Placement of the Paschal Candle

Author: Fr Edward McNamara

And the Baptismal Font

ROME, 1 OCT 2019 (ZENIT)

Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and sacramental theology and director of the Sacerdos Institute at the Regina Apostolorum university.

Q: Should the paschal candle always be in a visible location in our Catholic churches? That is, after the Ascension, where should the paschal candle be put? In our church, the baptismal font is small and cannot be placed at the entry; should the candle be placed in a visible place in the sanctuary area close to the altar where it would be always visible, or should it be put away off to the side and taken out only when there are baptisms? — N.B., Alberta, Canada

 A: There are several relevant documents. Among then is the 1988 circular letter from the Congregation for Divine Worship, Paschalis Sollemnitatis. This document states:

 “[No 82] …The paschal candle should be prepared, which for effective symbolism must be made of wax, never be artificial, be renewed each year, be only one in number, and be of sufficiently large size so that it may evoke the truth that Christ is the light of the world. It is blessed with the signs and words prescribed in the Missal or by the conference of bishops.

 “99. The paschal candle has its proper place either by the ambo or by the altar and should be lit at least in all the more solemn liturgical celebrations of the season until Pentecost Sunday, whether at Mass or at Morning and Evening Prayer. After the Easter season, the candle should be kept with honor in the baptistry, so that in the celebration of baptism, the candles of the baptized may be lit from them. In the celebration of funerals, the paschal candle should be placed near the coffin to indicate that the death of a Christian is his own passover. The paschal candle should not otherwise be lit nor placed in the sanctuary outside the Easter season.”

 To this, the document of the U.S. bishops’ conference adds some explanations as to the meaning of the paschal candle.

 “The Paschal Candle

 “§ 94. The paschal candle is the symbol of ‘the light of Christ, rising in glory,’ scattering ‘the darkness of our hearts and minds.’ Above all, the paschal candle should be a genuine candle, the pre-eminent symbol of the light of Christ. Choices of size, design, and color should be made in relationship to the sanctuary in which it will be placed. During the Easter Vigil and throughout the Easter season, the paschal candle belongs near the ambo or in the middle of the sanctuary. After the Easter season, it is moved to a place of honor in the baptistry for use in the celebration of baptisms. During funerals, the paschal candle is placed near the coffin as a sign of the Christian’s passover from death to life.”

 First of all, contrary to our reader’s question, the paschal candle is now retired after Pentecost and not after the Ascension (as is the case of the extraordinary form).

 Second, the documents are adamant that the paschal candle not be placed in the sanctuary area after Eastertide but near the baptistry. This leads us to the question of the proper location of the baptismal font.

 The Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults says the following:

 “No. 25: The baptistery or the area where the baptismal font is located should be reserved for the sacrament of baptism and should be worthy to serve as the place where Christians are reborn in water and the Holy Spirit. The baptistery may be situated in a chapel either inside or outside the church or in some other part of the church easily seen by the faithful; it should be large enough to accommodate a good number of people. After the Easter season, the Easter candle should be kept reverently in the baptistery, in such a way that it can be lighted for the celebration of baptism and so that from it the candles for the newly baptized can easily be lighted.”

 The U.S. bishops’ conference document also offers valuable guidelines:

 “The Baptistry

 “§ 66. The rites of baptism, the first of the sacraments of initiation, require a prominent place for celebration. Initiation into the Church is entrance into a eucharistic community united in Jesus Christ. Because the rites of initiation of the Church begin with baptism and are completed by the reception of the Eucharist, the baptismal font and its location reflect the Christian’s journey through the waters of baptism to the altar. This integral relationship between the baptismal font and the altar can be demonstrated in a variety of ways, such as placing the font and altar on the same architectural axis, using natural or artificial lighting, using the same floor patterns, and using common or similar materials and elements of design.

 “§ 67. The location of the baptismal font, its design, and the materials used for its construction are important considerations in the planning and design of the building. It is customary to locate the baptismal font either in a special area within the main body of the church or in a separate baptistry. Through the waters of baptism, the faithful enter the life of Christ. For this reason, the font should be visible and accessible to all who enter the church building. While the baptistry is proportioned to the building itself and should be able to hold a good number of people, its actual size will be determined by the needs of the local community.

