QUAERITUR: The priest turns on the lights for Mass!

From a reader:


At the chapel where I assist at the traditional Mass, the priest turns on all the lights in the room in the morning to read the Missal. I’ve talked to several other people and we have no problem reading our hand-missals in the natural light, but apparently the priest does. Still, we find that atmosphere is really more sacred when just the natural light from the windows and the candles is present. Would it be allowable, then, for the priest to have a book-light attached to his missal stand?

My initial reaction is probably along the lines the priest in question might have if people came to him with a complaint about the lights being on: I think you should be very happy… delighted… a) that you have a priest and b) that he uses the older form of the Missale Romanum and c) that he wants to get the words right and d) that he wants people to be able to follow along.

I think you should be very happy indeed.

I am sure that some people would like pumpkin-scented candles or maybe a little mood music.  Some would probably like foot rubs or perhaps a some additional throw rubs here and there.

Given that it is good for the priest to be able to see the words, yes, the priest could use a book light. 

I sympathize with your desire to have a "worship space" which is conducive to prayer.  But I wouldn’t pick on him about this.

Perhaps over time the priest will come to an understanding that he need not turn on all the lights for the sake of people in the church being able to read their hand missals with ease.  But I urge you not to start sniping at him about the lights in church. 

Okay… I have been a little tough on the questioner.  I know.

Perhaps somehow a suggestion could be worked in along the lines of saving the parish money by keeping the lights lower… dunno.  It depends on the circumstances.

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  1. iudicame says:

    Maybe she could just ask the priest to turn the lights down Hardly sniping


  2. AndyKl says:

    Wish I had a traditional Latin Mass that I could complain about it being too bright….


  3. claiborneinmemphis says:

    I strongly agree with Fr. Z that happiness should rule the day anywhere the priest is willing to celebrate the Extraordinary Form.

  4. j says:

    While I understand the “aesthetic” the letter desires, and am sympathetic (and PERSONALLY share their preference), just because the writer can read their missal, or knows the Mass well enough to go without, does not mean that EVERYONE can do so. If the Priest has problems in the Sanctuary (almost always the best-lit part of the Church), I would presume that people new to the Mass might, as would older Parishioners. The Mass cannot just be for those who already are there.

  5. don Jeffry says:

    I sometimes have a terrible time reading the “carte gloria” because the print is so small and our church is so poorly lit I have to turn on a theatre spotlight just to read the missal. No kidding!

  6. Yubbly says:

    I dunno. Sure they should be happy, but I agree with iudicame, a suggestion isnt sniping. I understand the problem. It’s hardly a sacred atmosphere when there is some flourescent light humming up above and you feel like you’re sitting in someone’s living room.

  7. canonlawyer says:

    As a priest with poor eyesight, I struggle with gatherings that want to celebrate Mass in dimly lit rooms by candlelight, because then I cannot see the Missal to celebrate Mass. Perhaps this priest is similarly afflicted.

  8. Kimberly says:

    Oh my gosh, I would gladly exchange our dark church for a Trad Mass. I really do think we should count our blessings and having a priest say the Latin mass is one of them.

  9. Agnes says:

    These poor men just can’t win. Maybe a headlamp could be strapped to his biretta. ;-P

  10. Choirmaster says:

    This is a big hang-up of mine.

    I maintain (through no education, study, or authority what-so-ever) that lighting–proper lighting–is an essential part of any activity and in a special way prayer and worship.

    Many churches, when updating their lighting systems, buy florescent, LED, or another chemical-electrical lighting system rather than conventional “Edison-style” light bulbs. They do this for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that the salesman promised energy-savings on an Al-Gore-approved scale and brightness exceeding Transfiguration levels. The problem begins when the church is flooded with super-bright light, but the priest (and people) still cannot see.

