Incense can keep allergy and asthma sufferers away from Mass
Letter to the Editor
The Church has been using incense in its worship for a very long time, as a sign of our prayers ascending to heaven and as a solemn means of sanctification and purification. No one knows for sure, but the practice may go all the way back to the very beginning, since incense was featured in the rites of temple Judaism, with which the first Christians would have been familiar.
I’m an advocate of maintaining continuity and tradition in the Church’s teachings and practices. But, here’s the problem. In recent years there’s been a marked increase in the number of people with asthma and allergies for reasons only speculated upon by medical experts. We all know people who suffer these conditions or have other serious illnesses which make incense intolerable to them. Exposure to incense and other fragrances can cause everything from headaches and dizziness to life-threatening asthma attacks.
Sufferers have found ways to attend mass and avoid exposure, but major feasts tend to exclude us. We are friends with a family who has had to stop attending mass entirely because of their child’s sensitivity to the fragrances of laundry soaps and perfumes worn by other mass-goers. The rest of us either move to a parish which doesn’t use incense regularly or avoid masses where we know it will be used. But, we’re typically excluded from our communities on the most important solemnities like Christmas and Easter.
When I entered engineering school, my engineer husband gave me the following advice: Don’t go to your boss with problems — go to him with solutions. So, here’s my suggestion: Make the first vigil mass of major feast days incense-free (since residual incense at later masses is also problematic). If it’s too much to ask each parish to do this, maybe have a widely published rotating schedule of incense-free first vigil masses so people could easily find a parish to attend, even if it’s not their own. “That they may be one . . . ”
I’m a big admirer of Bishop Robert Barron’s reordering of the evangelist’s appeal: Beauty, Goodness, and then Truth. Our ability to recognize beauty is one of the ways we know we’re made in God’s image and likeness, and is the most immediate way we come to know God Himself, whether by the beauty of God’s creation, of inspired art, architecture, and music, or by the beauty of the Lord’s heroic self-sacrificial love story of salvation. I acknowledge incense plays a role in the beauty of the mass. But, I don’t think its use should come at the expense of some vulnerable people celebrating the most important feasts of the liturgical year.
We are your brothers and sisters in Christ. We’re appealing for mercy.