Deacons and Summorum Pontificum

As ordination season is just around the corner, I was asked by a soon-to-be deacon to what extent can a deacon use the 1952 Roman Ritual, which was the ritual in force in 1962, in light of Summorum Pontificum? The short answer is not much. It goes almost without saying that the role of the deacon envision by the 1917 CIC (and mirrored by the pre-Conciliar liturgical laws) is fairly minimal and the 1983 CIC marks a sizable increase in the role of the deacon in the sacramental life of the Church. It’s these differing visions of the diaconate in the Church that is at the root of the above question.

Prior to the instruction Universae Ecclesiae it was uncertain whether post-1962 changes in the law had effect on pre-1962 liturgies performed after the Conciliar revisions of the liturgy. The instruction has clarified that the motu proprio derogates from liturgical laws promulgated after 1962 and which are incompatible with the rubrics of the pre-1962 liturgical books (cf. UE n. 28). In other words, these books stand on their own and should not be revamped to match post-Conciliar practice. The pre-Conciliar ritual books mention deacons in three areas: baptism, distribution of Holy Communion, and blessings.

We’ll begin with blessings because the change—actually, the lack of change in the law between the 1983 and 1917 codes in this area—impacts the deacon’s ability to function in the other three rites. The current law, 1983 CIC can. 1169, §3 reads almost exactly like the prior law, 1917 CIC c. 1147, §4. Compare 1983 CIC 1169, §3 “A deacon can impart only those blessings expressly permitted by law” with 1917 CIC 1147, §4 “Deacons and lectors can validly and licitly impart only those blessings that are expressly permitted to them in the law.” Both codes leave it up to the individual liturgical books to dictate what blessings a deacon could give and which he could not.

With respect to baptism, 1983 CIC 861, §1 states that the deacon is an ordinary minister of baptism. This is a change from 1917 CIC 741, which designated a deacon as an extraordinary minister of baptism. This change, in practice, has little effect on the ceremonial role of the deacon. Even in the 1952 Roman Ritual, the deacon is instructed to follow the ritual exactly as if he were a priest with the exception that the deacon cannot bless the salt and water required for the rite, and so is dependent on a priest having done this beforehand (cf. 1952 RR, Order of Bapt. of Children, n. 27; Order of Bapt. of Adults, n. 51; Supplying Cerem. for a Bapt. Child, n. 25; Supplying Cerem. for a Bapt. Adult, n. 44) Because the current law on diaconal blessings is the same as the prior law, this exception has the same force today as it had prior to the 1983 code, even though the deacon is now an ordinary minister of baptism.

With respect to Holy Communion, 1983 CIC 910, §1 establishes that the deacon is an ordinary minister of Holy Communion. This is a change from 1917 CIC 845, §2, which stated that the deacon was an extraordinary minister of communion, who needed the permission of the pastor or local ordinary and a legitimate reason in order to distribute communion. With the change from extraordinary to ordinary minister, the deacon now would no longer need permission and a legitimate reason in order to distribute communion. Ceremonially there is no change. The 1952 Roman Ritual allowed the deacon to distribute communion using the same ritual as a priest (cf. 1952 RR, Order of Administering Holy Comm. outside Mass, n. 10) and could also give the blessing found at the end of the rite (see Cod. Comm., Resp. 13 July 1930). Similarly, the ritual allowed the deacon to administer Viaticum (cf. 1952 RR, Order of Communion to the Sick, n. 29). That this included the blessing within the rite was made clear, first, by an 1858 response by the Sacred Congregation of Rites (see S.R.C. 5270, Tonkini Occidentalis [14 Aug 1858]), and then, by 1917 CIC 1274, §2.

In summary, the deacon can baptize (using previously blessed salt and water), administer Holy Communion and Viaticum, and impart only those blessings expressly allowed to him. The fullest listing I have been able to find of what blessings are expressly given to a deacon in the pre-Conciliar discipline is in Werz-Vidal’s commentary (see Ius Canonicum, vol. IV, p. 396-397). It states that a deacon can bless the Easter Candle (which was understood to be blessed by the incensing and singing of the Exsultet). He can likewise impart the blessings found in the rite of baptism and the supplying ceremonies (as discussed above) and bless a sick person in the context of administering Viaticum (as mentioned above). To this we would have to add the blessing in the context of communion outside mass (see Code Comm., resp. 13 July 1930). He specifically cannot give Benediction (see S.R.C. 5402, Angelopolitana [11 Sept 1847]).

