“The thurifer must be trained in the art of using the thurible: how to assist efficiently when incense is prepared, how to incense people and things and how to use the thurible in processions. The thurifer comes first, in procession, in front of the cross. A boat bearer may assist, on the left of the thurifer. The thurifer must also know how to prepare, maintain and extinguish the thurible.”
Peter J. Elliot – Ceremonies of the Modern Roman Rite 165.
Throughout I have assumed that Deacon Michael is present and that you have the services of a boat bearer. Being a thurifer without a Deacon or a boat bearer is slightly more complicated and will be covered separately.
I have also assumed that you are right handed. If you are naturally left handed just substitute right for left and left for right throughout what follows. There is no problem with being a thurifer ‘the wrong way around’.
Remember – the purpose of incense is to symbolise prayer rising to God. “May my prayer be like incense in your presence,...” (Psalm 141, 2). You are not there to blind and choke the congregation! Incense signifies “...prayer, sacrifice and reverence for people and sacred objects, incense is one of the richest liturgical signs in the Rites of the East and West.” Peter J. Elliot – Ceremonies of the Modern Roman Rite 214.
In the sacristy, about ten minutes before the start of Mass, light two charcoal blocks holding them in the metal tongs. Take care to keep the sleeve of your alb clear of the candle flame and your face away from the sparks. When the charcoal is lit – when it has stopped giving off sparks – place the block in the thurible with the depression facing upwards – these are there to hold the incense. Always ensure that the charcoal is glowing red hot before the start of Mass.
The Church Porch.
Just before the start of Mass, at the signal from the MC, approach the principal celebrant with the boat bearer. With your right hand holding the bottom of the chain raise the thurible with the wide gap facing the priest so that the celebrant can easily put incense in – keep your left hand holding the top of the chain in front of your chest. Try to keep your elbows in – it looks neater. When incense has been put in and the celebrant has blessed the thurible by silently making the sign of the cross over it return to the front of the procession with the boat bearer at your left side and wait for the signal to move into the church – usually this will be when the choir/people have started singing the gathering hymn. The thurifer, with the boat bearer on his/her left always lead all processions when incense is used EXCEPT when the Blessed Sacrament is carried in procession.
The Entrance Procession
At the signal from the MC, or when the choir/congregation has begun the gathering hymn, begin to process into the church. The boat bearer will be by your left side. Remember, all those behind you will take their pace from you – keep it slow (but not snail’s pace) and dignified. Hold the thurible in your right hand with your left hand open across your chest (unless you have to carry the boat). When you reach the sanctuary steps bow to the altar – do not attempt to genuflect - and with the boat bearer move to the tabernacle side of the sanctuary close to Deacon Michael’s seat. At this point, although it is not usually necessary, you can add more incense to the thurible. Wait there until the rest of the procession has come onto the sanctuary and Deacon Michael and the priest have reverenced (kissed) the altar.
Incensation of the Altar.
The altar is venerated with incense because it represents the body of Christ – this is why a Priest or Deacon will kiss it at the start and end of every Mass and why the altar stone is marked with five crosses representing the five wounds Our Lord suffered during the crucifixion. When Deacon Michael had kissed the altar he will turn towards you – be prepared to hand the thurible to him. When you have handed the thurible to Deacon Michael take a step or two back so that he and the priest may easily incense the altar.
After the priest, accompanied by Deacon Michael, has incensed the altar and the processional cross the thurible will be handed back to you. Take it and with the boat bearer leave the sanctuary by the middle of the main steps. Both turn and bow towards the altar when you have reached the floor of the church then turn again and go into the sacristy. Hang the thurible up on its stand and both return to the sanctuary via the steps by the organ.
You can remain in your place on the choir side of the sanctuary until the end of the Collect or Opening Prayer. While the readers are coming up to the sanctuary and the congregation are sitting down for the readings leave the sanctuary and go into the sacristy. The fact that there is movement elsewhere in the church will mask you leaving the sanctuary.
Wait in the sacristy until the Gospel Acclamation. During this time make sure that the charcoals are glowing red hot – also be aware how long the readings are so that you can come back into the church promptly the second reading ends. During the second reading it is useful to move into position and to be ready in the corridor of the sacristy. As soon as the reader says, “The word of the Lord.” and the congregation respond “Thanks be to God.” move into the church. Occasionally, at Pentecost or on other important feast days, an optional sequence is sung or said after the second reading and before the Gospel Acclamation. Wait until this is finished before coming into the church – the MC will advise you.
When you come into the church approach the chair by the same route as you left at the beginning of Mass remembering to bow to the altar at the foot of the sanctuary steps. Deacon Michael will rise and take the boat, the priest will remain seated. Present the thurible to the priest as you did at the beginning of Mass for him to put incense in and bless. When he has done this turn and begin to retrace your steps. With the Master of Ceremonies go and join the acolytes who by now should be standing in front of the altar.
The position in front of the altar should be as shown with the two acolytes facing the corners of the altar, the thurifer directly behind the ambo-side acolyte and the master of ceremonies directly behind the font-side acolyte. Deacon Michael with the Book of the Gospels will be in the middle. When all have made a normal bow to the altar turn and move to the ambo – stand a couple of yards behind it and prepare to hand the thurible to the M.C.
