Rubrical Guide For Altar Servers By Louis J. Tofari
Thurifer at Missa Cantata
The Thurifer (Th) has the privilege of bearing the thurible
Mass and of incensing the inferior ministers and the
The word thurible is derived from thus,
Latin for incense. It is generally thought that the thurible used by
the Jews was very similar to the one employed at Mass now, that is,
chains, though it is unknown if the Jewish thuribles had a cover. The
thurible is also considered to be a liturgical object of great value in
its symbolic use, as the thuribles of the Jews were made of solid
gold. This was perhaps done to imitate the Altar of Incense (on
which incense was burnt three times a day) that stood outside the
Temple, which was made of gold plate over wood.
The history of the use of incense is very ancient, dating
earliest ages. Incense was widely used by both the Jews in the Temple
ceremonies, as commanded by Almighty God Himself, as well as by the
pagan religions. In ancient times, burning incense was also used as an
air freshener in countries under Roman or Asian influence; it too was
used to incense the guests as a mark of respect at banquets. In fact,
incense was so widely used, that God Himself commanded the Jews, that
the incense compound made for use in the Temple ceremonies, was to be
used expressly for the Temple (i.e.,
God), under the penalty of death, so that it could not be used for
That the office of incensing is one of great honor is seen by
fact that the daily incensing performed in the Holies of the Temple was
done by a priest chosen by lot, and it was a task that he could do only
his lifetime. Also, the incensing of the Ark of the Covenant in the
Holy of Holies was only performed once a year by the High Priest during
the Passover rites.
Incense was frequently used by the Jews in the Temple
so it would only be natural for the Church to continue this usage, for
the Temple rites were foreshadowings of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass,
and incense has great symbolic purpose. Just as the burning smoke of
sacrificed animals of the Old Testament rose towards God in a sweet
odor, so too, does incense. We read in the Psalms, "Let my prayer be
like incense in Thy sight." Incense then, represents prayer, which
rises to God in a wonderful
odor and pleases Him. While incense represents prayer, the charcoals
used to burn the incense represent the intensity of our devotion, or
love for God. Without a fervent, or burning devotion for God, our
prayers, despite how many we might say, will not rise up to God, just
like placing incense on unlighted charcoals will not provide any smoke.
However, a fervent prayer will be pleasing to God and consequently do
much good, just as a single, small piece of incense can fill a very
large church with its enriching odor.
The use of incense is connected with the idea of sacrifice,
and so the Altar is incensed twice during a Missa Cantata.
During the Mass incense is used when incensing the Altar to show the
rising of prayer to God. During the reading of the Gospel,
incense is used to represent the sweet odor of Christ, which fills the
world through the announcement of His Holy Word. Incense is used at the
Offertory, to sanctify the Oblations after they have
prepared and the various ministers and people are incensed to signify
charity towards one another and the dwelling of the Holy Trinity in
their souls through grace.
HANDLING THE THURIBLE
While processing with the thurible, Th should:
the thurible gently with the cover slightly open.
not allow the thurible to swing higher than the height of his waist.
take care to walk solemnly and in the center of the aisle.
take precaution when walking around corners.
desist from swinging the thurible when ascending or descending steps.
The ESLI METHOD for stabilizing a thurible before
incensing a personage
After closing the thurible, and before grasping the chains to
incense someone (or something), one should ensure that the thurible is
hanging level. This is especially important if the thurible that is
being used has twisted chains, or is out of alignment in some fashion.
Otherwise, the thurible will swing crookedly when incensing someone.
A quick and easy method for countering this is the ESLI
Method (i.e., ease-ly).
Each letter stands for a motion:
E = Equalize
(Equalize the levelness of the thurible by holding the disk ring by
your right index finger)
S = Secure (Slide
the middle ring down with your left hand till it is as close to the
cover as possible)
L = Left hand
(Take hold of the chains under the disk with your left hand)
I = Index and
other fingers (like a pair of
scissors, separate your right-hand index finger from your other fingers
and with your palm facing your body, grab hold of the chains between
the scissors, with the index finger in front of the chains
and the other fingers behind the chains.