One interesting question remains. Do today’s deacons have the power to bless bread and fruit? Wernz-Vidal suggested in a footnote that pre-Conciliar deacons also had been given the power to bless bread and fruits, the blessing of which was expressly given to lectors in the pre-Conciliar ordination liturgy of lectors, under the principle that the higher order possessed the lower orders. The question boiled down to whether the bishop’s words at the ordination expressly gave them the power per 1917 CIC 1147, §4. Today, of course, there is not order of lectors. And while one might say today’s deacons possess the post-Conciliar ministry of lector, they certainly do not possess the pre-Conciliar order of lector which was abolished over thirty years ago. Thus, any privileges which were accorded to pre-Conciliar lectors must, I think, be said to have expired, meaning deacons ordained today do not have the power to bless bread and fruit even if it might have been possible in the pre-Conciliar era. This, I think, might an example of the 1983 CIC trumping those pre-Conciliar provisions incompatible with the present law (cf. Universae Ecclesiae, n. 27).


Excommunicated Cardinals at Conclaves

With the recent resignation by Pope Benedict XVI, there has been much chatter concerning how papal elections work. One of those fun questions is whether an excommunicated cardinal can participate in a conclave. Canonist Dr. Edward Peters has eloquently answered most of this question over at his blog, “In the Light of the Law“. I believe, however, there is still some more that can be said.

Believe it or not, the question wouldn’t have been a question before 1996. Prior to apostolic constitution Universi dominici gregis [UDG], the special law that control papal elections (cf. can. 349) was Paul VI’s 1975 apostolic constitution Romano pontifici eligendo [RPE]. RPE had a clause specifically addressing the question of censured cardinals. RPE, n. 35 stated:

“No cardinal elector can in any way be excluded from the active and passive election of the Supreme Pontiff on account of any reason or pretext of whatever excommunication, suspension, interdict, or other ecclesiastical impediment. These censures, in so far as they affect an election of this kind, are deemed suspended.” (1)

It wasn’t until the promulgation of UDG that this question became relevant. The change in language from RPE, n. 35 to UDG, n. 35 was deliberate but for what reason is hard to say. Perhaps the pope thought this language was a bit too archaic and no longer relevant to the Church’s modern situation (after all, the exact phraseology had not changed much since the 1300s). Perhaps he figured that since cardinals are judged by the pope (can. 1405, §1), if a cardinal’s behaviour were ever so egregious as to incur excommunication, the pope would go ahead and depose him from the College of Cardinals (cf. UDG, no. 36). Ultimately, it is impossible to say with certainty. That brings us back to the question posed above—can a cardinal elector be barred from the conclave because he labors under a ferendae sententiae excommunication? (Since latae sententiae excommunications do not affect the validity of the election, it need not be considered.)

I agree with Dr. Peters that a cardinal elector can claim an excommunication, either latae sententiae or ferendae sententiae, to be an impediment to participation, and the College of Cardinals would, in all probability, recognize the impediment and proceed without him. Even if they did not recognize the impediment, should the cardinal elector still keep away, the Conclave could proceed without him (cf. UDG, n. 40). None of this is problematic. The problem is what if a cardinal elector suffering from such an excommunication refuses to claim it as an impediment and presents himself with the other electors at the place and time of the conclave? Dr. Peters suggests that the College of Cardinals can, in fact, bar this cardinal from the conclave because it could jeopardize the validity of the papal election. While I understand the absolute necessity to ensure a papal election is valid, I do not see the text of UDG providing strong support for this claim.

