QUAERITUR: real wax candles or oil inserts in fake candles

From a reader:

I have been searching for the answer to this question but cannot find the rubrics for altar candles.

Is it still mandated that altar candles during mass be of wax, or is it permissible to use the plastic look alikes with the oil lamp in the upper third that I see on the altars at a local parish? 

No wonder the portion of the Easter Vigil liturgy that references the work of the bees gets left out!

The Exsultet bees get a vacation day when English is used, but the Latin bees are still busily buzzing in the Latin Exsultet. They will fly back in the new translation now being prepared.

My recollection is that the oil inserts instead of candles are not permitted.  That is to say imitation candles are not permitted. That goes for both electric imitations and oil inserts.

Candles for Mass must be of wax.  I am not sure if the percentage of real wax is laid down by law. 

I think the sanctuary lamp can be either an oil lamp or wax, but it cannot be electric.

I can’t put my hands on the exact document right now, but I am sure a reader can help.

I think most altar candles in use these days, at least in the USA, are 51% beeswax.  You can get 100%, but in warm weather they can get a little sporty.

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  1. Liam says:

    A bit old (predating the current Missal, that is), but I believe in substance it still represents the state of affairs in the US on this point:


  2. Neal says:

    You can compromise with spring-loaded wax inserts into fake candles. Then, when the inserts are short and soft, they get ejected at velocity, frequently during the more meditative moments of the Holy Sacrifice. Better yet, just use candles.

  3. tzard says:

    I know of one parish which *has* to use those inserts by order of the fire marshal. Candles are apparently too much of a hazard (we’re told). The sanctuary lamp is still oil.

    But other nearby parishes don’t have the same restriction, even though they are in the same fire district. It may have been the prejudice of a single inspector, or an unwillingness at the time to push appeal. But I suspect it’s the design of the church building which may be part of the cause. If the floor was marble or concrete and not plush carpet throughout, it might be different.

  4. TNCath says:

    Well, I’m afraid we need the liturgical police to do a raid of our diocese as I would be willing to bet that at least half our parishes (including our cathedral) are using those oil insert fake in fake candles. Incidentally, our pastor announced just yesterday that the cost of candles has gone up 30% in the past 6 months, and that now the offering for 7 day votive candles is now $3. He says the cost to ship the candles from the candle company is more than the actual price for the candles! To cut down on expenses, he has also discontinued lighting candles on the side altars and at the ambo at Mass. We have two candles on either side of the altar (using the old funeral candlesticks) and six on the altar of repose on either side of the tabernacle.

  5. Rachel says:

    There’s a great scene in The Third Miracle where the priest played by Ed Harris encounters rows of electric candles before a saint’s statue, and he watches with an eye-rolling air as another priest demonstrates pressing a button and turning on the fake flickering light.

    I know a church with both fake and real candles before various statues. Of course everyone lights the real ones first; who wouldn’t prefer that?

  6. Bryan says:

    There was an interesting discussion from last year that’s archived at EWTN:


    According to this, it’s not specifically forbidden, but not specifically called out for. A case of silence being used to the advantage of one or the other?

  7. Ms Jackie says:

    I know of a parish that does exactly the same thing. It is in a historical area where the church building is a couple of hundred years old and the fire marshal won’t allow open flames. Our parish used to have this little oil inserts on the altar and electric lights in front of the statues. When a new pastor came in about 10-15 years ago he changes both practices. Now we have real candles for both (he also added some Latin and increased confession times) Brick by Brick :-)

  8. Daniel Muller says:

    The Exsultet bees get a vacation day when English is used

    Not in the Book of Divine Worship. Again, there are three missals in the Latin Rite.

  9. DelRayVA says:

    A couple of years ago, our wonderful Bishop Loverde let all the pastors know that they were to use at least 51% beeswax candles. Our wonderful pastor asked permission (and apparently received it) to use up the oil inserts first, before switching to candles, which we now have.

    I love the confluence of tradition, authority, obedience, and practicality that this story showed.

  10. DelRayVA says:

    Looks like the anti-spam system is having some troubles. It asked me to resubmit the comment, then said that I’d already posted the same comment.

  11. Mark R says:

    One thing I loved about attending Russian Orthodox services was the use of 100% beeswax. The church smelled of honey.

