The burning of incense at Mass is a traditional Catholic practice that is used more or less by each priest. Here at Lourdes, we tend to use incense on Holy Days of Obligation and other important feasts, as well as at most funeral Masses, although I never us incense at the 9:00 AM Mass to leave it available for people who are allergic to incense.
Some people like the incense, and some people don’t like, but whether we like it or not is beside the point. We use incense because it is a truly ancient tradition going back even before the time of Christ into Old Testament times. We read in the book of Exodus that God told Moses to have an altar made for the burning of incense. It says, “And you shall put it before the veil that is by the ark of the testimony…and Aaron shall burn fragrant incense on it every morning…and when Aaron sets up the lamps in the evening he shall burn it, a perpetual incense before the Lord.” (Ex 30:6-8). The Israelite priests would burn incense before the Ark of the Covenant twice every day as an offering to the Lord.
The burning of incense, and the smoke rising up, represent our prayers rising up to God. The book of Revelation says, “And when he had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each holding a harp, and with the golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints” (Rev 5:8). Psalm 141 says, “Let my prayer be counted as incense before thee, and the lifting up of my hands as an evening sacrifice.”
The incense also represents the presence of God. In the Bible God’s presence is seen as a cloud. When the Lord descends upon Mt. Sinai to give Moses the Ten Commandments, a cloud envelopes the mountain. When Jesus takes Peter, James, and John up Mt. Tabor, God the Father speaks to them from a cloud. The First Book of Kings records what happened when King Solomon dedicated the first Temple, “And when the priests came out of the holy place, a cloud filled the house of the Lord, so that the priests could not stand to minister because of the cloud; for the glory of the Lord filled the house of the Lord” (1 Ki 8:10-11).
We use incense at Mass, in Eucharistic processions, and in Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament as a visible reminder that God is present among us. In the Mass we incense the altar, the Book of Gospels, the priest, the people, and the Eucharist, because God is present in His Church, in His Word and in His priest, and in His people, and God is sacramentally present in His Body and Blood. That incense represents the prayers, worship, and praise that we offer to God, that they may rise up to the Lord and be pleasing to Him.
Fr. Bryan Recommends
True Devotion to Mary
by St. Louis-Marie de Montfort
St. Louis de Montfort was a priest in France in the early 18thcentury. He’s best known for his works on Mariology, the study of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and his two classic books, The Secret of the Rosaryand True Devotion to Mary. Reading True Devotionis the first step in the St. Louis de Montfort’s way of “Total Consecration to Jesus Through Mary.” The Total Consecration, following a 33-day preparation period, is a way of completing giving yourself over to Jesus through Mary. The Blessed Mother is always leading us to her Son, helping us to understand Jesus’ teachings, to grow closer to His Cross, and to be filled with His Holy Spirit.
However, even if you don’t intend to do the consecration, you may still want to read True Devotion. The book first teaches us why devotion to Our Lady is necessary for a Christian and what true devotion looks like and consists of. In the second part of the book, St. Louis covers consecration to Jesus, why we should do this devotion, Biblical precedents, the effects of the devotion in our lives, how we perform the devotions, and advice on how to receive Holy Communion devoutly.
We honor the saints because they are our elder brothers and sisters in the faith awaiting us in heaven and helping to guide us there. The guide us by their prayers for us and by the example they left us. Some of the saints, like St. Louis, left not only their example of holiness but also their own words to teach us how to live like they did. In True Devotionwe can learn from St. Louis de Montfort himself how to be devoted to God and to His Son Jesus Christ and the role that our Blessed Mother plays devotion to God.
On February 11, 1858, 13 year old Bernadette Soubirous was out collecting firewood with 2 other children. The others had run ahead and left Bernadette behind, and as she was preparing to cross the Gave River she heard a peculiar sound. Looking up, Bernadette noticed that one of the caves by the river bank was glowing with a golden light. She then saw a beautiful lady dressed in a pure white robe with a blue sash, a veil over her head, a rosary in her hands, and yellow roses at her feet. The Lady asked her to pray her rosary, and by the time she had finished praying the Lady had vanished.