UDG does foresee barring admission or readmission to cardinal electors, but in the context of electors having violated or attempting to violate UDG. A cardinal over 80 years of age who attempts to enter the conclave can be barred because he attempts to violate the age limit placed by UDG, no. 33. A cardinal who has been deposed or has renounced the cardinal-ate with papal consent — and is thus no longer a cardinal (see UDG, no. 36) — yet attempts to enter the conclave can be barred because he is attempting to violate UDG, no. 33, which gives cardinals the exclusive right to elect the pope. A cardinal elector refuses to come to Vatican City without having been excused by the College of Cardinals on account of some impediment violates UDG, no. 38 and can be barred entrance (cf. UDG, no. 40). A cardinal elector who leaves Vatican City without a grave reason or on account of illness and without being excused by a majority of electors can be barred re-admittance (cf. UDG, no. 40, §§1 and 2). Beyond these cases, I do not see where UDG foresees any further exclusion of electors.

UDG, no. 35 would suggest, in my view, that there cannot be any valid reason or motivation (beyond those provided for in UDG) to exclude an elector — including, I argue, a ferendae sententiae excommunication. I realize that UDG, no. 35 does not provide explicit support for this claim, and that its general statement could be explained to allow for such an exclusion given how specific the circumstances have to be. The sources for UDG, no. 35 (see footnote 1), however, support such an interpretation of the current law, even if in some sense it is an argument from silence. Perhaps John Paul II changed Paul VI’s language because he did intend to bar excommunicated electors — perhaps he didn’t. In either case, however, I am uncomfortable allowing the mere non-mention of a specific provision to overturn seven centuries worth of an establish, documented principle.

Now, assuming the above interpretation is correct and an elector under a ferendae sententiae excommunication is admitted, there is still the issue of can. 171 which would — it seems — invalidate his vote (§1, 3º) or worse yet invalidate the whole election (§2). There would be no point in admitting an excommunicated elector if his vote will always be null and thereby place the validity of the election at risk. If the above interpretation of no. 35 is true, then it must also be the case that the effects of excommunication upon an electors participation (as listed in can. 171) are suspended.

This was explicitly the case in the former law, RPE, no. 35 and the other earlier sources, but here again, it is an argument from silence because along with not mentioning the issue of admitting excommunicated electors, there is no mention of the validity of their votes. Did John Paul II wish to elimination this exception to can. 171 as his predecessor had from 1975 to 1996 in RPE, no. 35? The late pope did carve out an exception via UDG, no. 78 to can. 149, §3 regarding simoniacal provisions of an office, so something similar could have been done. As above, I think that in the absence of a clear departure from historical papal practice, we must uphold the long held practice of papal election law, which supports the view of a suspension from the effects of can. 171. I realize that this may sound like impermissibly creating an exception to the Code where there is none, but faced with the conflict between UDG, no. 35, which in my opinion gives excommunicated cardinal electors a right to vote in conclave, and can. 171, which denies that right, I think the past practice of the Holy See shows that even if the exception did not happen to get put down on paper in the last revision, such an exception does, in fact, exist to the codified law.

In other words, under UDG no. 35, a cardinal labouring under a ferendae sententiae excommunication can participate in a conclave and may validly cast votes. Fortunately, as Dr. Peters said at the start off his post, this is purely hypothetical.


(1) Paul VI, Ap. Const. Romano pontifici eligendo (1975), no. 35. This section incorporates and largely repeats earlier legislation on papal elections; see list below:
See Pius XII, Ap. Const. Vacantis apostolicae sedis (1945), n. 34;
Pius X, Ap. Const. Vacante sede apostolica (1904), n. 29;
Gregory XV, Ap. Const. Aeterni Patris (1621), § 22;
Pius VI, Ap. Const. In eligendis (1562), § 29; and
Clement V, Decree Ne romani (1311), § 4.

Changing views on vernacular readings

It is interesting to note for historical purposes how the acceptability of vernacular readings during the Mass of Bl. John XXIII seems to have radically changed in the last few years. In fact, a marked change in the praxis of the Pontifical Commission “Ecclesia Dei” (PCED) can be seen starting in 2009. Since the practice of the Roman Curia is canonically relevant when resolving lacunae and doubts of law (see cann. 17 & 19), I trace below the development and change in the PCED’s practice with regard to the use of vernacular readings and post-conciliar lectionaries in masses using the 1962 Roman Missal.