  12. Xathar says:

    Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments Notitiae 10:80 (1974), no. 4:

    “Query: Must the lighted candles that are to be placed in candlesticks for the celebration of Mass consist in part of beeswax, olive oil, or other vegetable oil?

    Reply: The GIRM prescribes candles for Mass ‘as a sign of reverence and festiveness’ (nos. 79, 269). But it makes no further determination regarding the material of their composition, except in the case of the sanctuary lamp, the fuel for which must be oil or wax (see Holy Communion and Worship of the Eucharist Outside Mass, Introduction no. 11). The faculty that the conferences of bishops possess to choose suitable materials for sacred furnishings applies therefore to the candles for Mass. The faculty is limited only by the condition that in the estimation of the people the materials are valued and worthy and that they are appropriate for sacred use. Candles intended for liturgical use should be made of material that can provide a living flame without being smoky or noxious and that does not stain the altar cloths or coverings. Electric bulbs are banned in the interest of safeguarding authenticity and the full symbolism of light.”

    Thus, there is no 51% rule.

  13. alex says:

    On the USCCB website, it says that wax candles should be used. There aren’t any direct regulations, but it does say and I am summarizing, that since the bishops haven’t said what could be used as alternative material, wax candles should be used. Given that logic, I would go as far as to say that that the 51% rule still applies. Then we should consider that if you seek to buy altar candles you generally find candles made of that ration and have to look for parafin candles.

  14. sacerdosinaeternum says:

    For great beeswax candles which will also help support a good Catholic family, order your candles from Lux Candle Company!


  15. Will says:

    There is a Mall-based chapel here that has an electric sanctuary lamp, complete with flicker bulb. I believe the mall and the fire marshal denied them permission to keep an unattended flame burning. I presume the Bishop granted them a dispensation to use the electric version.

    As for my parish, the old oil candles seem to be on the way out, the new pastor uses real candles nearly every mass now.

  16. Vincent says:

    I seem to recall seeing a lot of oil and electric candles in Rome.

  17. Maureen says:

    If a parish is finding candles so expensive — especially the shipping of them — why on earth doesn’t the parish patronize a local candlemaker? It’s an extremly common hobby and/or small business. The raw materials for a beeswax candle are expensive, but not that expensive.

    Heck, a parish could start a candlemaking guild and make their own votives and such.

  18. Italy doesn’t seem to follow that. I see lots of electric, oil, or paraffin candles in many places. I think I saw one religious articles supplier that only had those options. However I’m not sure if that is a general thing or that specific store.

  19. I have been in one or two Orthodox churches that use votive candles, but we, like most, use tapers (don’t know the percentage, but they have to be a minimum something beeswax) which we place into round stands or sandboxes in front of the icons (Michael, a seminarian at St Vladimir’s, has Pascha pictures from the seminary chapel, and the bottom picture shows the candle stands, here: http://orthodoxseminarian.blogspot.com/2009/04/more-svs-pascha-pics.html). We have oil lamps that hang in front of the icons along the sides of the church and the iconostasis that burn olive oil. I didn’t know there were artificial candles that were really oil lamps. Why not just use oil lamps?

  20. Clinton says:

    My first thought on this was that the worship of God Who is Truth probably isn’t going to be well served by something
    that is an imitation, a simulation, or a deception.

  21. Flambeaux says:

    A friend of mine refers to them as “contraceptive candles”. I’m inclined to agree with that assessment.

  22. Greg Smisek says:

    The following article from 1942 is quite illuminating, regarding both history of the use of luminaries and candles in the sacred liturgy (including the mystical significance of the bees) and the 1904 SRC decree which permitted other materials to be mixed with beeswax.

    Fr. John Bolen, “The Wax Candle in the Liturgy,” The Ecclesiastical Review, May 1942, 376-383.

    The 1904 decree stated that the Paschal Candle, the candles used in the blessing of baptismal water, and the two candles needed for the celebration of Mass, must be made of wax, at least “in maxima parte”; all other candles used on the altar must contain a “greater or notable part of wax.” Bolan reports that “In maxima parte” was interpreted as low as 65%, “greater part” meant 51%, and “notable part” was interpreted as low as 25%.

    As to more recent legislation:

    Missale Romanum (pre-1970), “De defectibus”, Title X, No. 1: “luminaria cerea” (waxen luminaries).

    General Rubrics of the Roman Missal, n. 527 (1960, incorporated into the 1962 Missal):

    On the altar, at the middle, there must be a cross of adequate size with the image of the Crucified, and on each side of it candlesticks with lighted candles [candelabra … cum candelis accensis], to the number required by the kind of Mass.

