Q. How often is a priest supposed to use incense at Mass — every Sunday or just at special times? Our priest uses a pungent form of incense at each Sunday Mass. A lot of people are allergic to the incense he uses; we have approached him about it, but he seems to ignore the fact that people start coughing and sneezing — and some even walk out of church. Then he tells us that it is sin to leave early. (A “distressed and allergic parishioner” from Indiana.)
A. The use of incense has long held a place of honor in the history of religious worship. In the Book of Exodus (30:1-8), the Lord instructed Moses to build an altar for the burning of incense at the entrance to the meeting tent where the ark of the covenant was kept, and Jews continued to use incense regularly in their temple worship.
Incense serves a two-fold purpose: The visual imagery of the rising smoke is symbolic of the prayers of the congregation being lifted toward the Lord, and the act of incensing pays honor to the object to which it is directed — to the just-consecrated bread and wine at their elevation, for example, or the remains of the deceased at a funeral Mass.
It also helps to create the ambience of heaven, for as we are told in the Book of Revelation (8:3), “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.”
Wide discretion is granted to the priest as to how frequently to use incense. Theoretically, it may be used at any Mass, although most parishes limit its use to Masses of particular solemnity, funerals, and eucharistic adoration and processions.
At Mass, according to the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, in No. 276, incense may be used during the entrance procession, at the beginning of Mass, to incense the cross and the altar, at the procession and proclamation of the Gospel, at the offertory, to incense the offerings, the altar, priest and congregation, and at the elevation of the host and the chalice after the consecration.
The use of incense calls for a reasonable balance of the liturgical ideal with practicality. If it is bothersome to a significant number within the congregation, perhaps an accommodation could be worked out. Different types of incense vary in the strengths of their aroma, and more moderate brands are available.
Perhaps certain seats could be reserved for those who find incense troublesome, away from the areas of the church where it is most frequently used.
You indicate that you have raised your concerns with your pastor directly to little avail. Might it be more effective if you were to try again through an intermediary, perhaps a sympathetic member of your parish’s pastoral council?
Q. I live in a senior housing complex, and it is difficult for some of us to go to Mass every Sunday. No one drives anymore. The church is too far away to walk. There is no city bus and taxis are very expensive. I am 85 years old and my friend is 91. My question is whether we are still obligated to attend. I do get to Mass on all the major feast days and I watch the Mass on television at 6:30 every Sunday morning; a lay minister does a Communion service at our residence each Monday, with some prayers and the Sunday scriptural readings, and about 10 of us attend. We also had ashes on Ash Wednesday. (Wausau, Wis.)
A. Your question indicates a great desire to participate in the Mass, and I am edified by the effort you are making to do so.
The Sunday obligation is explained in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 2181, as follows: “The faithful are obliged to participate in the Eucharist on days of obligation, unless excused for a serious reason (for example, illness, the care of infants) or dispensed by their own pastor.”
It seems to me, from a distance, that your age and the difficulty of transportation would qualify as “serious reasons.” But I think that you will feel better if you speak to your pastor and have him tell you that himself. (It might also be that he knows of volunteer drivers in your parish who could bring you to Mass on days when you would like to go and feel that your health allows.)
Questions may be sent to Father Kenneth Doyle at firstname.lastname@example.org and 40 Hopewell St., Albany, N.Y. 12208.