The Pontifical Commission “Ecclesia Dei”, established by John Paul II’s motu proprio Ecclesia Dei adflicta at first advanced a very accepting view. Writing to the American bishops in 1991, the president of the PCED, Card. Mayer, suggested that “the new lectionary in the vernacular could be used as a way of ‘providing a richer fare for the faithful at the table of God’s Word’ in masses celebrated according to the 1962 missal” (Origins 21:9 (July 18, 1991) 144–145). These were only “guidelines and suggestions”, as Card. Mayer wrote, and so their adoption and, indeed, legal permissibility depended on the local bishop. I believe a few bishops did adopted the practice for their usus antiquior communities.

This twofold permission — readings in the vernacular and the use of the post-conciliar lectionary in the 1962 mass — seems to have also been the idea behind Summorom Pontificum, art. 6, which reads:

In Masses celebrated with a congregation [lit. people] according to the Missal of Bl. John XXIII, the readings may also/even [etiam] be given in the vernacular, using editions recognised by the Apostolic See.

Following the promulgation of Summorum Pontificum, there was much debate how to translate etiam and to what exactly did “editions recognized by the Apostolic See” refer. In light of PCED’s earlier understanding — evidenced by Card. Mayer’s 1991 letter — a strong argument could be made that art. 6 allowed for the post-conciliar lectionary — which carried the Vatican’s recognitio — to be used. Additionally, it indeed seemed that past PCED practice pointed to an understanding of etiam to mean “also” in the sense of either Latin or English.

This understanding is confirmed by a private reply given by the PCED in response to proposed doubts. In a letter to Card. Hoyos dated 24 March 2008, an American asked:

      (1) Can readings be given in the vernacular in the context of the Liturgy? Does Article 6 uphold the practice of duplicating the readings reading them in the context of the Liturgy in Latin, then before a homily in the vernacular, or does it allow them to be read from the Altar in the vernacular?
      (2) Also, can local editions of the Missal that refer back to the 1962 Missal could be used for this purpose (i.e. the one that came out in the US in early 1964. For example, a Missal faithful to the rubrics of the 1962 Missal, but with a vernacular proper. This was given approval for use in the US by the Holy See.

The PCED replied on 11 April 2008 (Prot. N. 14/2008) as follows:

      1. Article 6 of the Motu Proprio Summorum Pontificum foresees the possibility of proclaiming the readings in the vernacular without having to proclaim them first in Latin.
      2. The readings may be proclaimed in English according to translations approved for liturgical use by the Holy See and the Bishops of the United States.

This reply seems to give blank permission for the use of the vernacular and post-conciliar lectionaries. The phrase at the end of question 1 referring to reading from the altar indicates that the writer was envisioning, at least, a sung mass, in which the celebrant reads both the epistle and the Gospel from the altar. At a solemn mass, the epistle — by the subdeacon — and the Gospel — by the deacon — both are done away form the altar. Given the lack of any qualification in the PCED’s reply to a question which referred to a sung mass, it must be concluded that as of 2008 the PCED had no problem with vernacular-only readings as sung masses, and presumably also solemn masses. Additionally, the reply makes clear that any translation of scripture approved by both the Holy See and the US bishop’s conference can be used the 1962 mass. This certainly includes post-conciliar translations. One issue that is not addressed in the PCED’s reply to question 2 is whether the post-conciliar lectionary three-year cycle can be substituted in for 1962 missal’s one-year cycle as suggested in 1991 by Card. Mayer.

By 2010, however, the PCED had changed its views on the acceptability of vernacular-only readings. The diocesan moderator for the extraordinary form of a certain Polish diocese wrote to Ecclesia Dei with several questions. His letter of 5 January 2010 contained a question relevant to this discussion. He asked (my translation of the German text):

      (5) May a simple layman or a minister proclaim the readings in the vernacular during the Holy Mass in the extraordinary form after the priest (who also speaks the vernacular) has read the texts in Latin?

The PCED replied back in Italian on 20 January 2010 (Prot. N. 13/2007) as follows (my translation):

      5. The reading of the epistle and the Gospel of the Mass should be be done by the same priest-celebrant, or by the deacon as envisioned by the liturgy [rubrics]; after their reading, the translations may be done by a layman.

