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Question Corner: Why so much incense at Mass; Isn’t devotion better than obedience? — Jenna Marie Cooper

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Jenna Marie Cooper writes Question Corner for OSV News (OSV photo)

Q: Our daughter has totally given up going to church because of the relentless use of incense at each Mass. It doesn’t bother me but I do notice a lot of people in the congregation that obviously have problems with it. Since it causes breathing difficulties for many people is it really appropriate to use at Mass when it excludes attendance by many?

A: In principle, incense is indeed appropriate for Mass. The smoke that rises from the burning of incense has for millennia been understood by the Christian community as a symbol of the prayers of the faithful rising up to God. Even beyond this, Catholicism in general and Catholic worship in particular has a strong “incarnational” dimension. Among other things, this means that the church understands that we are both body and soul, and that the engagement of our five senses — including our sense of smell — can help us enter more deeply into prayer.

I can understand how the overuse of incense might be a health issue for some people, and it’s unfortunate that your daughter is struggling with this. If you sincerely believe that the parish’s use of incense is excessive, perhaps it would be worth having a respectful conversation with the pastor.

Also, most parishes do have at least one Sunday Mass that is celebrated in a less elaborate fashion, so perhaps your daughter could inquire as to whether there may be at least one incense-free Mass per week. If worse really comes to worst, it would also be legitimate for your daughter to opt to attend Mass at another nearby parish which might not use as much incense.

Q: I was very disappointed in your Q&A about why someone can’t just attend Mass on Sunday and “count” it for both Christmas and the Fourth Sunday of Advent. There seems to be a genuine question of why we go to Mass in the first place. There is a real person, Jesus, who waits for us and wishes to hear all about our day, our dreams, our frustrations. How many Catholics are happy to give just the bare minimum? Unfortunately, there is a trend in the Catholic church to become theologians at the expense of a relationship with our Lord.

A: First of all, I do agree with you in principle — as Catholics, we should genuinely want a vibrant prayer life, and ideally we should all look forward to going to Mass, understanding it as a privilege and a joy, and not a chore to check off our list.

But like so many things in Catholicism, this isn’t a matter of “either/or” but of “both/and.” That is, we can both attend Mass out of a sincere love for God while at the same time also taking care to understand the extent of our actual obligation.

Logically, it would be silly for the church to articulate laws and obligations if paying attention to such laws was meant to be discouraged. One of the main reasons why the church spells out obligations in the first place is to help us to better love and serve our Lord. So even if we as Catholics just do “the bare minimum” required of us by our state in life, this should be enough to help us grow in holiness if we fulfill these obligations with the correct disposition.

A healthy spiritual life is marked by a sense of balance and serenity. For those who struggle with any level of scrupulosity, stated obligations can be helpful insofar as they allow for objective knowledge of when one has actually fulfilled God’s expectations. If the only guidance available on how often to attend Mass was something along the lines of: “Let your love for Jesus determine how often you go,” this could set many Catholics up for a vain chasing of an impossible standard.

Jenna Marie Cooper, who holds a licentiate in canon law, is a consecrated virgin and a canonist whose column appears weekly at OSV News. Send your questions to CatholicQA@osv.com.