About the use of incense at a sung Mass (Missa Cantata)

Because some questions have been raised concerning the use of incense at a sung Mass (Missa Cantata, i.e. a mass with singing, but without sacred Ministers), I decided to elucidate the issue.

A few years ago, when I was in Winnipeg (2002-2009), we had received a directive form the SSPX Canadian District Superior about the use of incense outside of solemn Masses (also called High Masses, i.e. Masses with deacon and subdeacon and other servers). I do not have this document anymore. But as best as I can recall, it said that the older practices of the Church gave us indications that in case of sung Masses, we should limit the use of incense to special Sundays and Feast days, or at least not more than once a month for ordinary Sundays.

Because some people thought that the use of incense at sung Masses was traditionally OBLIGATORY, and because I do not have access to the Canadian District old document and its argumentation, I made some research in my books and on the Internet.

As you will see in the quotes below, not only the use of incense at sung Masses was NOT obligatory, but it was for the longest times FORBIDDEN, as it was reserved for solemn Masses. (Even the concept of a sung Mass seems to be in itself more modern in the centuries-old history of the Church). Nevertheless, the use of incense for sung Masses was little by little TOLERATED and indults were granted by Rome for particular dioceses, until Pope John XXIII granted a GENERAL PERMISSION in his Code of Rubrics for the 1962 Roman Missal.

Therefore, I think that the Canadian District was right, and that it is more in conformity with the older customs of the Church to limit the use of incense at sung Masses to special Sundays and Feasts, or to a monthly “ordinary” Sunday.

Fr. Girouard


From the Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. VII, 1910, p.717. In an article by P. Morrisroe on incense:

“In the present discipline of the Western Church incense is used at solemn Mass (i.e. high Mass), solemn blessings, functions, and processions, choral offices, and absolutions for the dead.” 

From the Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. IX, 1910, p.799. In an article by Msgr Adrian Fortescue on the Mass:

“This high Mass is the norm. It is only in the complete rite with deacon and subdeacon that the ceremonies can be understood. Thus, the rubrics of the Ordinary of the Mass always suppose that the Mass is high. Low Mass, said by a priest with one servant alone, is a shortened and simplified form of the same thing. Its ritual can be explained only by reference to high Mass. (…)  

A sung Mass (Missa Cantata) is a modern compromise. It is really a low Mass, since the essence of high Mass is not the music but the deacon and subdeacon. Only in churches which have no ordained person except one priest, and in which high Mass is thus impossible, is it allowed to celebrate the Mass (on Sundays and feasts) with most of the adornment borrowed from high Mass, with singing and (generally) with incense. The sacred Congregation of Rites has on several occasions (9 June 1884; 7 December, 1888) forbidden the use of incense at a Missa Cantata; nevertheless, exceptions have been made for several dioceses, and the custom of using it is generally tolerated. “ 

From a re-print of a 100 years old St. Stephen’s Archconfraternity handbook:

Though on principle a Missa Cantata does not admit of the use of incense, the Sacred Congregation of Rites does in certain cases grant an indult for the use of the thurible on special solemnities and where it is impossible to have deacon and subdeacon.” (Cf. Vavasseur, Ceremonial, Ed. ix, vol. I, p. 520, n.288). http://www.sanctamissa.org/en/serving/handbook-for-altar-servers-10.html 

From “The Celebration of the Mass” 4th Edition (1964), pages 564-565, by Rev. J.B. O’Connell:

1-“While a low Mass with the assistance of a deacon and subdeacon, or a “solemn” Mass with a deacon and subdeacon only (i.e. without any other servers), is forbidden, a sung Mass (Missa Cantata) is recognized by the sacred liturgy and permitted. It differs from a solemn Mass in that there are no deacon and subdeacon and incense was not used. It differs from low Mass because it is sung, and because more than one server may take part in the sanctuary. 

2-(…) But the Instruction of 1958 (par. 26) defines a Missa Cantata and says: ‘Sung Mass should be greatly esteemed also. Although it is without sacred ministers and lacks magnificence of ceremonial, yet it is enriched by the beauty of singing and sacred music. It is desirable that the principal Mass on Sundays and festivals be a sung one when solemn Mass is not possible’.”

3-The use of incense at sung Mass is now permitted (by Rubric # 426 of the 1962 Roman Missal), and it is used exactly as at solemn Mass, except that after the singing of the Gospel by the celebrant, he is not incensed.”