Keep those other fingers together and extended like when making a
liturgical gesture; do not form these fingers into a fist. Slide your
hand down the length of the chains until it is touching the cover
You are now ready to swing the thurible to incense a person
or an object.
How to swing the
thurible when incensing
The method of swinging a thurible correctly in the Roman Rite
is an art and skill that is perfected after some practice.
TOOLS NEEDED BY TH TO PREPARE THE CHARCOALS
In the old days of coal burning stoves, it was an easy enough
to take a few coals from a nearby heating stove or brazier. Now
however, it is necessary to have several items available so that Th may
actually light and heat up the charcoals. Th will need at least:
- A pair of tongs.
- A flat
- A pan for lighting the
electric circular heating coil .
coffee can containing a one inch layer of sand .
PREPARATIONS BEFORE MASS
- Th should be in the Sacristy twenty minutes before
Mass begins .
should immediately vest in his cassock, but not in his surplice.
Th should always take off his surplice every time that he works with
the charcoals, so as to prevent the surplice from being ruined by
sparks or charcoal dust.
- Th then sets up his work
area with the items described above and immediately begins lighting the
- Ten minutes before Mass, Th, without
his surplice, says the Before Mass Prayers
with the other servers.
SUNDAYS WITH THE ASPERGES RITE PRECEDING THE MASS
- Th then goes to the Sacristy and holds the
aspersory and aspergill
(which is resting inside the Aspersory) in his right hand with his left
hand over his breast. He then lines up for the Processional
at the head of the formation of servers.
- After responding, "In nomine, Christe. Amen," Th
rings the bell and then leads the Procession. Th
should take care to process solemnly and in the center of the aisle.
Upon reaching the Foot, Th genuflects and goes to the Gospel side
of the Foot, leaving adequate room for any other servers that need to
come to the Foot to genuflect.
- When C and the MC
reach the Foot, Th genuflects in unison with them, and then passes the
Aspersory to the MC behind C.
- Th then kneels
with C and the MC. After the MC, Th and the servers
on the Epistle side have been sprinkled, Th stands with C and the MC.
Th then genuflects with them, passes to the other side of C in
unison with the MC (Th passes on the outside, while the MC passes
inside, that is closest to C), takes the orphrey
of the Cope and follows C while he sprinkles the clergy and
- Just before the Gloria
Patri is sung, Th turns with C and the MC to face the Altar
and makes a simple bow with them during the first portion.
Upon reaching the end of the Nave, Th genuflects in unison with C
and the MC, and then switches sides with the MC as before. Th resumes
holding the orphrey until they reach the Foot. Sometime after switching
sides, the MC will return the Aspersory to Th, who will hold it in his
outside hand, since he is now holding the Cope.
Upon reaching the Foot, Th genuflects with C and the MC. Th bows at Oremus
as usual, and if necessary, assists with holding the Asperges
Prayer Card or Sanctuary Prayer Book
with the MC in front of C.
- After the oration is
completed, Th takes the Card, genuflects with
C and the MC, meets the MC shoulder to shoulder, leads C to the
Sedilia, and then returns the Aspersory and Card to the Sacristy. 
putting these items back in the Sacristy, Th then prepares
the thurible as previously described for the first incensation of the
FOR HIGH MASSES WITHOUT THE ASPERGES
- Th then goes to the Sacristy, and prepares the
charcoals for the
thurible as previously described.
takes the thurible and boat
and lines up for the Processional at the head of
the formation of servers.
- When C is ready, Th gives the boat to the MC, and
thurible as previously described for the imposition of incense. When
the imposing of incense is finished, Th receives the boat back from the
MC and then takes his place at the head of the formation of servers to
lead the Procession.
responding, "In nomine, Christe. Amen," Th rings the bell and then
leads the Procession, swinging the thurible as
- Upon reaching the Foot, Th
genuflects and then proceeds to the Epistle side of the Sanctuary to
his normal position  where he remains standing
holding the thurible. 
