|ROME, 27 MAY 2008 (ZENIT)
Answered by Legionary of Christ Father
Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum
Q: I was told by our pastor that "Vatican II requires a 'light' before
the Blessed Sacrament, but this does not have to be a candle," so he
replaced the sanctuary candle with an electric "fake candle" because
there was "wax all over the carpet." This is driving some of my fellow
choir members nuts. Yet, we still have real, seven-day vigil candles
going in the stands. Were this a safety issue, this makes no sense. All
churches have always had problems with wax
nothing new. I cannot see a fake candle giving a believable witness to
the Real Presence when this is not a safety issue as in a hospital with
oxygen that could cause an explosion.
A: Actually the norms refer not so much to candles as to lamps that
should burn before the tabernacle. The General Instruction of the Roman
Missal (GIRM), No. 316, states:
"In accordance with traditional custom, near the tabernacle a special
lamp, fueled by oil or wax, should be kept alight to indicate and honor
the presence of Christ."
An almost identical norm is given in Canon 940 of the 1983 Code of Canon
Law, but here only a "special lamp" is spoken of. It would thus appear
that the more recent GIRM, in specifically mentioning that it should be
fueled by oil or wax, gives clear preference to this form over other
Thus, rather than a candle there should be a lamp, that is, a container
made of glass or some other suitable material, which can hold the oil or
This container is customarily a red hued cylinder, although this is not
prescribed by law and other shapes and colors have also been used.
Unless the lamp is shattered or filled to excess, it usually presents no
particular safety issue. Likewise, since nothing is spilled, the "wax on
the floor" argument falls flat.
The oil may be of any kind, although the law has traditionally favored
olive oil or some other vegetable oil.
The use of electric lamps is not forbidden but is generally seen as a
last resort solution for particular circumstances.
Apart from the hospital situation mentioned by our reader, an electric
sanctuary lamp could conceivably be used in very small oratory chapels
where the constant lamp smoke would quickly stain the walls and ceiling
or, for the same reason, if the lamp had to be placed next to a historic
piece of art.
Other probable circumstances that would justify the use of an electric
lamp would be isolated places in which obtaining suitable fuel is
difficult or very expensive, or if a chapel has to be left unattended
for a period longer than the habitual duration of the lamp. This can
happen, for example, in communities where a priest celebrates Mass only
about once a month and leaves sufficient hosts for an extraordinary
minister of holy Communion to administer on the other Sundays.
* * *
Follow-up: Electric Sanctuary Candles [6-10-2008]
Pursuant to my column on electric sanctuary lamps (May 27), I received
request for further clarifications.
A Toronto reader asked: "I am wondering if oil or liquid-paraffin
canisters inserted into candle-shaped plastic cylinders may be used for
Mass rather than wax candles. I have come across this practice at a
couple of parishes in the last few months. Has this practice ever been
explicitly permitted by the Church? I know that in former times there
were legislated requirements that altar candles be predominantly
beeswax. Are there currently any liturgical norms about their
composition? To me, wax candles seem most decorous and suited to the
sacred dignity of the holy Eucharist, but I would like to know what the
The General Instruction of the Roman Missal is quite brief on this
subject and in No. 117 simply describes their location and number
without specifying anything regarding their composition.
Before the liturgical reform, there were strict norms regarding the
composition of candles. Beeswax was always preferred, and if this was
difficult to obtain, then at least 10% beeswax was required.
All candles based on animal fat were strictly forbidden for use on the
altar. Artificial candles, within which there was a metal container with
a spring that assured that the candles burned upward rather than
downward, were considered as "tolerated."
The plastic, so-called "liquid wax" artificial candles that our
correspondent saw are probably a variation of this latter "tolerated"
form. They have become very popular in some parts of the world.
Certainly almost every religious goods store in Rome, including those
belonging to the Holy See, offers a wide selection of such "candles,"
along with the liquid to refill them.
Their availability in Roman stores is, of course, no guarantee of
legitimate use. And I have seen quite a selection of bizarre liturgical
fantasies in Roman emporiums. It is true, however, that this form of
candle is very common in the Eternal City's churches and convents.
That said, I know of no specific decree that has specifically authorized
this form of candle. Nor anything that has forbidden it.
Papal celebrations continue to adhere to the traditional wax candles,
and it must be admitted that from the symbolic and aesthetic points of
view they are the more beautiful and apt.
Another reader asked about a particular situation: "A priest is living
in a retirement center and would like to offer holy Mass in his room.
The fire regulations are that there is to be no burning candles or
smoking in the rooms. May he validly offer holy Mass without burning
Certainly the presence of candles would not change the validity of the
Mass but are required for licit celebration.
Since we are dealing with a situation in which a priest wishes to
habitually celebrate Mass outside of a sacred place, this permission
should be sought from the local bishop. Such permissions are routinely
granted when the situation warrants it. The bishop could also grant
permission to dispense with the candles, considering the special
Since the 1930s the Holy See has tended to grant permissions favoring
the celebration of daily Mass. For example, under the 1917 Code of Canon
Law a priest could celebrate without at least an acolyte only for a
"grave cause." The famous Jesuit moral theologian Father Felice Cappello
(whose cause for beatification is open) was instrumental in persuading
the Holy See that the priest's desire to offer Mass was sufficient
reason to allow its celebration even though no other person was able to
Likewise, I am personally aware of a case in which the Congregation for
Divine Worship and the Sacraments granted prompt permission for a
paralyzed and bedridden priest to concelebrate on a daily basis.