 “§ 68. Water is the key symbol of baptism and the focal point of the font. In this water, believers die to sin and are reborn to new life in Christ. In designing the font and the iconography in the baptismal area, the parish will want to consider the traditional symbolism that has been the inspiration for the font’s design throughout history. The font is a symbol of both tomb and womb; its power is the power of the triumphant cross; and baptism sets the Christian on the path to the life that will never end, the ‘eighth day’ of eternity where Christ’s reign of peace and justice is celebrated.

 “§ 69. The following criteria can be helpful when choosing the design for the font:

 “1. One font that will accommodate the baptism of both infants and adults symbolizes the one faith and one baptism that Christians share. The size and design of the font can facilitate the dignified celebration for all who are baptized at the one font.

 “2. The font should be large enough to supply ample water for the baptism of both adults and infants. Since baptism in Catholic churches may take place by immersion in the water, or by infusion (pouring), fonts that permit all forms of baptismal practice are encouraged.

 “3. Baptism is a sacrament of the whole Church and, in particular, of the local parish community. Therefore the ability of the congregation to participate in baptisms is an important consideration.

 “4. The location of the baptistry will determine how, and how actively, the entire liturgical assembly can participate in the rite of baptism.

 “5. Because of the essential relationship of baptism to the celebration of other sacraments and rituals, the parish will want to choose an area for the baptistry or the font that visually symbolizes that relationship. Some churches choose to place the baptistry and font near the entrance to the church. Confirmation and the Eucharist complete the initiation begun at baptism; marriage and ordination are ways of living the life of faith begun in baptism; the funeral of a Christian is the final journey of a life in Christ that began in baptism; and the sacrament of penance calls the faithful to conversion and to a renewal of their baptismal commitment. Placing the baptismal font in an area near the entrance or gathering space where the members pass regularly and setting it on an axis with the altar can symbolize the relationship between the various sacraments as well as the importance of the Eucharist within the life and faith development of the members.

 “6. With the restoration of the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults that culminates in baptism at the Easter Vigil, churches need private spaces where the newly baptized can go immediately after their baptism to be clothed in their white garments and to prepare for the completion of initiation in the Eucharist. In some instances, nearby sacristies can serve this purpose.”

 Now, our reader seems to know the best choice for locating the baptismal font, but the actual church seems to be too small to adopt a location near the entrance. The documents we quoted would preclude the installation of a permanent baptismal font within the sanctuary proper, although a portable baptismal font may be used in the sanctuary, especially for baptisms during Mass.

 The document also allows for some other suitable location within the church, without going into detail.

 My suggestions would be the following:

 Presuming that our reader’s church is a parish church it would be best to explore the possibility of constructing a definitive baptistry as close as possible to the model presented in the official documents even though this might be a long-term project.

 A temporary solution might be to place the baptismal font and paschal candle in relationship with the ambo albeit outside of the sanctuary area. In some churches, this has become a permanent solution as it provides visibility while remaining outside the sanctuary. However, due to the proximity of the two zones, it could also cause confusion, so prudence is called for, taking all elements into account.

 In non-parish churches and oratories where baptisms are exceptional and there is no stable font, the paschal candle can be kept in the sacristy when not in use.

* * *

Follow-up: Placement of the Paschal Candle [2-18-2020]

In the wake of our October 2019 reply on the possibility of a stable location of the Easter candle, our original inquirer submitted further texts for clarification.

“The General Introduction for the Order of Christian Funerals, in paragraph 35, concerning ‘Easter Candle and Other Candles,’ states:

“‘ The Easter candle reminds the faithful of Christ’s undying presence among them, of his victory over sin and death, and of their share in that victory by virtue of their initiation. It recalls the Easter Vigil, the night when the Church awaits the Lord’s resurrection and when new light for the living and the dead is kindled. During the funeral liturgy and also during the vigil service, when celebrated in the church, the Easter candle may be placed beforehand near the position the coffin will occupy at the conclusion of the procession. According to local custom, other candles may also be placed near the coffin during the funeral liturgy as a sign of reverence and solemnity.’

