What do “ductus” & “ictus” mean?

Yesterday I began addressing a common phenomena I’ve witness, namely the practice of incensing the Blessed Sacrament with three triple swings of the thurible. I’m fairly confident that my last post has shown that there is no way to justify this custom under the current rubrics of the Roman Missal, 3rd. edition. I left unanswered, however, the question of the proper definitions of ductus and ictus. I will answer that question here.

For most people, the English translations by the International Commission on English in the Liturgy, Inc. (ICEL) of the Ceremonial of Bishops (The Liturgical Press, © 1989) and the General Instruction (USCCB, © 2003) are your first, and perhaps, only reference. Unfortunately, neither is particularly helpful in determining the proper meanings of these two words. ICEL’s translation of the GIRM erases any distinction when it translates both ductus and ictus simply as “swings of the thurible.” The translation of the Ceremonial of Bishops (CE) done about a decade earlier does attempt—albeit poorly—to distinguish between the two. It translates these phrases in n. 92 as follows: “The censer is swung back and forth three times for the incensation of […]”; and “The censer is swung back and forth twice for the incensation of […]”. CE n. 93 reads, “The altar is incensed with a series of single swings of the censer […].” While credit should be given for trying to preserve the distinction between two Latin terms, the phrase “back and forth” doesn’t clarify much since all swings go back and forth; the difference is how many times it does.

Since neither the English or Latin versions of the post-Conciliar provide a definition of these two terms, reference has to be made to the pre-Conciliar liturgy, which also used these two words, in the hope that something from the years prior to the Novus Ordo liturgy can answer the question. This is where I’ve run into trouble with people. While the arguments differ slightly, the bottom line always is that the 1962 liturgy has no bearing on the new liturgy.

This is where the 1983 Code of Canon Law is helpful, because it reiterates some general rules that apply to all ecclesiastical laws, and we know that rubrics are liturgical law (see can. 2). Canon 19 directs that holes in the law be resolved in “light of […] the […] practice of the Roman Curia, and the common and constant opinion of learned persons.” (I’ve omitted parts that are not immediately relevant to this discussion.) One could also say, by analogy of law to can. 6, §2, that the new rubrics in so far as they use the same vocabulary should be assessed according to tradition (emphasis mine). All this confirms what the 2000 GIRM says in no. 6 and, in particular, no. 42 which instructs that the gestures and postures of the people, priest, and ministers should be determined in accord with the general instruction and the tradition of the Roman Rite (emphasis mine). The conclusion that the new rubrics on incensation are understood in the light of the pre-Conciliar liturgy is further supported by the fact that the 1984 Ceremonial of Bishops itself directs readers to the pre-Conciliar ceremonial (1886) in footnotes 72-75, concerning the way the thurible is to be held, the way it is to be presented and received back by the thurifer, etc.

The answer, then, to what is the proper meaning of ductus and ictus is found in the pre-Conciliar liturgy. To be specific, the distinction between the two terms is found in three decrees* by the Sacred Congregation of Rites (S.R.C.)—the predecessor to the modern CDW, which from 1588 to 1969 was tasked with resolving rubrical questions. The first decree was given on 22 March 1862 in response to a question submitted by the Archdeacon of the Cathedral Church of San Marco in the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. It reads, “Dubium 20: Is the two ductus of the thurible, with which the Deacon ought to incense each Canon in choir, to be understood such that each individual ductus ought to be made by a double swing? — Regarding no. 20: Yes.” (S.R.C. Decree 3110 [5318]). On 24 November 1899 the Congregation replied to Fr. Juan Barber Pons, Rector and Master of Ceremonies of the Cathedral Church of Menorca in Spain. To the question, “Is the incensation of the Most Holy Sacrament to be made with a triple ductus of double swings, even within Solemn Mass, before the Introit and at the Offertory?” the reply was “Yes, according to the Decree under no. 3110 on 22 March 1862, reply to no. 20.” (S.R.C. 4048). Lastly, on 29 May 1900 the Congregation answered in the negative to the query of the Master of Ceremonies of the Cathedral Church of Urgell in Spain asking “Should ductus be made with double swings during the incensation of the Altar […]?” (S.R.C. 4057).

From these three dubia it becomes clear that a ductus is composed of two swings and that an ictus is composed of one swing. This same understanding was reiterated in all the English-language commentaries on the pre-Conciliar liturgical rites. Canon J.B. O’Connell, for example, in his major work The Celebration of Mass: A Study of the Rubrics of the Roman Missal (Milwaukee: The Bruce Publishing Company, in 5 editions © 1940-1962) gives a detailed description of the double swing of the ductus, and regarding the ictus he writes, “In incensing an altar […] the thurible is raised to the height of the breast, swung out towards the object or person and then lowered. In other words the act of incensation is a simple ictus” (p. 490). Similar descriptions can be found in commentaries by Adrian Fortescue and others.

This finally puts to rest the question of how one properly incenses the Blessed Sacrament, the priest, the people, and so on in the Mass of Pope Paul VI.. Number. 277 of the 2000 GIRM and 1984 CE nn. 92 and 93 (and even temporary provisions from 1978) were written using the vocabulary inherited from the pre-Conciliar mass and, thus, the definitions of these words as established in the late 19th. cent .by the Holy See for the pre-Conciliar mass still hold true for the current Ordinary Form of the mass.

* It is interesting to note for liturgical scholars that the distinction between these two words grew out of centuries of liturgical practice, and was not formally recognized by the Holy See till 1862 long after the Tridentine liturgical books were first implemented. It would be indeed interesting to investigate how these two words were understood when they were first written into the rubrics.

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