Ancient liturgical tradition

Question: As a new Catholic, I do not understand the use of incense at Mass. Our parish uses it on major holy days and at funerals. Can you explain this ritual to me? A Protestant friend says that incense should not be used by Christians as it is a pagan sign. 

— Name and city withheld, Florida

Answer: Incense, a mixture of the resins from various trees, has a long history in human religions, and the meaning has varied from time to time. There is evidence that it was used in pre-Christian religions and in the worship services of the Old Testament. While the earliest Christians rejected the use of incense due to its pagan associations, from the third century on incense began to be used in Christian worship. It was associated with the words of Psalm 141:2, “Let my prayer be incense before you,” and with self-offering to God. It was also considered a sign of reverence for God and of obedient prayer. In addition to the altar, the eucharistic gifts, the Gospel Book, the cross, various images, the ministers and the people are incensed at Mass. At funerals, the casket of the deceased is incensed, signifying the rising of the soul to God. 

The fact that incense was a pagan sign does not disqualify its use in Christian worship. Pre-biblical signs and symbols found their way into the worship of the Old Testament, and, in turn, many Old Testament ritual forms emerged into Christian worship. 

Blessing of a newborn 

Question: My Catholic daughter and her non-Catholic husband do not want to have their newborn baby baptized until he is old enough to make up his own mind regarding what religion he wants to choose. They are open to my pastor blessing the baby, however. What do you think of this option? Should I be worried about the child’s salvation in the meantime? 

— Name and address withheld

Answer: The Church encourages the baptism of infants shortly after birth. As in your situation, however, there is a growing trend to leave newborn children unbaptized for a number of years. The Church’s official Book of Blessings does provide a rite called “Order for Blessing of a Child Not Yet Baptized.” While the rite should not be viewed as akin to the Sacrament of Baptism, it may be used for various reasons. The situation you describe is one of them. 

You would be wise to talk to your pastor well in advance of the event (assuming you are the person making the arrangements) so that he is aware of the sensitivities of the parents, and so that he can use the occasion for catechesis conducive to the eventual baptism of the child. Good pastoral practice on the part of the pastor is likely to encourage the parents to have the child baptized eventually.  

You should have no worry about the baby’s salvation in the meantime. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states on this: “As regards children who have died without baptism, the Church can only entrust them to the mercy of God, as she does in her funeral rites for them. Indeed, the great mercy of God who desires that all men should be saved, and Jesus’ tenderness toward children which caused him to say: ‘Let the children come to me, do not hinder them,’ allow us to hope that there is a way of salvation for children who have died without baptism” (No. 1261). Until the child is baptized, your most effective role is in being a good Christian role model. 

Msgr. M. Francis Mannion is a priest and theologian of the Diocese of Salt Lake City. Send your questions to Pastoral Answers, Our Sunday Visitor, 200 Noll Plaza, Huntington, IN 46750 or to mfmannion@osv.com. Letters must be signed, but anonymity may be requested.