When Deacon Michael has placed the Book of the Gospels on the ambo he will begin the dialogue that precedes the Gospel:
Deacon Michael: The Lord be with you.
All: And with your spirit.
Deacon Michael: A reading from the holy Gospel according to N
All: Glory to you Lord.
Hand the thurible to the M.C. who will hand it to Deacon Michael. When he has incensed the Book of the Gospels the thurible will come back to you. Remain standing where you are throughout the Gospel – “The thurifer swings the thurible moderately but at full length from his right hand.” (Elliott, CMRR, 388). If you are not holding the boat your left hand should be flat against your chest.
When the Gospel is finished return to the front of the altar as you were before the Gospel. The boat bearer will come and join you standing between you and the M.C. If he is not due to preach the homily Deacon Michael will come and stand in the middle. All bow to the altar together and with the boat bearer turn and go into the sacristy. There is no need to bow again as you leave the sanctuary.
While you are in the sacristy:
1. Listen to the homily
2. Light one more charcoal. Three should be sufficient to last you through the Mass, produce a respectable amount of smoke without the chorus of coughs from the congregation.
3. Be aware that if there is a Baptism or other additional rite during the Mass this will usually happen between the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist. You could be in the sacristy for some time. Feel free to stand in the doorway and watch what is going on.
The Liturgy of the Eucharist.
When The priest, Deacon Michael and the altar servers receiving the gifts have gone back onto the sanctuary come out of the sacristy with the boat bearer n your left side, bow to the altar at the sanctuary steps and go to the place you were at the beginning of Mass. Remember to leave the area around the credence table free for the acolytes to perform their duties. After the priest has offered the bread and wine Deacon Michael will take the boat. Approach and present the thurible so that the priest can put incense in and bless it. When Deacon Michael has given the boat back to the boat bearer present the thurible to him so that he can pass it to the priest for the incensation of the altar and gifts.
When Deacon Michael has incensed the priest, any concelebrants and the congregation (in his absence it will be the M.C.’s job to incense The priest and the concelebrants, your job to incense the congregation) he will hand the thurible back to you. Either remain where you are or come to the front of the sanctuary. Swing the thurible in a small, controlled slow, smooth swing, possibly not much greater than the width of your alb. A large, wild swing does nothing except distract the congregation and makes the incense burn away faster and run out before the end of Mass – “and swinging a thurible which does not produce smoke is ridiculous.” (Elliott, CMRR, 220).
At the epiklesis – when The priest stretches his hands over the gifts and the acolyte rings the bell – move to the centre of the top sanctuary step and kneel facing the altar.
We are now coming to the core of the Mass, the Consecration, and it will now be your job to incense the Blessed Sacrament as it is shown to the people.
There are a ‘correct’ number of swings to use depending on who or what is being incensed. “The following are incensed with three swings of the thurible: the Most Blessed Sacrament, a relic of the Holy Cross and images of the Lord exposed for public veneration, the offerings for the Sacrifice of the Mass, the altar cross, the Book of the Gospels, the Paschal Candle, the priest, and the people. The following are incensed with two swings of the thurible: relics and images of the Saints exposed for public veneration, which should be done, however, only at the beginning of the celebration, after the incensation of the altar.” (GIRM 277).
To incense raise the thurible as you did when presenting it to The priest to put incense in, but slightly higher – about chin high holding the chain in your right hand a link or two above thurible itself with your hand bent downwards. Your left hand holding the top of the chain should be against your chest. When the priest raises the Consecrated Host ‘flick’ your hand upwards three times (you can take your cue from the acolyte ringing the bell) then lower the thurible. Repeat the procedure when the priest raises the chalice containing the Precious Blood then lower the thurible again. There is no need to ‘clang’ the thurible against the chains when incensing, it does nothing except to produce an ugly sound. Try to keep the wide gap away from you when incensing just in case one of the charcoals decides to fall out – it has happened! Remain kneeling on the top step for the remainder of the Eucharistic Prayer swinging the thurible with a small, controlled swing until the Final Doxology, “Through him, with him, in him ...”. After the “Amen” stand up, bow to the altar and move back to your place on the font side of the sanctuary.
The Lord’s Prayer.
Remain standing continuing to swing the thurible – you should still have smoke coning out of it – until the end of the Our Father. If by this stage the thurible has stopped smoking then do not swing it. To do so would be pointless. When the Our Father is finished then with the boat bearer leave the sanctuary as you did previously remembering to bow to the altar. Hang the thurible up and return the sanctuary by the side steps for Holy Communion – and that is that.
Occasionally, on Holy Thursday or the Solemnity of Corpus Christi, there will be a procession with the Blessed Sacrament after Holy Communion. The thurible, or even two, will be needed for these. What to do will be covered in a separate sheet.
Using the tongs empty any ash, un-burnt charcoal and incense from the thurible in a suitable place outside the sacristy. Hang the thurible up on its stand, make sure any candles that you may have lit are extinguished.
 It might be worth practising this at home with a tin of something in a plastic carrier bag although I accept no liability for television screens, living room windows or antique vases smashed during practice or distress caused to domestic pets or people of a nervous disposition.