The Catholic Church has used incense during religious services for millennia. Even before Christianity, Israelites used incense in worship, as the Psalmist records, “Let my prayer be incense before you; my uplifted hands an evening offering” (Psalm 141:2).
Incense became a central part of the Church’s liturgy, not only because of its symbolism, but also on account of medicinal benefits.
For example, in the famous Spanish church of Santiago de Compostela, medieval Christians created a large incense burner called the “Botafumeiro.” According to Atlas Obscura, “the incense … served to mask the smell of tired and unwashed pilgrims who crowded into the pews. It was also believed to have a preventative effect against [the] plague.”
Recently various scientific studies have confirmed the surprisingly purifying effects of frankincense.
One such study aimed to “test the effectiveness of their in situ application to cleanse microbially-contaminated air within the ambient of an investigated 17th-century church.”
The results of the study explained that, “The antimicrobial properties of essential oil derived from frankincense, a compound with well-known traditional use, showed that it possesses a clear potential as a natural antimicrobial agent. Moreover, the results suggest possible application of B. carteri EO vapor and incense fume as occasional air purifiers in sacral ambients, apart from daily church rituals.”
An article on the website Healthline claims “that burning myrrh and frankincense incense reduced airborne bacterial counts by 68%.”
Another study looked at frankincense essential oil and how it has anti-inflammation and anticancer effects.
Furthermore, it has been proven that burning frankincense even has the power to decrease depression. According to the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, “Burning frankincense (resin from the Boswellia plant) activates poorly understood ion channels in the brain to alleviate anxiety or depression. This suggests that an entirely new class of depression and anxiety drugs might be right under our noses.”
However, too much incense, especially when it is not pure frankincense, but mixed with other substances, can have harmful effects on the respiratory system. This was confirmed in a study that looked at religious practices in Asian countries where incense smoke engulfs an entire building and includes a combination of other burning substances. Some medical professionals in China have even moved to put a “warning label” on incense sticks because of its harmful smoke.
This is why incense use in church buildings needs to monitored, keeping in mind those who suffer from asthma and other similar respiratory problems. The size of the room, purity of the incense and volume used all play a role in how it affects those present. Many incense manufacturers have been introducing hypoallergenic incense for this reason.
Could it be used in churches to fight COVID-19? There are no scientific studies that would provide any direct evidence burning frankincense could kill such viruses. However, it can be said that there are many spiritual and health benefits to using incense during Mass and was used by Christians in the past to fight against various plagues and epidemics.