    General Instruction of the Roman Missal (2002 Missal), n. 117:

    on or next to the altar are to be placed candlesticks with lighted candles [candelabra cum cereis accensis]: 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.

    GIRM (2002), n. 307:

    The candles [Candelabra], which are required at every liturgical service out of reverence and on account of the festiveness of the celebration (cf. above, no. 117), are to be appropriately placed either on or around the altar in a way suited to the design of the altar and the sanctuary so that the whole may be well balanced and not interfere with the faithful’s clear view of what takes place at the altar or what is placed on it.

    GIRM (2002), n. 292:

    Church decor should contribute toward the church’s noble simplicity rather than ostentation. In the choice of materials for church appointments there should be a concern for genuineness of materials and an intent to foster the instruction of the faithful and the dignity of the entire sacred place.

    Not legislative, but executive guidelines from the U.S. bishops:

    USCCB, Built of Living Stones (2000), n. 93:

    Candles for liturgical use should be made of a material that provides “a living flame without being smoky or noxious.” To safeguard “authenticity and the full symbolism of light,” electric lights as a substitute for candles are not permitted. [The footnote is the Notitiae text quoted elsewhere.]

    USCCB, Built of Living Stones (2000), n. 94:

    “Above all, the paschal candle should be a genuine candle, the pre-eminent symbol of the light of Christ.

    Sanctuary lamp before the Blessed Sacrament

    Holy Communion and Worship of the Eucharist Outside Mass (1973)
    General Introduction, n. 11:

    As an indication of Christ’s presence and as a mark of reverence, a special lamp should burn continuously before a tabernacle in which the Eucharist is reserved. According to traditional usage, the lamp should, if at all possible, be an oil lamp or a lamp with a wax candle. [The footnote refers to Congregation of Rites, Instruction Eucharisticum mysterium, n. 57.]

    Code of Canon Law (1983), can. 940:

    A special lamp [peculiaris … lampas] which indicates and honors the presence of Christ is to shine continuously before a tabernacle in which the Most Holy Eucharist is reserved.

    GIRM (2002), n. 316:

    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.

  23. P. F. says:

    Greg, that information is fantastic. I was certain that there had to be some sort of decree – candlemakers wouldn’t have started to manufacture 51% beeswax candles without some sort of demand for that specific percentage, and I can’t imagine what other scenario would result in a demand for 51% specifically.

  24. James says:

    Problem : the Cathedral my Archdiocese is BEAUTIFUL – stunning really. They use wax candles on the altar, but they insist on using plastic shell oil candles in the candelabras throughout the remainder of the Church. How can I convince the diocesean Director of Worship that oil candles are not appropriate, especially in the model Church of the Archdiocese?

  25. Charivari Rob says:

    As to Sanctuary Lamps and fire codes, I believe there is a third option (between electric lights and untended flames). In more and more places, I have noticed the transition from freestanding sanctuary candles (prone to being knocked over) to candles on sconces mounted directly on the wall (or hung by chain from a wall bracket).

  26. The Exsultet bees get a vacation day when English is use

    How about no exsultetand some shoddy Dan Schulte piece with a screeching woman cantor instead. This was what I witnessed at St. Paul’s church in Kensington, CT. In addition to this, there were three (count them) separate rounds of applause (One each for catechumins, candidates and music ministry).

    The icing on the cake was the renewal of baptismal promises after “do you reject satan and all his works” the pastor said And now for something positive and proceeded with the rest of the ritual(since when is rejecting satan negative ?).

    If my brother were not coming into the church I would have walked out and caught the early morning Mass of Easter instead. Another reason to continue with my TLM community.

  27. cel says:

    A year ago this last Febuary our church sanctuary and nave (if it can be called that in a pie shaped modern church) burnt to the ground in a three alarm fire that completely consumed the roof and interior walls of the building.

    The beeswax paschal candle did not melt however.

    He makes it painfully obvious doesn’t He. And still people refuse to believe.