    Why? Because the artificial light produced by non-conventional light sources has an incomplete (or integral) spectrum of color. That is, an Edison bulb will radiate light evenly across the spectrum and if the light is broken by a prism one would see an even “rainbow” effect. This color of light better imitates the light of the Sun (also radiating evenly across the spectrum) or the light of fire. The light of the Sun and of fire is the most pleasing to the human eye, and also allows us to see contrasts and colors best.

    When non-conventional light sources are broken by a prism one would see breaks (or dark areas) across the customary “rainbow” pattern. This is probably because, like in a neon lamp, the light is produced by an electrical current that causes electrons to jockey around (somehow) in their orbits. When they do this they emit energy in the form of photons (light), but the energy they emit is always upon a fixed, predictable, and specific wavelength. That’s why a neon light gives a characteristic orange color.

    Practically speaking, the eye does not take kindly to this artificial not-quite-white light, and many people have trouble seeing contrasts (ink on a page) and colors (faces and clothing) to the same precision as when viewed in sunlight, candle-light, or conventional Edison light-bulbs. Most people will instinctively try to make the lights brighter and brighter so that they can see comfortably, but this will often times just make everything uncomfortably bright without helping you see any better.

    And then its problems and discomfort for a long time because no-one can see, and clearly no-one wants to revisit the lighting situation in the church because the money was already spent and, really, it’s very bright!

  11. Frank H says:


    Such a shame that the USA is phasing out all incandescent bulbs sometime in the near future (maybe 2012, if I recall correctly). Many other countries have already done so. Ugh.

  12. RichR says:

    62’ers tend to be of a melancholy temperament, and also can be perfectionists. I have these tendencies (though I am unable to attend a Mass offered according to the 1962 Missal), and sometimes I have to force myself to ignore the minor distractions and focus on the prayers of the Mass.

    I had a well-known Catholic leader in Sacred Music remind me that the ’62 Mass isn’t Nirvana….nothing short of the Beatific Vision is. No earthly worship will be perfect. So we have to quit expecting our priests, our churches, and our music to measure up to that impossible standard. We can ask for excellence, but it’s not fair to ask for perfection.

  13. That’s something I’d probably not worry about. I don’t even bring a Missal to Mass anymore, so lighting doesn’t matter.

    Though those extremely ugly squiggly lightbulbs need to go…

  14. Fr Martin Fox says:

    What happens is that the priest doesn’t turn on all the lights and someone complains. It’s just a lot easier to turn on all of them, or whatever set pattern everyone is used to, and stick to that.

    That said, I agree with the original questioner, that having the lights lower is very pleasing for a quiet mood of prayer.

  15. patrick_f says:

    I think unless the rubric requires it (IE Easter Vigil, etc) , then there isnt any harm done.

  16. Seraphic Spouse says:

    If the priest is over 40, he might not be able to read text as well as he used to. Thank goodness for modern lighting. Why not do some research and suggest to your priest lighting that is softer but still makes the text visible to aging eyes?

  17. mpm says:

    “These poor men just can’t win. Maybe a headlamp could be strapped to his biretta. ;-P”

    Agnes — 17 November 2009 @ 12:22 pm,

    Went into spasms of coughing and laughter at your quip! What an image!
    Don’t worry, the patient may recover. Thank you.

  18. MichaelJ says:

    My father used to say that if you look at the results of a particular task and say to yourself “It’s good enough”, you’d better re-do it because you have not put forth your best effort.

    Now, while I agree that we will not achieve perfection while here on earth, I have a minor disagreement with your suggestion that we should not strive for it. I think you’ll find that you will achieve much more if you expect perfection from yourself rather than simply expecting excellence.

    As far as this particular topic goes, I would not even make a suggestion to the Priest. Instead, I would thank him for his consideration but point out that it is not necessary.

  19. Ana says:

    I’m having to choke back my initial reply to this question. I fully agree with Fr. Z! Be thankful for what you have and unless it comes up in the natural course of a conversation with the priest leave it alone. This priest may know something you don’t or even just need the extra light for himself and his need for light should be most important since he is the one saying Mass.