“I wonder how many priests know that the paschal candle does not need to be placed near the coffin and that the traditional Requiem Candlesticks are still permitted.

“Moreover, I note that the Rite of Baptism for Children (ICEL, 1969) and Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults (ICEL, 1974) contain the note, in paragraph 25 of the General Introduction for Christian Initiation, that ‘After the Easter season, the Easter candle should be kept reverently in the baptistery, in such way that it can be lighted for the celebration of baptism and so that from it the candles for the newly baptized can easily be lighted.’

“This seems to have been softened significantly by the language of the current [General Instruction of the Roman Missal], which is quoted in the original e-mail.

“It doesn’t hurt to quote paragraph 34 of the same document, which states, ‘Taking into account existing circumstances and other needs, as well as the wishes of the faithful, the minister should make full use of the various options allowed in the rite.’

“While this kind of instruction leads some priests to believe that they personally should employ all options at various times, I am confident that schizophrenia is not now obligatory. I am afraid, however, that the legislator, perhaps unwittingly, is setting up the minister to be a stooge for the whims of the faithful let alone the parish liturgy committee.

“Fortunately, the same instruction carves out room for priests to be unimpeded from employing the traditional options made available to them by the Ritual.

“The more I research, the more I am led to regard as legitimate the option of leaving the paschal candle in one permanent location.

“By the way, are there basilicas in Rome with several paschal candle stands? I think of the enormous stand in St. Paul Outside the Walls. There must be another smaller stand near the baptismal font. I wonder if that is an option for parish churches: have two stands but one candle.”

While I would respectfully disagree with our reader on some points, I believe he has also suggested a solution to the practical problem of where to leave the Easter candle.

First of all, none of the language used is so absolute that a priest would be committing some sort of liturgical misdemeanor if he, for example, does not leave the candle habitually in the baptistry because he celebrates more funerals than baptisms.

The norms indicate liturgical preferences with respect to the symbolic value but do not attempt to address all the logistic questions that can occur in Catholic church buildings which vary vastly in size, shape, and style.

Hence, I believe it is clear that the preferred location for the paschal candle outside of Eastertide is the baptistry and its use is necessary during baptism. There may be, however, good practical reasons for an alternative location, and there is no obligation that the candle be visible during the year if not placed in the baptistry.

I would not agree with our reader that it is not required to place the candle near the coffin during funerals. The weight of the several documents cited all presume its presence. Even the use of the word “may” in No. 35 of the Order for Funerals seems to refer to the possibility of placing the candle “beforehand” and not whether it is placed or not. In speaking of other candles, it says “also” and hence in addition to the Easter candle.

Our reader distinguished between the candle and the stand, and here I believe lies the secret to most practical solutions. The Christian symbol is the candle, not the stand, and there is no difficulty whatsoever for a church to have an elaborate stand for the sanctuary during Eastertide and a lighter, more manageable one for the rest of the year. Indeed many parishes adopt this solution.

There is also no requirement to leave the elaborate stand in the sanctuary. Unless it is in some way fixed or has singular artistic merit, it may be stored in the sacristy during most of the year.

The 5.6-meter-tall marble Easter candle stands in St. Paul Outside the Walls in Rome was sculpted around 1170 and is a masterpiece of Romanesque art. The candle is placed on top during the Easter season. Otherwise, it is placed on a much smaller stand in the baptistry which is not visible from the main body of the basilica.

The baptistry of the Basilica of St. John Lateran is a large, totally separate building that is practically a church unto itself. That of St. Mary Major is next to the sacristy and is also very spacious. The baptistry of St. Peter’s is the first chapel after entering on the Gospel side (the left as one looks toward the altar) opposite the Pietà. In all cases, the Easter candle is left in the baptistry. Due to their particular situations, funerals are less regular in these basilicas then in most parish churches.