessu. Tandem adveniet Celebrans pluviali ac velo humerali albo amictus, deferens Sacramentum inter Ministros sacris vestibus, sed sine manipulo, indutos, fimbrias pluvialis hinc inde elevantes, qui alternatim una cum eodem Celebrante Psalmos submissa voce recitabunt. Supra Celebrantem Sacramentum portantem deferatur omnino baldachinum quaternis saltem hastis instructum, quae a totidem Religiosis superpelliceo indutis in Festo Corporis Christi eleventur. Feria autem VI in Parasceve deferri poterit baldachinum a Religiosis sine cotta ; qua die Celebrans non sumet pluviale, Ministri autem Celebrantis, cum non utantur planetis, tum solemni illius diei Officio tum Processioni cum superpelliceo assistent. Cerei extinguentur postquam reconditum fuerit Sacramentum, et Feria VI in Parasceve postquam fuerit a Celebrante consumptum. Quod si ad huiusmodi supplicationes convocentur Confratres alicuius Sodalitii, hi sacco induti designari poterunt ad deferendum baldachinum, supplendo vices Religiosorum alia munia obeuntium. In iis autem Coenobiis seu Religiosis Familiis in quibus parva Monachorum manus sit, Assistentes Celebrantis poterunt incedere cum superpelliceo, sed nunquam fas sit ut omittatur baldachinum desuper deferendum vel a Monachis vel a Confratribus. »
Et ita decrevit et servari mandavit. Die 15 septembris 1742.
The same decree in English:

DECREE 2368 (4130)
To some dubia proposed to the Sacred Congregation of Rites from the part of Dom Mattia, Camaldolese Hermit of Monte Corona, Prior of the Hermitage of Saint [Mary] of the Angels of the city of Nola, concerning the procession both in the solemnity of Corpus Christi and on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, this very same Sacred Congregation of Rites, having beforehand accepted the counsel of one of the Masters of Apostolic Ceremonies, determined the following to be written back in reply:
“The Cross mounted on a pole goes first, carried by a hermit vested in surplice, in between cerofers equally vested in surplice; the male religious of the community, walking by twos, follow. In the solemnity of Corpus Christi, having taken off the monastic cape, after the communion of the Celebrant, they put on surplices, not in the quire but in another appropriate place, and shall hold lighted tapers. However, in the processions that are made on Maundy Thursday and on Good Friday, as these are made inside the church, they go vested in the monastic cape. After the more venerable hermits, two thurifers follow, similarly in surplices, who slowly swing smoking thuribles with incense ahead of the Celebrant, with their faces, not their backs, while walking, turned halfway towards the Sacrament. Then comes the Celebrant vested in white cope and humeral veil, carrying the Sacrament between Ministers vested in sacred vestments, but without the maniple, lifting from here the edges of the cope, who shall recite the Psalms in a low voice alternately with the very same Celebrant. Over the Celebrant carrying the Sacrament, a canopy fitted with at least four posts in total is carried, which four posts are lifted by four hermits vested in surplice on the feast of Corpus Christi. But on Good Friday, the canopy can be carried by hermits without surplice; on which day, the Celebrant does not put on the cope, while the Ministers of the Celebrant, if they do not use chasubles, assist in surplice both on the solemn Office of the day and during the procession. The tapers are extinguished after the Sacrament had been reserved; and on Good Friday, after It had been consumed by the Celebrant. If the guildbrethren of some other sodality are invited to processions of this manner, they, dressed in sackcloth, can be appointed to carry the canopy, supplying the roles of hermits performing other duties. But in those convents and religious communities where the number of monks is few, the Ministers assisting the Celebrant can come in surplice, but it is never right to disregard the canopy that is ought to be carried aloft by monks or guildbrethren.”
And thus the Congregation decreed and ordained this to be kept, on 15 September 1742.
From the image introducing this section, we note that the thurifers continue to walk forward, not backward, swinging their thuribles, but that they orient their bodies halfway inwards in order to look at the Blessed Sacrament.

This position is not only photographically attested, but also artistically depicted in the line art or vignette used for the feast of Corpus Christi in the Missale Romanum. Only one of the thurifers is visible, and he has his back to the audience, his steps oriented inwards with respect to the path of the procession, his upraised heel suggesting a forward movement, but his gaze is fixed upon the Blessed Sacrament.

So on Sunday, the External Solemnity of Corpus Christi, the two thurifers censing the Blessed Sacrament should walk forward, their bodies oriented inwards as if they are facing each other, in the same way the priest does not make a full circle when turning towards the congregation, in the coram Sanctissimo parts of the Mass. Not fully forward, so as not to turn their backs to the Lord; not backward, so as not to subvert liturgical decorum.

Ut in omnibus laudetur Dominus.


  1. Prima imago Roma non est. Patriarca Iosephus Sarto Sanctissimum Sacramentum portat in Civitate Venetiarum.
    Imago pia ac devotissima.

  2. Photographematis subscriptio iam castigata est.