She went back the next Sunday and saw the Lady again, and the next time she went back the Lady told Bernadette that she should return every day for 15 days. She asked Bernadette to pray for the conversion of sinners and to tell the priests to build a chapel on that site. She also told Bernadette to scrape away the soil in a particular spot, revealing the spring of water that is still there today. Bernadette was kept from going to the Grotto several times, but during the sixteenth apparition, on March 25, 1858, which is the Solemnity of the Annunciation, when the Archangel appeared to Mary to announce the conception of Jesus in her womb, the Lady finally revealed her identity to Bernadette. She told her, “I am the Immaculate Conception,” revealing herself to be the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Mother of God. Bernadette didn’t understand what this meant, but others did, and people flocked to Lourdes in even greater numbers than before.
The finding of the spring of water and the miraculous healings that have resulted from it are proof that the apparition was true, and that the Lady really was the Mother of God. On one occasion in 1902 Dr. Alexis Carrell, an agnostic and a physician, accompanied the train bringing the sick to Lourdes as a favor to a friend, and out of professional curiosity about what was causing these stories of miraculous healings. On the train he met a girl, Marie Bailly, who was suffering from tuberculous peritonitis. He was standing right behind her when the Lourdes water was poured over her stomach and saw her physical symptoms, abdominal distension with large hard masses, gradually disappear. By the next day she was able to get up and dress herself, to eat without stomach pains, and to take the train ride back to Lyon. Subsequent testing showed her to be completely and inexplicably cured. It would take another 40 years for Dr. Carrell to fully accept the faith, but he would eventually return to the Catholic Church. In the meantime, he lost he job with the medical faculty of Lyons for defending the account of the event and being open to a miraculous explanation.
These miracles are an awesome proof of Our Lady of Lourdes, but we must remember that they point us back to Our Lady herself and the message that she gave to St. Bernadette. She told her to pray for the conversion of sinners and to urge people, “Penitence, penitence, penitence!” On the Feast of Our Lady of Lourdes and the anniversary of her first appearance to St. Bernadette, let all remember to pray not only for cures of physical ailments, but also for conversion of heart for ourselves and for all sinners.
Fr. Bryan Howard
4thSunday in Ordinary Time – Year C – 3 February 2019
In one of the most famous and well-known passages in the Bible, St. Paul describes love in these words: “Love is patient, love is kind. It is not jealous, it is not pompous, it is not inflated, it is not rude, it does not seek its own interests, it is not quick-tempered, it does not brood over injury, it does not rejoice over wrongdoing but rejoices with the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails.” Love is at the very center of Christianity. After all, St. John in his first epistle says that God is love and that anyone who does not love does not know God. Those who love much are close to God, and those who fail to love are far away from God. In the Gospel of St. Matthew, Jesus describes the judgement after the second coming in terms of love, saying that those who will go to heaven are those who have fed the hungry, gave drink to the thirsty, clothed the naked, welcomed the stranger, cared for the sick, and visited the imprisoned. In other words, those who care for those who are most in need are doing the work of God.
When we look at the world around us it’s hard to take St. Paul’s claim that “Love never fails” seriously. There is hate, violence, selfishness, greed, and suffering all around us, and often even in our own hearts. In our more cynical moments we may think that St. Paul should have said, “Love often fails,” or “Love usually fails.” So, what does St. Paul mean? I think he means, first of all that choosing love is always the right thing to do, that no one can take God’s love from us, and that God is constantly offering us His love.
Love is always the right choice. The moral life is about making choices. God could have taken those choices away, made us always choose the right thing, but that wouldn’t be real love. Genuine love always comes from a choice to choose the good of another rather than your own good, especially when it costs you something. And deep down we know that’s true. We wish that we would always make the right choices; that we would always choose to exercise patience, kindness, generosity, courage, and gentleness. We know that it’s more important to be a good person than to be thought of as a good person. We sometimes get confused about what the right choice is and in those circumstances it’s important to go to God. If you have the time, it’s best to wait, spend some time in prayer, and ask God to give you guidance. If you have to make a choice right away, think about what God is asking you to do in this moment.