This reply, I believe, reflects an view of vernacular readings closer to the 2011 instruction Universae Ecclesiae than to the PCED’s earlier practice, though I admit it is not clear cut. The question is as much concern with vernacular in place of Latin as with who should read the vernacular, hence the comment about the priest being equally capable of reading the vernacular. The reply follows by stressing that the epistle and Gospel should be read by the priest — not a layman — and that the translation may be read by a layman. The priest certainly can as is common in many places. This is all that can be said with any certainly about the reply.

The PCED’s comment about the deacon reading the Gospel is, however in my opinion, important because it clearly indicates that this response is equally applicable to solemn masses, in which the epistle is read by the subdeacon and the Gospel read by the deacon. This was not what the questioner had in mind because he indicates that the texts (plural) have been read by the priest. In any case, I think this reply implicitly reflects an understanding of vernacular readings that would be made explicit in the instruciton Universae Ecclesiae just one year later, namely that at high masses and sung masses the readings must be done as envisioned by the rubrics, and only afterwards may translations be included.

In 2011, the PCED published the instruction Universae Ecclesiae. The instruction directly bears upon the permissibility of post-conciliar lectionaries and vernacular-only readings at 1962 liturgies. Stating in no. 26 that in the extraordninary form, the readings may be done in Latin alone or in Latin followed by a vernacular translation. Only during a low mass, did the PCED allow for readings in the vernacular alone. Additionally, the instruction states in no. 24 that the 1962 liturgical books stand as they are and that these liturgies must be executed according to their rubrics in full. This latter paragraph completely rules out any use of the post-conciliar three-year cycle lectionary in place of the pre-conciliar one-year cycle.

As should be evident from the above, the 2011 instruction is a radical shift in the practice of the PCED, which as late as 2008 still reflected its 1991 practice. It is only since 2009, at the earliest, that the present PCED practice, as contained in the instruction Universae Ecclesiaea, began. It is interesting that in July 2009, Cardinal Hoyos was replaced by Cardinal Levada. To what degree, if any, did the change in praxis have to do with the change in the presidency of the PCED in 2009 is interesting question to contemplate.

A recited vernacular Epistle at a Sung Mass

Recently, someone pointed out to me that the rubrics for the 1962 missal allow the epistle at a sung mass to simply be read by the celebrant (see Ritus Servandus VI, 8 and Rubricas Generales 514). I had been under the impression that only the low mass allowed for non-chanted readings, but given this new caveat, the question was raised whether the epistle could be read in English during such a sung mass rather than in Latin, as the rubrics presume.

The question stems from Pope Benedict XVI’s 2007 motu proprio Summorum Pontificum, which in Article 6, specifically, allowed the readings to be read in the vernacular, rather than in Latin, during masses with a congregation using the 1962 missal.

The question is fairly easy to answer, I believe, in light of the 2011 instruction by the Pontifical Commission “Ecclesia Dei” (PCED) entitled Universae Ecclesiae. Paragraph no. 26 of the instruction reads (this is a fairly literal translation of the Latin text):

Regarding that which is established in article 6 of the Apostolic Letter Summorum Pontificum, it must be said that the readings for Holy Mass, which are contained in the Missal of 1962, may be pronounced either in Latin alone, Latin with a vernacular version following, or in read [low] masses even in the vernacular alone.

The nature of an instruction is to clarify the law and direct how it is to be observed (can. 34, §1). The provision of an instruction must be in accord with the law, and if an instruction cannot be reconciled with the law, it loses all force (can. 34, §2). In this instance, there is no conflict between the law (Summorum Pontificum, art. 6) and the instruction (Universae Ecclesiae, no. 26). Since Summorum Pontificum is an exception to the law (the liturgical law of the 1962 Roman Missal — the rubrics) and Universae Ecclesiae narrows down the exception, art. 6 and no. 26 must be read narrowly (can. 18). Therefore, since no. 26 only allows vernacular readings at low masses, the exception to the rubrics allowing for vernacular-only readings cannot be extended to sung masses or solemn masses.