  28. Ron says:

    For the nursing home mass we are not permitted to light the candles since two of the patients are on oxygen. We put two small red votive candles on the altar but cannot light them. We had a lot of trouble at church with the acolyte candles dripping and switched to oil. They are very problematic. The oil burns much faster than wax candles, and can only be filled by competent persons who won’t overfill them. The wicks are made of fiberglass and are very fragile. Everyone thinks they are an expert “adjustor” and thus the wicks are always being pulled on . . . it’s a disaster. Oil candles are a very poor substitute for wax. We are thinking of getting battery candles for the nursing home only, but that is because open flames cannot be in the room with oxygen tanks.

    If anyone has a better idea, please offer it here.

  29. Ron says:


    After reading the commentary, we administed the renunciation of sin to each elect catechumen INDIVIDUALLY. Only then did we move on to the en globo baptismal promises. It was very powerful. It helped the assembly see the distinction between the renunciation and promises. I recommend that anyone who does not do it this way to please consider it for next year. Even with several elect, it does not take that much time for three questions each!

  30. xathar says:

    From the BCL:

    Since the National Conference of Catholic Bishops has never employed the above-noted faculty to permit the use of materials other than wax in the production of candles, the use of such other material either in substitutes for or in imitations of candles is not permitted in the liturgy. Therefore, oil lamps may be used only “in the case of the sanctuary lamp,” as indicated above. Candles made of wax are to be used in the celebration of the Mass and other liturgical rites. Furthermore, because of their very nature, imitations of candles should not be used in the liturgy as, for example, “permanent” paschal candles, etc. Nor should electrical bulbs be used in liturgical celebration. In the interests of authenticity and symbolism, it is likewise most unfitting that so-called vigil lights be used for devotional purposes.

  31. Dominic says:

    I am pretty sure that they used oil inserts for all the altar candles at the seminary in France, and I was told that there was an indult that permitted it. The details, however, I know not…

  32. MargaretMN says:

    When I lived in Venezuela, there was a law that no open flames were permitted during Holy Week in many churches (especially the old wood and adobe ones). This was due to a terrible fire that killed a number of people in one of them. (Venezuela is one of those Latin countries where churches are empty most of the year except during Holy Week when they need crowd control. Also the government has been somewhat adversarial to the Church since the 19th century, not just under Chavez) My recollection is that they basically had the Vigil Mass out in the courtyard and everything else had unlit candles or those horrible electric votives.

  33. Sharon says:

    Our sanctuary lamp in Australia is electric.

  34. Gio says:

    I remember St. John Lateran’s baptistry has lots of those electric votive candles.

  35. TerryC says:

    Every year I visit a particular parish in my diocese for mission work. We do construction work and other tasks for the needy. I do electrical work. That parish previously kept the tabernacle in a side room off the common area. It had an electric lamp. They now have a wonderful orthodox priest (whom they share with another parish.) He has move the tabernacle to the sanctuary, behind the altar.
    Two years ago he had me permanently remove the electric lamp from the room that was previously the Eucharistic Chapel, but which is now just an office. He is wonderfully supportive of our mission work and a good upright man who is making a difference in his parishes.

  36. Tess says:

    I have _never_ seen anything but an eletric sanctuary lamp.

  37. Collectio Rerum Liturgicarum (c. 1956) says:

    a. Candles at the altar need not be blessed…(But may be on Candlemas day…or in the manner described in the Memoriale of Benedict XIII).

    b. Only candles made of beeswax may be placed on the altar during divine services. Candles made of stearine, tallow, paraffin…are forbidden, even if they are used merely as onaments over and above the number of candles required by the rubrics (S.R.C. 3063; 3173; 3376, III; 4257,v).

    c. The two candles required for low Mass and the pascal candle shall be of pure beeswax, at least for the greatest part. What amount constitutes the greatest part…is for the local Ordinary to determine. If the local Ordinary has made no express regulation on this matter, he may be presumed to approve tacitly the candles sold by reputable companies.

    d. Candles of common or unbleached beeswax are required for Masses of Requiem, for the Office of the Dead, for the Tenebrae Office in Holy Week, and for the Mass of the Presanctified on Good Friday.

    e. Metal tubes, which are shaped and colored to resemble candles and in which a candle of beeswax is inserted and kept burning at the top of the tube by means of an inner spring, can be tolerated (S.R.C. 3448, XIII). [Which is apparently not the case today.]

  38. If the local Ordinary has made no express regulation on this matter, he may be presumed to approve tacitly the candles sold by reputable companies.
    Liberal Translation (à la Sean Hannity):
    If the local Ordinary has made no express regulation “then it follows that anything goes”.

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