|ROME, 27 SEPT. 2005 (ZENIT)
Answered by Father Edward McNamara,
professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical University.
Q: It is becoming increasingly common to see lighted candles burning at
the lectern during the Liturgy of the Word. Is this appropriate? Could
you please indicate the correct use of candles at a parish Sunday Mass?
O.M., Christchurch, New Zealand
A: I have observed this practice in some places but there is no mention
of it in the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM). Nor does it
form part of liturgical tradition.
Candles are traditionally brought to the ambo only for the reading of
the Gospel and usually accompany the procession of the Book of the
Gospels from the altar to the ambo. Certainly all Scripture is God's
Word, but the Gospel has traditionally received special veneration.
GIRM, No. 60, says:
"The reading of the Gospel is the high point of the Liturgy of the Word.
The Liturgy itself teaches that great reverence is to be shown to it by
setting it off from the other readings with special marks of honor:
whether the minister appointed to proclaim it prepares himself by a
blessing or prayer; or the faithful, standing as they listen to it being
read, through their acclamations acknowledge and confess Christ present
and speaking to them; or the very marks of reverence are given to the
Book of the Gospels."
And later in GIRM 133:
"If the Book of the Gospels is on the altar, the priest then takes it
and goes to the ambo, carrying the Book of the Gospels slightly elevated
and preceded by the lay ministers, who may carry the thurible and the
candles. Those present turn towards the ambo as a sign of special
reverence to the Gospel of Christ."
In earlier centuries the differences between the Gospel and other
readings was even more emphasized, including reserving a special and
highly decorated ambo for the Gospel readings. This can still be seen in
some ancient churches such as Rome's St. Lawrence Outside the Walls.
The practice of placing permanent candles at the ambo tends to blur the
special role of the Gospel and, as Monsignor Peter Elliott mentions in
his "Liturgical Question Box," could also tend to "overemphasize the
distinction between the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the
Eucharist, to the point of symbolically separating the two phases of the
Regarding the use of candles in general, GIRM 117 specifies:
"[O]n or next to the altar are to be placed candlesticks with lighted
candles: at least two in any celebration, or even four or six,
especially for a Sunday Mass or a holy day of obligation. If the
Diocesan Bishop celebrates, then seven candles should be used. Also on
or close to the altar, there is to be a cross with a figure of Christ
crucified. The candles and the cross adorned with a figure of Christ
crucified may also be carried in the Entrance Procession."
An open question remains regarding the use of unlit candles during a
celebration. Certainly the liturgical books do not envisage the use of
any unlit candles during a celebration and some authors hold that this
implies that unlit candles should not be placed on or near the altar.
It is also true, however, that this is not always a practical or
aesthetical possibility. Many churches use candlesticks with several
branches; in other cases they form a set with the altar and ambo and can
also be quite heavy or even fixed to the floor.
In churches that practice perpetual adoration it seems rather much to
insist that candles used during exposition be removed for the duration
of Mass. It is surely enough to snuff the extra candles and relight them
For such reasons I tend to hold a more flexible position on this point.
* * *
Follow-up: Lighted Candles at the Lectern [10-11-2005]
Some interesting questions emerged from our piece on ambo candles (Sept.
A Massachusetts reader asked: "I have attended a liturgy where the altar
servers carried two candles in procession and placed them at the ambo.
The candles were then brought to the altar upon the conclusion of the
homily or Prayers of the Faithful. In my church, the candles are already
lit at the ambo and then blown out after the Prayers of the Faithful so
as to focus on the Liturgy of the Eucharist. Is this correct?"
The candles on or near the altar are usually lit before Mass, and thus
the processional candles accompanying the Gospel during the entrance
procession and proclamation should normally be distinct from the altar
candles. The processional candles are usually left on the credence table
or another convenient place in the sanctuary while not in use.
However, some places do have the custom of placing the processional
candles on or near the altar after the entrance procession, and,
provided they are not the only candles present, it does not appear to go
against the liturgical norms. All the same, the use of distinct
processional candles seems liturgically preferable and avoids awkward
movements near the altar.
Likewise, the torches that accompany the thurifer while incensing the
Sacred Species during the consecration should, in principle, be
different from the processional candles. These latter may, however,
accompany the thurifer in smaller parishes with fewer ministers.
The question regarding blowing out the candles after the Liturgy of the
Word is somewhat moot, for, as we mentioned in our previous column, the
practice of permanent candles at the ambo, lit or unlit, does not
correspond to Catholic liturgical tradition.
While liturgical inventiveness still abounds, we need to remember that
the most pastorally effective use of symbols remains that foreseen in
the liturgical books. Arbitrarily changing the symbols, even with the
best of intentions, inevitably conveys a different message to that
desired by the universal Church.
Regarding the ambo in general, a Tennessee correspondent asked: "Can we
read announcements from the ambo at the end of Mass?" A Kansas reader
asked for comments on the following practice: "In our parish lectors
have been instructed to approach and make a profound bow to the ambo
before proclaiming the word. Further, upon concluding the readings we
are instructed to make another profound bow to the ambo and return to
our pew. We have been specifically instructed not to acknowledge or
genuflect in the direction of the tabernacle which is recessed to the
left rear of the ambo."
The General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM), No. 309, states:
"From the ambo only the readings, the responsorial Psalm, and the Easter
Proclamation (Exsultet) are to be proclaimed; it may be used also for
giving the homily and for announcing the intentions of the Prayer of the
Faithful. The dignity of the ambo requires that only a minister of the
word should go up to it."
Thus all other commentaries, announcements and similar activities should
be carried out from another suitable place.
The indication of not making a genuflection or other gesture toward the
tabernacle during the celebration of Mass is correct and in conformity
with GIRM 274: "If, however, the tabernacle with the Most Blessed
Sacrament is present in the sanctuary, the priest, the deacon, and the
other ministers genuflect when they approach the altar and when they
depart from it, but not during the celebration of Mass itself."
The bows toward the ambo
or in other places toward the altar or even toward the celebrant
at the beginning and end of the reading are not prescribed in the
liturgical books. They probably arise from a sense of natural courtesy
and reverence, especially when the lectors enter from the pews or do not
participate in the entrance procession.
Finally, a Winnipeg, Manitoba, reader asked about the origin of the word
According to one authoritative dictionary it appears that the word is of
medieval Latin origin and probably derives from the Greek "ambon"
raised rim, or pulpit. It thus referred to either of the two raised
pulpits from which the Gospels and epistles were read in early Christian