While the above settles the canonical question, I was curious why Universae Ecclesiae only allowed for vernacular-only readings at low masses. After some reflection and looking around various liturgical blogs, the most likely explanation, I believe, is the non-existence of any Gospel or epistle chant tones suitable for proclamations of scripture texts in English. All the chants of the 1962 Roman Missal were designed to fit the syllabic structure of Latin, so they do not work well in English. Because much of the beauty of solemn masses and sung masses stems from its rich musical patrimony, it makes sense that the non-existence of chant tones for English scripture readings prohibits English-only readings at these masses. To jettison the chanted Latin readings in favour of recited English ones would do damage to the liturgical action. If this is indeed the rationale, it seems like an exception could be carved out for any sung mass in which the celebrant takes advantage of the above-mentioned rubric allowing for the epistle to be recited in Latin.

While researching this question, I realized a clear change in the praxis of PCED regarding vernacular readings in the 1962 mass in last three years. Since the practice of the Roman Curia is canonically relevant when trying to resolve lacunae (can. 19) or doubts (can. 17), I will cover this in a subsequent post.

Does custom require chapel veils today?

A few years ago I came across an argument by an anonymous canon lawyer on the blog St. Louis Catholic in which he posited that it was still required for women to wear chapel veils while at Mass. The basis of his argument rested on classifying chapel veils as immemorial custom and then arguing that this meant its legal obligation remained despite the dropping of 1917 CIC c. 1262 from the new code. The argument was never really addressed despite it being noticed by canonist Dr. Edward Peters as well as Catholic commentators Fr. John Zuhlsdorf and Jimmy Akin. I was not very well read in the canonical concept of custom at the time, but after three years of off-and-on investigation into it, I do clearly agree with Dr. Peters’ remarks that this anonymous canonist made several conceptual errors. I respect this anonymous canonist for the credentials I’m sure he has, but I am reminded of a comment by Fr. Stuart MacDonald, JCL at Musings of a Canonist—not every canonist is a good canonist.

Below, I offer my take on the situation in the hopes of supplying the reasoning which those three did not at the time. I hope I do them justice. I don’t intend this post to be a full academic treatment of the topic. I’m content simply to lay out a few basic ideas and direct interested readers to the titles I consulted.

Custom—the habitual behavior of a community—has a fairly long history in canon law going all the way back to when canon law grew out of Classical Roman law. Customary law played a very important role in medieval law, both secular and ecclesiastical, but the last few centuries have seen a significant decline in its use. Nonetheless, it has remained a part of canon law, both in the 1917 and 1983 codes. Custom, however, is not strictly speaking law (lex). The two codes of Canon Law have provided circumstances and criteria under which this behavior can acquire the force of law (see cann. 23-28), but it is not an act of the legislator, i.e. law. In this sense, custom yields to law. Both the 1917 code and the 1983 code allowed cases in which immemorial custom and centenary custom would not necessarily yield to law (1917 CIC c. 5 & 1983 CIC can. 5), but these have to do with customs that go against the prescripts of the code (so-called custom contra legem). The use of chapel veils has never been contra legem.

The use of chapel veils may well have been at one time an immemorial custom considered binding on the Christian community. Certainly, Scripture and the Church Fathers speak of the practice, but I am not a historian or an anthropologist, so I cannot say how widespread the practice actually was. Regardless, however, the question whether wearing chapel veils was a custom with the force of law prior to the code is largely irrelevant. After the 1917 code it was no longer a matter of custom—it was a matter of law. Thus, from 19 May 1918 to 26 November 1983 wearing a chapel veil was simply doing what the law dictated. On 27 November 1983 when the 1983 code took effect and 1917 CIC c. 1262 was lost its legal force (see. 1983 CIC can. 6, § 1, 1°), wearing a chapel veil went from being a matter of law to, again, being a matter of custom. Given that the 1983 code abrogated 1917 CIC c. 1262 and that the use of chapel veils has gone back to being a matter of custom, if there is still an obligation to use them today, it would stem from post-1983 custom, not post-1983 law.

The truth is there is no post-1983 custom establishing the use of chapel veils. In fact, due to social upheaval, disruption in the Church, lack of enforcement and catechesis, and changing attitudes among Catholics, the use of chapel veils as customary behavior had ceased well before 1983, even in spite of the law of 1917 CIC c. 1262. Whereas it might have been the case in, say, 1930 that the legal obligation of 1917 CIC c. 1262 was buttressed by a customary social obligation, by 1982 it was only a legal obligation (the social obligation having ceased). Any discussion about the use of chapel veils being an immemorial custom is purely academic in the face of this clear change in behavior. Immemorial doesn’t mean incapable of changing, rather that it’s been around a long time; and, it is clear that in this case the community changed its customary behavior, immemorial or not.