The best way to prepare for those moments is to have a well-formed conscience. Our conscience is the voice of reason inside of us that urges us to do the right thing and accuses us when we’ve done the wrong thing. You may hear people say that anything is okay as long as you follow your conscience. Well, many of the Nazis truly believed that what they were doing was for the greater good, does that make it okay? Or how about the Spanish Inquisition? Many of those people believed that they were protecting the Church, did that make it okay to torture confessions out of people? We have a moral responsibility to train our consciences to know what is truly wrong and what is truly right and to recognize good and evil. We’re experts at convincing ourselves that what we want to do is right, so we have to learn to be honest with ourselves about our own motivations. Everyone commits sins, but let’s never lie to ourselves about why we’re doing it.
Once we’ve formed strong consciences and trained ourselves to choose the good, then we can be confident that no one can take that away from us against our will. Mind control is science fiction. People may be able to influence your choices, but only you control what you choose. Even in the most dire circumstances, you are always able to choose the good. St. Paul tells us that neither danger, nor distress, persecution, hunger, or the sword can separate us from the love of God. Only sin, only our own free choice to act against God, can separate us from the love of God. Let us ask God to give us the strength that He gave to the prophet Jeremiah, recorded in our first reading today. That he may help us to stand against everything in society drawing us away from God and make us “a fortified city, a pillar of iron, a wall of brass, against the whole land.”
It should give us great hope that God’s love never fails. Even in our sin and weakness, even when we do fall away from Him, God’s love for us never fails. He is always calling out to us, always calling us back to Himself, and always ready to forgive those who come to Him in penitence. If Jesus could look down from the cross upon the very people who put Him there, upon the Roman soldiers, upon the Jewish leaders and people, and, with great effort lifting Himself on the nails driven through His feet and wrists to draw a breath, ask God to forgive them. Then He can surely forgive us.
Are we willing to stand up for what is true and right and be counted, or do we go along to get along. Most of us don’t like arguing and fighting. We like to be liked, and we don’t like to be criticized. We can become very emotional about important issues. No one seriously argues about the best flavor of ice cream, but we do argue about politics and religion. Two weeks ago hundreds of thousands of people went to Washington, DC, to participate in the March for Life, and hundreds of thousands more participated in smaller marches for life in their own states, such as the Louisiana Life March in Baton Rouge. Some of those people paid a price for their willingness to stand up and be counted, such as the students from Covington Catholic High School who were targeted for who they were and what they believed in, but they kept their heads, exercised patience, and kept the situation from escalating to physical violence.
This is a good example of how to stand up for the faith. First, educate yourself. Make sure that you know why we believe what we do and are able to explain it to others. Second, live the faith. Don’t be embarrassed to visibly live the faith or be afraid of what people will think of you. Sure, some people may give you a funny look or call you a Jesus Freak, but that’s okay. That’s a small way of participating in the suffering of Christ and it brings you closer to Him. We should always care more about God’s opinion than those of other people. Third, don’t sink to the level of those who use physical or verbal violence against those who disagree with them. We don’t need to use violence if we stand in the truth.
Finally, always speak the truth with charity. In the phrasing of Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclical, we must “Love in Truth.” Speaking the truth in an uncharitable way can be harmful, but to fail to speak the truth at all is not charitable either. It’s precisely because we love our neighbor that we stand up for the truth, so that they might see what is true and live it out in their lives. Ideas have consequences, and the things we believe affect our lives. We may suffer consequences for what we believe, but we place our trust in Jesus and remember His words, “Blessed are you when men revile you, and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so men persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Mt 5:11-12).
Fr. Bryan was pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes from July 3, 2017 to June 2022.