PREPARATORY PRAYERS TO THE FIRST
INCENSATION OF THE ALTAR
- During the Preparatory Prayers,
Th remains standing at his
normal position. Th makes the responses and various bows with the MC
and other servers; however, because he is holding an object, he does
not make any gestures with his hands.
- When the Preparatory
Prayers are finished, Th meets the MC
on his right 
side on the
Epistle side of the Foot and gives him the Boat.
Both then immediately ascend to the Predella, and Th opens the
thurible for C to impose incense. After C has blessed the incense, Th
then closes the thurible and gives it to the MC.
Th then goes to the left of C, without genuflecting, by going
behind him. Th genuflects in unison with C and the MC as required,
holding his right hand under C’s elbow for every genuflection. Th take
care to move as one unit with C and the MC by:
with C towards the reliquaries (if any) when he incenses them.
shoulder to shoulder with C or the MC as required
(e.g., upon reaching the Gospel side of the Predella, Th usually needs
to remain on the front corner while C incenses the Gospel front of the
- If C is
wearing a "gothic" Chasuble, Th should hold the edges
with the MC while C is incensing. However, the edges are released and
then retrieved before and after each genuflection.
C begins incensing the Epistle side of the Altar the second time (after
the last genuflection), Th descends per breviorem
to the Foot, then proceeds in plano to the
Epistle side of the Foot, and stands to the left
of the MC.
- Th then makes a profound bow
in unison with the MC before and after he incenses C.
then receives the thurible back from the MC and then returns to his
INTROIT TO THE GRADUAL
- During this interval, Th remains standing in his normal
and keeps the cover of the thurible slightly open, but not does not
- When the MC signals C to rise from the
Sedilia, Th goes to the Epistle side of the Foot and meets the MC there
- Th and the MC ascend to the Predella,
and incense is imposed as usual. Th, however, takes the Boat from the
MC, and descending via
the Epistle Altar steps, goes to the Credence, puts the Boat there, and
then leads the waiting Acolytes to the Foot. However, Th does not swing
the thurible during any of the Gospel actions.
- Upon arrival at the Foot, Th takes
position on the front, left side of the box
- When the MC descends with the Missal to
the center of the Foot, Th signals a genuflection ,
and then leads the Acolytes to the Gospel side of the Foot. Th should
again be on the front, left side, immediately against the Foot.
- When the MC has descended in
plano, Th gives the thurible to him . Th does not bow while C and
the MC perform the incensing of the Book of the Gospels.
- When the MC returns in plano on the
right side of Th, Th receives the thurible back from the MC 
and holds it in his right hand with the cover slightly opened; however,
he should not swing the thurible at all during the reading of the Gospel. 
- When C has reached the ending of the Gospel, Th gives
the thurible to the MC, makes a profound bow with the MC before and
after the incensing of C and then receives the thurible back, but now
holding it in his left hand, since his office for the Gospel
has come to an end.
- Th leads the Acolytes back to the
Foot as before, but this time the MC signals the genuflection.
- After the genuflection, Th leads the
Acolytes back to the Credence,
and returns to the Sacristy to prepare a new batch of charcoals
for the Offertory. 
IF THERE IS A SERMON
- If there is a Sermon
immediately after the reading of the Gospel, Th
should not begin lighting new charcoals until the Sermon
is a third of the way finished . Meanwhile, Th should be
sitting in his normal position for the first part of the Sermon. 
DURING THE CREDO
- Th should have his new batch of
charcoals prepared and be in the doorway with his thurible ready before
the Credo begins.
- During the Credo,
Th bows and also genuflects in unison with C and the other servers.
- After the Credo,
Th remains standing in his normal position.
INCENSATION OF THE ALTAR AND PERSONS
- After the Acolytes have descended from
the Altar with their cruets,
Th gives the Boat to the MC and goes to the Epistle side of the Foot
with him as usual.
- When C begins the Veni,
Sanctificator prayer (when C makes
an arc and then joins his hands), Th and the MC then ascend to the
Predella, and incense is imposed as usual.
