Mass Appeal: How the Liturgy Speaks to Our Five Senses

a priest at Mass holds a thurible with incense in it over the altarMy Catholic faith is a large part of who I am. However, I haven’t always been so passionate about the Church’s ancient way of worshipping. Although I’ve never strayed from my belief in salvation through Christ, my younger self did question whether the so-called “smells and bells” of Catholicism—all of those rituals like the burning of incense and the ringing of bells—heightened or hindered my ability to experience God. 

That creeping insecurity in my youth that there might be a “better” way to worship led me to embark on what I’d refer to years later as my “tour” of other Christian churches. The journey was enlightening. 

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During this tour, I first attended Protestant and non-denominational churches. The services in all of the churches I attended were uplifting, but I grew frustrated with the lack of mediums available to physically express my reverence for God and experience him through all of my senses. At the services, I found myself wishing for kneelers upon which I could humbly converse with God in prayer, candles to light while uttering my prayer intentions, religious images to reflect on, and holy water to bless myself with the sign of the cross. The churches’ view of the Holy Eucharist as symbolic of Christ also felt incomplete.

After attending several non-Catholic Christian services, I realized that the Catholic Church’s tradition of appealing to all of our senses during Mass immersed me in worship in ways those other churches did not. I returned to my home Church with a new appreciation for its use of “smells and bells” to praise God and communicate Jesus’s actual presence in the Holy Eucharist and, therefore, his actual presence in the space in which the Mass is celebrated.

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During Mass, my immersion in worship begins at the church door where I dip my fingers in holy water and make the sign of the cross. This quick but significant act both affirms my belief in the Holy Trinity and in Christ’s sacrifice for me on the Cross. Immediately, the busyness of my daily schedule starts to fall away as I’m reminded of something greater than my to-do list. My thoughts and actions remain focused on God as I genuflect toward the Tabernacle housing the Blessed Sacrament, and take my seat in a pew. 

The sacredness of my church’s quiet space is further highlighted by the sight of churchgoers kneeling in front of the crucifix above the altar. That communal show of adoration inspires me to kneel as well, the gesture immediately flooding me with humility and introspection. 

I also find connection in the sacred depictions that surround me at Mass — the stained glass and statues — representing the community of saints who followed Jesus or devoted their lives to upholding God’s word. My link to God and his people is also deepened by the scent of incense burning, a physical reminder that our prayers, like the incense smoke, rise up to the Father.

This bond with my fellow parishioners only intensifies when we join together to sing hymns, listen to Holy Scripture, and recite the most unifying of prayers — the Our Father. This physical participation in worship continues as the congregation extends each other the sign of peace. Each of these signs and actions moves us forward as a community to the Mass’s central act of worship, Holy Communion.

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“This is my body, which will be given up for you,” the priest says, drawing my sight to the stone altar. The sound of bells joyously alerts me to the presence of the living God in the consecrated host, now the sacred “bread of life” (John 6:48). As I taste the Eucharist, I’m revitalized by what the Church aptly describes as “a mysterious and real communion” between Jesus’s body and our own. I feel united with my fellow parishioners, knowing that together we form the body of Christ. Mass ends with the instruction to, “Go in peace, glorifying the Lord by our lives.” Even at dismissal, the Church reminds us that our physical actions—from what we do to what we choose to see—should be for the glory of God. 

The Bible tells us that Jesus became a physical being so that he might connect with us in our physical reality. The Catholic Mass embraces that understanding of the sensory aspect of our humanity by appealing to each of our senses in a way that unites our physical consciousness with our spiritual beliefs. My visits to other Christian churches years ago sparked in me a fuller appreciation for just how much the Mass’s sensory engagement strengthens my faith by drawing me into worship whole, directing my every ability to perceive heavenward—mind, body, and soul.