Do It Rite: When Will the Catholic Church Stop Smoking?

In Pray Tell’s first installment of Do It Rite, Johan Van Parys talks about the use of incense in the Catholic Church.

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  1. Nicely done!

    It might have been helpful to add a small explanation of why incensing something gives honour to it — something that many people don’t understand. Perhaps a reference to smudging ceremonies? Or better, acknowledging that in this respect the practice derives from imperial Roman ceremonial. Incense was originally used as a deodorant, to disguise the smell of the unwashed populace so that emperor’s sensitive nose was not affected! Thereafter it became a sign of honour to personages of standing, and from there to being a sign of honour generally.

    1. Well, the urbanized Roman populace of antiquity had access to public baths and good water supply, relatively speaking (Public ways, however, were of course less clean.) They were not as filthy as late medieval and especially early Modern Europeans who had finally stopped the (surprisingly long-lived where possible) residue of Roman bathing culture (the Black Death helped inter that culture).

      And it’s not like Jewish temple liturgy was bereft of incense. Incense had wide usage in the ancient world (not just West but East), not just Roman ceremonial.

  2. The use of incense at Mass is now optional, but I would be sorry to see it disappear from our liturgy altogether.

  3. Incense, no doubts, adds an olefactory element of solemnity to the celebration of the Sacred Mysteries. In large churches which have considerable height, this odor of sanctity is dissipated rather quickly before it can bring harm to people with allergies and respiratory ailments like COPD and asthma. But in smaller church buildings the smoke can initiate fits of coughing with some heading to the exits till the smoke clears. Pastors who seem to believe that the more smoke the better need to be more sensitive. I use incense for funerals and for the great feasts but I don’t pour great amounts of incense over the coals. God is wonderfully praised and worshipped with or without incense.

    1. ” But in smaller church buildings the smoke can initiate fits of coughing with some heading to the exits till the smoke clears. Pastors who seem to believe that the more smoke the better need to be more sensitive. ”

      As one who suffers from intense allergies around incense, I thank you profusely. I avoid much of the Triduum because of this.

      1. Incense never bothered me until I was treated for prostate cancer. We had, for awhile, a priest who believed the more smoke the better and was almost sadistic about getting the children coughing. While sitting out his Masses with others outside (I missed Communion at both Christmas and Easter his year with us), I LI learned that cancer patients often get quite sick from that kind of use. Of course, if the Rite is All, that is what you get.

  4. When I was a child and we drove to Church with both parents smoking and the windows up, incense was no problem. In today’s world of no smoking inside and filtered air, incense is a huge surprise to the lungs and throat. The sensitivity of whether the Church “does it rite” or acknowledges that incense starts a number of people coughing is what should be in the minds of the pastor that chooses to follow the scriptural mandate of incense.

    Using incense at a Mass with children should be evaluated carefully. We live in a culture where we aren’t trained to handle smoke.

  5. Rules for getting incense right:

    1. Lots of charcoal, red hot
    2. Little incense. It’s the perfume that counts
    3. At least in the UK, buy decent incense. What you get commercially is usually not too good. Too little perfume, too much acrid smoke
    4. Keep thuribles spotlessly clean

    .. and when someone complains about their child’s asthma, point out that there are probably more asthma causing entities in the (usually elderly and unclean) church carpet than in the incense !


    1. Incense was burned before the Holy of Holies in the temple in Jerusalem. It marked the presence of God. It’s the same for us – the presence of God via the altar and the bread and wine, in the Gospel, in priest and people, in sacred icons, and, most of all, in the Blessed Sacrament. It also has healing capacities; and the use of incense at the final rites at a Requiem Mass celebrated the holiness of the body. It is part of the treasury of church tradition; it celebrates all that really matters about our liturgy – and if we don’t get the liturgy right we won’t get anything else right.

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