- C will incense the Oblations first,
without previously having made a genuflection. He will then incense the
Altar as usual.
- Th will join the MC for the incensation
of C as usual, and after
the MC has returned the thurible to Th, Th will turn inwards with the
MC and then proceed shoulder to shoulder with him to the Foot. Th will
genuflect in unison with the MC, go to the center of the Foot, bow to
the MC, incense him with one double and then bow again. When Th
incenses the other clergy or servers, whether in the Sanctuary or in
the Chancel, he should do so in line with the
center of the Altar .
- Th will then incense the other
personages in this order:
- Clerics in major orders in the Chancel
- Servers on the Epistle side of the
- Servers in the Chancel (i.e.,
- Schola (however, only if they are in
cassock and surplice)
- Clerics in minor orders in the Chancel
IF THERE ARE TORCHBEARERS
- After incensing the various personages,
Th will take position in
the center of the Chancel, ensure that the Tbs are lined up correctly,
and then signal a genuflection for himself and the Tbs.
- Th will then lead the Tbs to the
Sacristy (where the torches are located).
- When the Tbs are positioned and ready,
and C has begun the Sanctus, Th will then lead
the Tbs back into the Sanctuary, taking his position in the center of
the recta linea formation of Tbs.
- When all of the Tbs have arrived, Th
signals all to genuflect and then to kneel.
- Th then returns to his normal position.
- When the bell is rung for the Hanc
igitur, Th has Ac2 (or
the Boatbearer if there is one) impose one spoonful of incense, closes
the thurible, puts the boat on the Credence, and then takes position at
the Foot of the Epistle side of the Altar steps (or the Epistle
"angle," if there is one).
- When the MC signals for all to kneel
(which should be at the Qui Pridie), Th kneels in
his position in unison with the other servers
- During the Consecration
action, Th bows for each time C
genuflects, and incenses the Sacred Species each time They are elevated
with three doubles. During the entire action, Th should keep the
thurible at readiness by having the chains in his right and left hand
as he did for the entire Offertory Incensations.
- After the Consecration
action has ended, and the MC has signaled for the servers to stand, Th returns to his normal position.
- After Th has turned and bowed for Oremus, and C has begun the Pater Noster, Th makes a single knee genuflection, and then returns the thurible to
- Th then returns to his normal position,
again making a single knee genuflection upon returning.
DISTRIBUTION OF HOLY COMMUNION
- After C has consumed the Sacred Host, Th
then goes to the Credence
and retrieves the Communion Plate, holding it in front of him, and
facing plate-side up (not against his chest).
- When the Acolytes go to change the
Communion Rail cloth over, Th
then goes with the Crossbearer to the Foot, taking his position on the
far right side of the Foot.
- When all are in position, the MC
signals for all to genuflect and then kneel.
- When C consumes the Precious Blood, Th
makes a simple bow in unison with the other servers, and then recites
the Second Confiteor with
the other servers. During this time, Th does not strike his breast for
each mea culpa, nor does he sign himself with the
Cross, since he is holding the Plate.
- After the Indulgentiam,
Th stands, genuflects, ascends to the Predella and kneels in unison
with the other servers.
- During the Domine non sum
dignus, again, Th does not strike his breast, because he is
holding the Plate.
- After all the servers on the Predella
have received Communion, and
the MC and C have descended to the Foot, Th signals all to stand, then
he turns towards the Altar (left), and signals all to genuflect at the
- Then Th leads all to the Epistle side of
the Sanctuary in single
file, taking his place in his normal position, and the signals all to
kneel. Th remains in this position throughout the Distribution
of Holy Communion.
DURING THE ABLUTIONS
- When C has closed the Tabernacle, and
the MC signals all to stand,
Th goes to the Foot, genuflects and then proceeds to the center of the
Chancel. Th ensures that the Tbs are lined up correctly, signals all to
genuflect, and then leads them into the Sacristy as before.
- When the Tbs have deposited their
torches, Th leads them back into
the Sanctuary, ensures they are all in proper formation, signals a
genuflection, and then returns to his normal position.
