Electric Sanctuary Candles

Author: Father Edward McNamara


Electric Sanctuary Candles

ROME, 27 MAY 2008 (ZENIT)

Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.

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. — K.S., Oklahoma

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 recent innovations.

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 wax.

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.

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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 Church prescribes."

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 candles?"

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 circumstances.

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 be present.

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.

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