    Or instead of following along with your Missal, close your eyes. Yes, I’m being a tad touchy here, but I suffer from migraines to the extent that I have sought Masses available with no music and soft spoken people or I wear earplugs during Mass just so I can attend Mass without having to leave due to the noise without complaining about the Deacon who is over zealous in his need to be heard with a full sound system or the organist who has to play the organ at full volume. If I can survive, what is more than a mere personal dislike, you too can survive this.

  20. Serviam1 says:

    While I agree with Father that we should be appreciative (and happy) for what we have given the ancient Form is still infrequent, I do understand how environment does influence worship and a sense of contemplation.

    As an architect, I do know light level and color within interior space has a subliminal influence on human behaviour. I can’t remember the number of times I have observed how the bright (often harsh) ambient lighting modern Sacred Space diminishes both he hierarchial order of such a space and a sense contemplative privacy. It has the same leveling effect as ripping out altar rails and carpeting everything. I have also observed that this same lighting, a general whitewashing of church interiors contributes to a greater focus on the congregation (or our neighbor’s immediately around us). Are we surprised there is so much talking in church, particularly modern suburban parishes?

    A well planned lighting scheme on the otherhand can emphasize where attention should be focused. For centuries stained has accomplished this well, transforming the color (and mood)of a space. I only have to look at theology that gave us the Congregationalist Meeting House that is ever present in New England, with its white wash, deliberate lack of iconography, and CLEAR glass. Unfortunately, far too many recent (post- World War II) Catholic churches in suburban Boston mimic such iconoclasm, in an attempt to conform with Colonial context.

    Light, both in color and in intensity, while only one variable in worship, is often ill considered. Nevertheless it ultimately does have a transforming affect on Worship and Sacred Space. Its affect should be duly considered and not minimized if given the opportunity.

    That said let’s be polite, because many people, including priests may not realize how the visual can set an unintended tone. Perhaps one could make some positive suggestions like a book light. Maybe if your Priest is considering renovations perhaps you could volunteer for a Building Committee, working closely with his architect. On the other hand, maybe bright lights have the affect of caffeine in the morning.

  21. Random Friar says:

    As a priest, I don’t mind making any and all sorts of reasonable accomodations for folks. But if it’s something that affects most folks, I tend to ask to set a baseline of sorts. I suggest that if you need to speak with the priest, don’t do it right after the Mass. Let things cool in your head for a little bit, then see him at his office. Not acting on first instinct is usually the best recourse for making a complaint, or dealing with something that annoys you.

    Likewise, I’m getting a bit older, and I have to have certain accomodations as well. Full genuflection and profound bows are not something I can do with any kind of ease. If I visit somewhere, I explain it at the beginning of Mass, although I know folks don’t like “small talk,” but it avoids a lot of misunderstanding and angry folks who think I’m not being reverent enough.

  22. Susan the Short says:

    I’m reminded of a very old Lake Woebegone monologue (before Garrison Keillor lurched hard left) involving a parish where a committee had installed horrid, blazing neon-tube lighting as a cost-saving thing.

    The priest hated the lights, endured them as long as he could, but then during the dark of the Easter Vigil,
    climbed up in his pajamas, took down all the lights and threw them in the town dump just as the sun was rising.

  23. JPG says:

    Unfortunately my vote would be “suck it up”. He needs the light let him have the light. I would be more interested if he could use anything else to comfort , ease or encourage his use of the older form.” What can I do for you Father?.” It would be like complaining if a priest showed up in the penal days in Ireland. You would do anything to have the Mass.

  24. ohkymom says:

    As a person in the pew wearing tri-focals — I most certainly appreciate all the help I can get from the artificial lighting in church, especially using my 1962 tiny print missal. Let the light shine! God bless!

  25. greg the beachcomber says:

    We can get foot rubs?

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