Smells to High Heaven

My mother makes an amazing arroz con pollo (chicken and rice)—a staple in Cuban households. My brother and I looked forward to the savory dish every week partly because beer was among the ingredients. For two prepubescent boys, the notion of drinking alcohol—even a trivial amount—seemed to validate our Man Card.

Recently, my mom fixed her signature dish at my house. The evocative aroma brought with it a flood of fond childhood memories.

It’s amazing how powerful the olfactory sense is in triggering memories! Scientists have put forth the Proustian Phenomenon to help explain this occurrence. It reports that memories triggered by smells can be more intense and vivid than those sparked by the other senses. This is due to the closeness of the olfactory bulb—which helps process smells—and the amygdala and hippocampus—regions in the brain which control emotion and memory. Other senses, such as taste or touch, travel through other parts of the brain before reaching the amygdala.

Wake up and smell the incense

The sense of smell was instrumental in my reversion. After attending a non-denominational service for several months while in college, it was the smell of the incense that helped draw me back home. My reversion story can be read here.

So what of this curious custom? Is using incense a Catholic novelty or does it predate Christianity?

Holy Smoke!

From the first time early man threw dried leaves or twigs into an open fire, the fragrant aroma produced by incense has been used to heighten the senses.

As homo sapiens became homo religiosus, incense took on symbolic meaning-its ascending smoke a physical representation of spiritual prayer rising up towards the heavens. Evidence of this interpretation can be found in both the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures:

“Let my prayer rise like incense before you. The lifting of my hands like the evening offering.”—Psalm 141:1,2

“Another angel came and stood at the altar, holding a gold censer. He was given a great quantity of incense to offer, along with the prayers of all the holy ones, on the gold altar that was before the throne. The smoke of the incense along with the prayers of the holy ones went up before God from the hand of the angel.”—Revelation 8:3-4

Being that the Mass is the highest form of prayer in the Church, it seems appropriate, then, that the liturgy be filled with billows of climbing smoke.

Deacon Alex Lam incenses the Book of the Gospels. Image courtesy of ANA RODRIGUEZ-SOTO | The Florida Catholic
Deacon Alex Lam incenses the Book of the Gospels. Image courtesy of ANA RODRIGUEZ-SOTO | The Florida Catholic


In addition to its symbolic meaning, censing served a practical purpose. Today, thanks to watches, cars and climate control, the faithful can arrive just a few minutes before Mass begins and sit in air-conditioned comfort for the duration of the celebration.

This was not the case in the early Church. Since personal timepieces did not exist, the faithful would arrive early— many after walking great distances—and spend hours in a hot basilica, tightly packed, before Mass began. And, despite the existence of public baths, daily bathing was uncommon. In order to clear the air, incense was
burned to mask the odors a throng of travelers would generate.

Archbishop Thomas Wenski incenses the altar. Image courtesy of the Florida Catholic
Archbishop Thomas Wenski incenses the altar. Image courtesy of the Florida Catholic

When can it be used?

The General Instruction of the Roman Missal allows for the use of incense at specific times during the Mass:

  • The entrance procession
  • To incense the altar at the beginning of Mass
  • At the Gospel procession and proclamation
  • At the preparation of the gifts: the gifts are censed as are the altar, celebrant and assembly.
  • At the elevation of the Host and Chalice during the Eucharistic prayer.

A noxious smell?

Some people cannot tolerate incense for medical reasons. More than just watery eyes or an occasional cough, it can trigger anaphylaxis—a severe, potentially life-threatening allergic reaction which requires a trip to the emergency room for an injection of epinephrine. For this reason, incense use is rare in some parishes.

I’ve read one account of a parishioner with COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease) that has not been able to attend the Paschal Triduum for several years and has to duck out of Mass during Christmas each time incense is used.

Less severe reactions allow for incense use around the altar—at a distance from the congregation—but proves disabling when used in the entrance procession—in the midst of the assembly.

