What Kind of Incense Is Used in the Catholic Church?

Incense smoke cascades from a thurible.
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Burning incense has been part of Catholic liturgy since the early days of the church. Today, the church uses frankincense, myrrh, spices, flower essences, fragrant woods such as cedar and sandalwood, and other resins and natural oils as a perfumed offering, to symbolize the prayers of the faithful, rising like smoke to heaven.

1 History and Method

The story of the Christ child's birth includes the magi bearing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to celebrate the event. Frankincense and myrrh were costly resins reserved for important religious rites and worthy of a king. Frankincense and other traditional resins are still ritually burned. Typically, the grains, powders or gummy chunks of resin are placed on glowing charcoal briquets in a metal censer or thurible, a kind of lantern suspended from chains and swung by a priest, deacon, altar boy or co-celebrant of the service, to release the clouds of smoke.

2 Uses of Incense

The church considers incense to be both purifying and sanctifying. For holy days and significant celebrations, the censer is swung in the processional before the start of the ceremony and in the recessional at its conclusion. At various points in a solemn mass, the altar and sanctuary area are incensed; the practice is used during funerals, over the final blessing of the coffin. In Easter season, five grains of incense, representing the five wounds of Christ, are embedded in the paschal candle.

Benna Crawford has been a journalist and New York-based writer since 1997. Her work has appeared in USA Today, the San Francisco Chronicle, The New York Times, and in professional journals and trade publications. Crawford has a degree in theater, is a certified Prana Yoga instructor, and writes about fitness, performing and decorative arts, culture, sports, business and education .