The use of chapel veils may well again become a custom, i.e. a habitual practice of a community, and it may well eventually obtain the force of law if it meets the conditions laid out by cann. 23-28 of the present code. At the present moment, it has not done so universally in the Church.

For further study, I refer the reader to:

  • J. Beal, et al., eds., New Commentary on the Code of Canon Law (Paulist Press, 2000).
  • J. Coriden, et al., eds., The Code of Canon Law: A Text and Commentary (Paulist Press, 1985).
  • E. Caparros, et al., eds., Code of Canon Law Annotated, 2nd ed. (Wilson & Lafleur, 2004).
  • Amleto G. Cicognani, Canon Law, 2nd ed., trans. Joseph M. O’Hara and Francis Brennan (Philadelphia: The Dolphin Press, 1935).
  • John Patrick Cook, “Ecclesiastical Communities and their Ability to Induce Legal Custom: A Historical Synopsis and a Commentary,” JCD diss. (The Catholic University of America, 1950).
  • Merlin Joseph Guiloyle, “Custom: An Historical Synopsis and Commentary,” JCD diss. (The Catholic University of America, 1937).
  • Francisco Suarez, Tractus de legibus ac deo legislatore, in Des lois et du dieu législateur, trans. Jean-Paul Coujou (Paris: Dalloz, 2003).

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.

Triple swings of the Thurible?

I’m continually amazed at how frequently I encounter the practice of using three triple swings of the thurible to incense the Blessed Sacrament. This was the case just a few days ago at Benediction in a local parish. Despite years of searching, the best explanation I’ve found is that it’s either a complete invention or a mistaken interpretation of the governing documents (Caeremoniale Episcoporum (1984), nn. 92-93; Institutio generalis Missalis romani (2000), n. 277). I’m still convinced there is no way to justify the practice according to the current liturgical law.

The Mass of Paul VI is governed primarily by the Institutio generalis Missalis romani, usually referred to by its English name General Instruction on the Roman Missal (GIRM). For our purposes, the 1975 and 2000 versions are most relevant. All the editions of the GIRM prior to 2000 did not contain any instructions on how incensations were to be carried out. A temporary solution was given by the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacramentes (CDW) in 1978 (Notitiae 14 (1978), 301–302, n. 2.). The first clear legislation in this regard was the 1984 Ceremonial of Bishops (CE) typical edition (nn. 92 and 93). The 2000 Latin typical edition of the GIRM adopted CE nn. 92 and 93 verbatim with only two minor editions (cf. 2000 GIRM 277) indicated below by underlining. It reads (emphasis mine):

[92] Tribus ductibus thuribuli incensantur: Ss.mum Sacramentum, […] oblata, crux altaris, […] presbyter celebrans, […] et populus […]. Duobus ductibus incensantur reliquiae et imagines Sanctorum publicae venerationi expositae[, et quidem initio tantum celebrationis cum incensatur altare].
[93] Altare incensatur singulis ictibus thuribuli, […]. Oblata thurificantur [incensat sacerdos tribus ductibus thuribuli], ante incensationem altaris et crucis[, vel signum crucis super oblata thuribulo producens].

Even if one does not understand the distinction between the Latin wrods ductus and ictus, it is immediately evident that whatever three ductus (tribus ductibus) means, the Blessed Sacrament (Ss.mum Sacramentum) along with the priest (presbyter celebrans), the cross (crux altaris), and the people (populus) all get the same incensation. Nowhere in the lists for two ductus (duobus ductibus) or single icutus (singulis ictibus) does one find the words for the Blessed Sacrament, the cross, the priest, or the people. There is nothing in the 1984 CE or the 2000 GIRM to justify giving the Blessed Sacrament a different incensation than the priest, cross, or people.

I’ll address how we can definitively conclude what ductus and ictus each mean in a subsequent post.