Some choir members and lectors have also expressed concern with incense claiming that it makes singing and proclaiming the Word more difficult.

So, what should be done about this? In addition to “Spanish Mass”, “English Mass” and “Latin Mass” should there be a “Hypoallergenic Mass” listed in the parish bulletin?

Should the amount of incense used be limited? Some seminarians are instructed that “if you can still see the altar after you have used incense, you haven’t used enough.” Should this tongue-in-cheek teaching be eliminated?

Should seminarians be instructed on COPD, anaphylaxis and other pulmonary maladies to foster understanding?

Will the selective use of incense convey a sense of “progressive solemnity” where Christmas and Easter appear to be the more important than other days on the calendar? How will that impact Mass attendance?

There is one church in particular where incense does not discourage Mass attendance, it is the main attraction! The Santiago de Compostela Botafumeiro is one of the largest censers in the world weighing 176 lbs and measuring over 5 feet in height. Shovels are used to fill Botafumeiro with over 80 pounds of charcoal and incense. Swinging the immense censer requires several pulleys attached to the ceiling and eight men. See this impressive site for yourself!


What about you? At which Masses throughout the liturgical cycle does your parish use incense? How about outside of Mass? Are you allergic to incense? Does your parish make any restrictions or accommodation on its use? Does incense add to the beauty, solemnity and reverence of the Mass? Have you seen Botafumerio in action? Share and let’s learn together!


As a graphic designer and dad, I’ve created a few art activities that will help teach the Mass to children. At the bottom of my weekly newsletter, I will post a link to an art activity/lesson for the next 10 weeks of summer.

The third MassCraft is a Peter the First Pope Puppet where children color, cut and assemble the puppet.

There is an accompanying lesson: During the Universal Prayer (Prayer of the Faithful), we pray for the Pope at every Mass! The Pope is our shepherd—the Vicar of Christ—whose authority to lead can be traced back to the first Pope, St. Peter. This play will recount three events from the Gospels involving St. Peter and our Lord.


Join the discussion and tell us your opinion.

Kevin Hickson
July 16, 2014 at 1:57 pm

Just to be a bit like Dr. Johnson, the Mass does not smell but I enjoy smelling the aromas. Great article. Good point raised about incense and COPD. Have experienced this in presenting Marriage Encounter weekends. It is surprising how many people have conditions which not only incense but perfumes and hairspray can set off the problems. In regard to incense if the church has a return air system which most modern churches do, it should be on. It will take care of the smoke from the incense.

Frank Cruz
July 15, 2014 at 11:29 pm

Excellent post! Personally, with incense during Mass, I get high with a little help from my friends. The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Spiritually, that is. God bless.

Joreen Kelly
July 15, 2014 at 11:18 pm

As a music director and organist with pretty bad fragrance allergies I appreciate our pastor for only using incense when liturgically necessary and just using a small amount, especially during the Easter Season and Christmas when I have to be at so many Masses to play in a row. I have a hard time breathing, get a migrane and dizziness. I appreciate how some folks are really into the incense, but it is difficult to pray when you’re choking and wheezing. It’s a work hazard for me.

If only I could do something about the people who marinate themselves in perfume and cologne. I’ve already had to give up expensive concert seats to stand in the back of the concert hall because of being unable to breathe due to someone nearby reeking of perfume.

Dan Diveley
July 15, 2014 at 7:45 pm

Thanks for posting this. I’m looking forward to spending more time on your site. I’m an 8th grade Catechist and I’m always looking for information I can pass on to my students. And also thanks for reminding me of arroz con pollo. I enjoyed the same meal made by my Puerto Rican/Mexican mom.

Victoria H
July 15, 2014 at 3:19 pm

Dan,, it really was a fascinating read 🙂 thank you. I don’t understand why we treat each other the way we do. The Bible tells us to love one another, and whilst my denomination may not be the same as yours, it doesn’t mean I disagree with what you say. It was a rivoting read.

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