Enter almost any Roman Catholic church in the United States and you will catch the faint, familiar scent of incense. Like the monstrance on the altar and the tabernacle on the wall, the incense has roots in antiquity. According to New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia, not only is incense used to purify the objects that the priest envelops in its smoke, but the smoke from burning incense symbolizes the prayers of the Catholic faithful rising up to Heaven.
Roman Catholic Incense
The most prevalent ingredient in the incense used in Roman Catholic incense is frankincense; however, the primary ingredient used in incense may vary from parish to parish. In addition tousing frankincense, some Roman Catholic parishes may use myrrh as the main or sole ingredient in their incense. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, a parish may use a number of unnamed ingredients, ranging in number from four to thirteen, to enhance the aroma of the incense. If the pastor chooses to do so, he may use other forms of incense, even those formulations outside of Catholic tradition.
According to CatholicCulture.org, frankincense is a “white resin obtained from balsam trees and used in perfumes and medicines.” This resin comes from two different trees of the Boswellia family: the Boswellia sacra (Arabia Felix) and the Boswellia papyrifera (India). According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, the resin has been supplemented to “enhance the fragrance and produce a thicker smoke” since ancient times.
Like frankincense, myrrh is a resin obtained from trees that grow primarily in the Middle East. The use of both resins originated on the Arabian Peninsula. The resin primarily comes from the Commiphora myrrha tree, although other members of the Commiphora family also provide it. According to CatholicCulture.org, myrrh is a “gum resin used as an ingredient in incense and oil of the sick.”
The Use of Incense During Mass
An officiant may use incense at several points during a Roman Catholic Mass. According to the St. Paul Catholic Church website, officiants may use incense “during the entrance procession; at the beginning of Mass, to incense the altar; at the procession and proclamation of the Gospel; at the offertory” [. . .] and at the elevation of the Sacred Host and chalice of Precious Blood after the consecration. In addition to the purification and symbolic purposes, the use of incense at the Elevation of the Eucharist “gives a sense of our special reverence for the Eucharist, and the importance of the Eucharist to our prayer life”
- New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia; Incense; Patrick Morrisroe; 1910
- St. Paul Catholic Church; Why Do We Use Incense?; 2011
- The Recovering Dissident Catholic; Why Be Catholic? Smells and Bells: The Catholic Liturgical Tradition; 2011
- CatholicCulture.org; Frankincense; 2011
- ITM Online; Myrrh; 2003
- CatholicCulture.org; Myrrh; 2011
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