Why Catholics Use Incense in Liturgical Celebrations

The use of incense in Catholic liturgy is a practice that can baffle many, especially those who are new to the faith or visiting a Catholic Church for the first time. You might wonder, “Why is incense used? What’s the purpose?” The burning of incense has deep spiritual, biblical, and historical significance. Let’s delve into why the Catholic Church uses incense in its liturgical celebrations.

The Biblical Roots of Using Incense

Firstly, it’s important to note that the practice of using incense is not exclusive to Catholicism but has its roots in the Jewish faith, from which Catholicism originates. Incense is mentioned frequently in the Old Testament. For example, in the book of Exodus, the Lord instructs Moses to “make an altar to burn incense upon” (Exodus 30:1). This altar was to be placed in the Tent of Meeting where God would speak to Moses. The Lord also gives specific guidelines on how the incense should be made and burnt (Exodus 30:34-38).

The purpose of burning incense in the Old Testament was primarily to serve as an offering to God and to fill the sanctuary with a pleasing aroma. It also had a symbolic meaning of purification and sanctification. The Psalmist captures the symbolism when he prays, “Let my prayer be counted as incense before you, and the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice” (Psalm 141:2).

Continuity with Jewish Tradition

In the Catholic liturgy, the use of incense serves multiple purposes, all rooted in its Old Testament antecedents. The Church continues the Jewish tradition and adapts it to Christian worship.

Liturgical and Theological Significance

Offering to God

First and foremost, the incense is an offering to God. It represents our prayers rising to heaven. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says that prayer rises like incense in the sight of the Almighty. While the Catechism doesn’t quote the use of incense word-for-word regarding this point, it is implied in its teachings on Christian prayer (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2559).

Sanctification and Purification

The act of burning incense also symbolizes purification and sanctification. In Catholic tradition, the use of incense serves to purify the space, the offerings, and the congregation. When the priest incenses the altar, it is a sign of the sanctifying power of the sacrifices that occur there.

A Call to Attention and Reverence

Incense serves a third purpose, one more practical: it calls the congregation to attention. The aroma and the visible smoke serve as a sensory cue that something significant is happening. This elevates the congregation’s minds to higher spiritual realms, preparing them for an encounter with the Divine.

Liturgical Guidelines and Practices

In the Catholic Church, the use of incense is regulated by liturgical guidelines. Incense can be used at specific points during the Mass, including the entrance procession, the beginning of Mass to incense the altar, the Gospel procession, the offertory, and the elevation of the sacrament in the Eucharistic Prayer.

The Church provides specific prayers that the priest may say when incensing. These prayers often invoke the imagery found in Scripture, calling to mind the Old Testament roots and the heavenly significance of the act.

Incense in Eastern Rites and Western Liturgy

It’s worth mentioning that the Eastern Catholic Churches, in communion with Rome, also make abundant use of incense. They have their own rich traditions and rituals involving incense, often using it more frequently than in the Latin Rite.

A Universal Teaching, Not Just an Opinion

The use of incense is not merely a theological opinion but is deeply embedded in the universal liturgical law and practice of the Church. The General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM), the Church’s official document that provides guidelines on the celebration of the Mass, explicitly mentions when incense may be used (GIRM, 276).


The use of incense in Catholic liturgy is a rich and multi-faceted practice, steeped in biblical history and theological meaning. It serves as an offering to God, a means of sanctification and purification, and a call to attention and reverence. Far from being an arbitrary or antiquated custom, the use of incense is a vibrant part of the Church’s living tradition, guiding the faithful closer to the Divine.

By understanding its roots and significance, one can more fully participate in the Mass and appreciate the depth of the Church’s wisdom in its liturgical practices. As you smell the incense and see its smoke rise during Mass, may you be reminded of the beauty of our faith and the ascending of our prayers to the Heavenly Father.

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Note: While content aims to align with Catholic teachings, any inconsistencies or errors are unintended. For precise understanding, always refer to authoritative sources like the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Always double-check any quotes for word-for-word accuracy with the Bible or the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

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