It is unknown when Catholics began using incense as part of liturgical celebrations and mass. During the earliest days of the church, Jews used incense in their temples, so most historians and theologians presume the ritual was adopted from that. Although it was likely used even earlier, There is direct evidence of incense usage in the 5th and 7th centuries. Catholic church incense is used for many of the same reasons incense is used in other religions and non-traditional spiritual practices - smoke is a purifying and sanctifying agent. Catholic church incense is used to venerate the altar, the Book of the Gospels, the bread and wine, and the assembled congregation. It is also used during funerals to venerate the body of the deceased. Traditionally, five grains of liturgical incense are placed in the paschal candle at the Easter Vigil, as a symbol of the five wounds Christ received at the Crucifixion.

For the Catholic church, incense is not only sanctifying, it also represents the fire of God’s love and the rising nature of the smoke mirrors the rising of prayer upwards to heaven. Incense also adds a layer of solemnity to mass that many congregants appreciate.

Most incenses, including those used during ancient times, come from the bark and other parts of certain trees and plants. This is true of frankincense, a common Catholic church incense (and one of the gifts brought to Jesus at birth by the Magi or kings). Some are pure and others are blends. Myrrh (another king’s gift!) is used, as are some floral scents like rosewood. Some church incense makers have developed options for those who have sensitive eyes or noses because this issue has led many parishes to reduce the use of incense. In some Eastern rites of the Catholic church, different scents are used at particular times and change with the liturgical season.

Incense is traditionally burned using charcoal. The charcoal and incense are often loaded into a censer for use during mass, which allows for easy handling and clean-up. Censers can also be used at home. If you are thinking about burning incense at home, keep in mind that the best way to burn church incense would be to hold a piece of charcoal over a flame until the sides begin to spark - and then add the incense. Church incense can be used sparingly. If you are interested in burning church incense at home, you could try a sampler pack to determine what kind best suits you. What you like in a large church may not be exactly what you prefer at home.

Most Catholics strongly associate mass and solemn prayer with the scent of incense, which goes to show that smells are strong symbols.