- After Th has signed himself at the
beginning of the Last Gospel, Th goes to the
center of the Chancel and takes his position there without
- Th genuflects when C does during the Last
- Upon the MC’s signal, Th genuflects in
unison with the other servers, and then leads the Recessional
formation back into the Sacristy.
- Th then takes up the position that he
held in the Sacristy just
before the beginning of Mass. Th bows to the Processional Cross upon
the MC’s signal, then to C, and then kneels for C’s blessing.
AFTER MASS DUTIES
Th then says the After Mass
Prayers with the other servers
and properly puts away all of the items that he used connected
with his position. If necessary, Th should even sweep around the area
in which he was working with the charcoals.
Th is then dismissed with the other
A heavy duty baker’s pan is sufficient for this. A charcoal lighting
stand may be built out of channel and plate steel to facilitate this
item. This also prevents one from burning a table or counter top via
the heated baker’s pan, though a thick towel should be placed
underneath the pan to help prevent this. For a diagram of a lighting
stand, please write the Guild Headquarters.
This is the kind used for heating a pot when travelling. These can be
found in many appliance stores and are often priced under fifteen dollars.
 The sand prevents the bottom of
the can from rusting due to the oxidization of the used charcoals.
Th has more items connected with his office than any other server, and
therefore his duties often take longer especially before and after
 These items should not be placed
on the Credence unless they will be needed later on during the
Most rubricians place Th’s normal position as being in front of
(between Ac1 and Ac2) or rather near the Credence. However, this is
often impractical in most sanctuaries because of space limitations. In
this set of instructions, Th’s normal position will be placed in the
Sacristy doorway on the Epistle side. This allows Th easy access to the
Sacristy to perform his various charcoal duties, while staying out of
the Acolytes' way when they perform their duties at the Credence. If
your church does not have a side Sacristy door, either on the Epistle
or Gospel side of the Sanctuary, then Th departs via
the Communion Rail Gate, which remains open during Mass, except during
the Distribution of Holy Communion.
 A thurible stand should not be
used in the Sanctuary during Mass. The thurifer’s title is exactly what
it states: to bear the incense (ifer
in Latin means: to bear, like Lucifer: Lightbearer), he should therefore hold the thurible at all times when it
is not being used, except after the Pater Noster,
when Th’s office comes to a conclusion.
 Normally Th would be to the left
of the MC, but out of practical consideration (so as to avoid
cross to the other side of the MC when on the Predella), Th is placed
on the right side of the MC. This occurs every
time both ascend to the Predella to have incense imposed.
 All in this formation should be
shoulder to shoulder. The formation would look like this:
If due to space limitations a line
formation is used instead, Th
takes position on the left side of the center. The formation would
appear as such: Ac2 Th MC Ac1
With a single clap, not by snapping his fingers. Th can do this by
slapping his left hand (which is free) softly on top of his right hand
(which is holding the disk).
Th should never give the thurible to the MC while he is still on the
Predella, as this looks extremely tacky, and causes both Th and the MC
to stretch their arms to accomplish this ungainly motion.
 The rubricians are in agreement
with this: It is the thurifer’s office to hold the thurible during the
reading of the Gospel, and not the MC’s.
 This is unanimously agreed upon
by all of the rubricians. This is a practical consideration for the
reader of the Gospel, whether he is the Celebrant or the Deacon; an overabundance of incense makes
it very difficult for the reader to chant without choking or coughing.
 If Th knows that there will not
be a Sermon immediately after the Gospel, he should start his second batch of charcoals for the Offertory
during the reading of the Epistle.
 Most sermons last about twenty to thirty
 Th should bring a stool out of
the Sacristy during the Sermon
and return it when he leaves the Sanctuary. In this way, his motions in
and out of the Sacristy will not be impeded during Mass.
This is very practical, as it saves Th time that would otherwise be
lost by his walking to each side of the Sanctuary, and it is also
cleaner looking, as it prevents excessive motion from taking place.
2007. Louis J. Tofari. All rights reserved.