Question: Our priest uses large quantities of incense at Mass, creating difficulties even in being able to see. Also, people with respiratory issues are struggling. When we speak to him, he is dismissive and goes on about history and liturgy. Any thoughts?
— John McElroy, Grand Haven, Mich.
Answer: As with most things, moderation is proper when it comes to the use of incense. It would seem, as you describe, too much incense is being burned at one time. And while certain factors such as the size of the church, the height of the ceiling and the ventilation may affect how much can be used, the goal in the modern use of incense is not to overwhelm or make it difficult to see.
Your pastor’s reference to history may indicate that he has something of the Old Testament concept in mind. When the high priest went into the Holy of Holies of the ancient Temple, ample amounts of incense were used, lest he catch sight of God and be struck dead.
But given Jesus’ ministry to us of sanctifying grace, this sort of concern is not a preoccupation today. The use of incense to create a kind of impenetrable cloud is something of a misapplication of an Old Testament concept and also an excess to be avoided. However, also to be avoided is the complete rejection of the use of incense in the liturgy, which is increasingly demanded by some in parishes.
The use of incense is permitted, even encouraged, by the Church for feasts of greater solemnity. It is a beautiful image of prayer and worship ascending to God. Incense symbolizes our prayers and praises going up to God, and its fragrant aroma is a sign of his blessings descending gently upon us.
Incense is not to be equated with cigarette smoke, it is not a known carcinogen, it is not a pollutant when used moderately. In fact, incense, like holy water, is often blessed by the priest and therefore brings blessings.
That said, there are some who suffer from various forms of respiratory distress who may suffer with excessive incense, at least physically. One compromise in these sorts of situations, is to follow the older norms of the Traditional Latin Mass. According to those norms, incense was not carried in the aisle, or the opening and closing processions, but was only imposed and used in the sanctuary area around the altar. As such, at least in larger churches, its effect on the whole congregation can be moderated.
Epilepsy in the Bible?
Question: I heard a Protestant minister say that the young boy that Jesus drove demons out of near Mount Tabor wasn’t really possessed, he just had epilepsy. Is this true?
— Mel Johnson, via email
Answer: Well, Jesus, who was on the scene and rather smart, seems to have concluded differently than the preacher you mention. That said, we do not usually bring people with seizures to an exorcist, but seek always to rule out natural causes first. In rare cases, what manifests as seizures may have demonic causes, but not usually.
So, rather than second-guess Jesus, or consign biblical insights to “primitive” thinking, we do better to assess what is before us, humbly realizing that there are often many levels to human struggles. And while some ailments are simply physical in origin, some may include other dimensions as well.
Msgr. Charles Pope is the pastor of Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian in Washington, D.C., and writes for the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., blog at blog.adw.org. Send questions to Pastoral Answers, Our Sunday Visitor, 200 Noll Plaza, Huntington, IN 46750 or to firstname.lastname@example.org. Letters must be signed, but anonymity may be requested.