An obvious answer, of course, is “to provide light.” In the early Church, Catholics often worshipped in the underground catacombs or burial vaults where they were protected from persecution by Roman law. Even when the Church emerged “above ground” in the fourth century, architectural standards were such that the interiors of most large buildings were fairly dark. Extensive use of glass windows came only in the middle ages. With modern lighting, candles are retained as a symbolic link with earlier ages.
The use of candles also expresses a certain degree of festivity. They give a cheery glow unmatched by electric light. At Mass, at least two beeswax candles are required on the altar. Four or six are used on festive occasions and for high Mass. A seventh is permitted in pontifical Masses. Four candles are employed at the low Mass of a bishop. An additional candle may be lit near the altar from the Sanctus to the Communion to indicate that the canon of the Mass is in progress. Additional candles are employed when the Blessed Sacrament is exposed for veneration. At solemn functions the acolytes carry candles when not otherwise occupied. Acolytes receive an unlighted candle (and an empty cruet) in the ceremony of their ordination.
Votive candles are burned before the Blessed Sacrament or images of our Lord and the saints by the faithful. The burning candle is a sort of sacrificial gift, left to consume itself, and to serve as a reminder of the donor’s prayerful intentions. They are usually enclosed in colored glasses, adding to the festive aspect of their use.
The Paschal candle is symbolic of the risen Christ, and religious writers have suggested involved explanations of the symbolism. The wax made by virgin bees is said to represent the flesh of Christ, born of the Virgin Mary. The combination of the wick and the wax is seen as a symbol of the hypostatic union of our Lord’s humanity and divinity. The flame is suggestive of our Lord’s divinity, and reminds us of His presence among the Israelites in a pillar of flame.
Although the sanctuary lamp properly burns olive oil, a large candle is often employed as a more practical alternative. Together with the tabernacle veil, it is indicative of the Presence of our Lord in the tabernacle.
A distinguishing characteristic of Catholic churches compared to other denominations is the large presence of candles. Catholics display candles for different purposes, including prayer, symbolism and memorials. Although candles are not a formal aspect of Catholicism, the tradition of lighting candles at Catholic churches is commonplace and adds beauty to the atmosphere.
The main function of numerous, small candles in glass containers — that are often displayed in racks or stands and known as votives or vigil lights — is to maintain the intention of prayers, usually for a specific issue or person. Those who light them usually say a prayer over one candle at a time, and by keeping these individual candles lit for extended periods of time, the individual prayer is believed to be prolonged and amplified along with the intentions of other believers’ prayers. This creates a collective spirit of prayer for the entire church that is comforting and empowering, because even when churchgoers leave, their prayers remain in the Church — and then others may pray over the candles later.
Catholics also use votive candles as a remembrance of the deceased, especially their loved ones. They light them specifically on All Souls’ Day, usually November 2, for this purpose. Candles may also be lit on November 1 for All Saints’ Day to honor every saint, remaining lit through All Souls’ Day. The candles may be lit in the church as part of an offering at an altar with other items such as flowers or mementos, but may also be lit at home altars or cemeteries.
Symbolize the Light of Christ
Candles are also lit in Catholic churches to symbolize the light of Christ and the Holy Trinity at liturgies, or official, ongoing worship services such as Mass. These candles are usually made of beeswax to symbolize the purity of Christ. The number and placement of candles to be lit at the primary church altar varies greatly depending on the specific occasion and type of clergy presiding over the Mass. Traditionally, candles must be lit before Mass begins, and they are not extinguished until after the service.
Honor Special Occasions
Special occasions at Catholic churches are often marked by the lighting of candles, specifically at secondary or private altars set up for the special purpose, such as to honor a saint like Mary. These candles might be set up near statues of saints, and placed with other items like flowers or artwork. Altar candles may be votives or taller and longer-lasting candles also in glass containers. Candles lit for special occasions may be for small groups of people gathered to celebrate or worship, or as part of a liturgy for the whole church.