QUAERITUR: altar candles… what can they be made from?

candlesFrom a seminarian:

It is becoming increasingly popular to use those fake candles with replaceable oil. Even the side-altars in St. Peter’s use these, and as we know, there are many priests who daily celebrate private Masses in the EF at those altars. I was under the impression the real candles with a certain percentage of real beeswax were specified.

This isn’t just about being fussy.  It is good to pay attention to candles.

Candles are interesting things.  They do more than simply shed light or, in this age of electricity, create an ambiance.  They, like we do, breathe in air.  They move.  They eat.  They die.  We use them as a sacrificial offering, for once they are used, they are gone for good.  They stand in our place when we have intentions to pray for.  We light them to avert storms.  They remind us that, in this dark fallen world, the light of Christ will be victorious.

It seems to me that Summorum Pontificum did not automatically revive all the pre-Conciliar legislation and decrees for the rubrics and things used for Mass and other rites.  That said, there is an interior logic to the way things were done before.  It seems like a good idea to follow those ways as closely as possible when we are dealing with the Extraordinary Form.

At the same time, not ever place where the Extraordinary Form is used is exclusively for the Extraordinary Form.  That being the case, there must be for the time being some flexibility about what we do.  There are bound to be some accommodations to the way things are set up for the Ordinary Form.

For example, if there is one altar cloth being used on a parish altar that is also used for the older form of Mass, given the fact that there are often time restrictions and less than adequate labor available, it doesn’t seem reasonable to require a re-clothing of the altar every time.  The logical solution would be to have the altar permanently clothed for the older form.  That sounds to me like a healthy and reasonable approach.  First, our forebears figured out the best and most practical way to do things.  The number of cloths have a purpose: if there is a spill of the Precious Blood, three cloths will effectively contain the spill whereas one probably will not.

Similarly, it could be too hard to switch all the candles before celebrations of a TLM.  So, we forge ahead hoping that, perhaps, the choice will be made to adjust the present use according to our tradition.  That said, if it is not possible to have better candles, I suppose we just have to sigh and move forward, keeping our hod and trowel close at hand.

Here is something that was posted by a commenter here some time ago on the question of candles.

This is more about candles than you may want to know!

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

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%.

More recently, a guidelines – I don’t think a law – from the U.S. bishops in the USCCB’s 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.]

Also at n. 94:

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

About the sanctuary lamp before the Blessed Sacrament look in “Holy Communion and Worship of the Eucharist Outside Mass” (1973) in the 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.]

That said, in 1974 the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments answer a question about candles in 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.”

In the GIRM (2002) at 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.

So, there is quite a bit of flexibility about the material of the candles, but the vector of the Church’s thought is pretty clear.  Candles should be of a material that is for the most part natural.  A high percentage real bee’s wax is preferred, always remember that 100% bees wax candles can get a little droopy in hot weather.  They should produce a good flame without guttering.  Tallow or animal fat is too smokey and smells bad.  Vegetable oil, especially olive oil is permitted.

Finally, as a personal note, nothing makes a church smell “Catholic” more than the lingering scent of incense, some wood polish, and bee’s wax candles burning.  That combination alone is just about enough to get you thinking about converting or going to confession or saying the Rosary … you know… doing something Catholic.

Maybe some readers have more.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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  1. Rob in Maine says:

    Use good candles!

    Last week at my parish someone came through the side door and a big gust of wind swept across the Sanctuary. The cheap candles sent up embers which came down and set the alter cloth smoldering. The candles now have glass chimneys, but still….

  2. Wax candles MUST used in the Mass in the U.S.:

    “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.”


    Unfortunately, there are many who ignore this requirement in both OF and EF only churches.

  3. benedetta says:

    Well, here we have no tabernacle candle…and, no altar cloth whatsoever…totally bare as in Good Friday all the time…what can one say other than it appears at least that the theme of “homeliness” (?) is adhered to with strict consistency…

  4. capchoirgirl says:

    Ah, this is very interesting! When I was in grade school we were taught that they had to be all beeswax, so that was what I thought they had to be made of. I learned something today. :)
    But yes, totally agree on the smell–it definitely says “Catholic” to me.

  5. Jack Hughes says:

    “Finally, as a personal note, nothing makes a church smell “Catholic” more than the lingering scent of incense, some wood polish, and bee’s wax candles burning. That combination alone is just about enough to get you thinking about converting or going to confession or saying the Rosary … you know… doing something Catholic.”

    Spot on Father

  6. Pius says:

    The GIRM still says that candles must be used on the altar. It does not say “any manufactured item that can hold a flame”. While the rubrics do not specify their composition, they must still be candles, as that word is normally understood. An oil lamp is not a candle — they are different things.

    That said, some do make use of candle holders. The exterior may look like a “fake candle” but there is a real candle inside. I admit, this smacks of formalism. At least it’s an attempt to provide an authentic candle. Could that be what they have at St. Peter’s?

  7. pseudomodo says:

    Years ago a priest giving a mission told us that in the old days you were required to use beeswax and to use anything else was a mortal sin and that it was church law!

    Does anyone recall this in church law?

  8. Rob Cartusciello says:

    Last year my wife & I were at a church in Rome. One of the candles burned through it’s plastic container & proceeded to spill hot burning wax across the altar, igniting several other plastic-encased candles. It was quite a production getting the fire out.

    Afterward, the priest remarked to the sacristan “La plastica non che buona!” (“Plastic is not good”)

    It is the Italian phrase my wife still remembers best.

  9. MrD says:

    We built a new church, but still maintain the original building as a chapel (since it is connected to the school). Within the chapel, the tabernacle was moved from the altar area to the side. I also thought it was odd that they had an electric sanctuary lamp next to it. It is really sad to see the kids running by the tabernacle with no respect or concern, but they are not taught otherwise.

    The priests here are oblates of St. Francis DeSales and do not seem to think much of genuflecting or other “traditional” rituals. One priest informed me that kneeling had nothing to do with our religion and was borrowed from Roman, pagan court rituals.

  10. Lily says:

    “Finally, as a personal note, nothing makes a church smell “Catholic” more than the lingering scent of incense, some wood polish, and bee’s wax candles burning. That combination alone is just about enough to get you thinking about converting or going to confession or saying the Rosary … you know… doing something Catholic.”

    Ahhh, yes! Precisely my experience, as a cradle Catholic, when I attended a beautiful Solemn High Mass at St. Francis de Sales Oratory in St. Louis. I don’t know what kind of candles they use, but the scent of incense sure did it! Talk about reigniting the flame of faith. :-)

  11. Jordanes says:

    On the liturgical significance of candles, I think this passage from The Golden Legend‘s discussion of Candlemas is quite beautiful:

    “The third reason for celebrating the feast of Candlemas is to recall the procession that occurred on this day, when Mary and Joseph and Symeon and Anna formed a solemn procession and presented the Child Jesus in the Temple. On the feast day we too make a procession, carrying in our hands a lighted candle, which signifies Jesus, and bearing it into the churches. In the candle there are three things — the wick, the wax, and the fire. These three things signify three things about Christ: the wax is a sign of His body, which was born of the Virgin Mary without corruption of the flesh, as bees make honey without mingling with each other; the wick signifies His most pure soul, hidden in His body; the fire or the light stands for His divinity, because our God is a consuming fire.”

    The analogy between the way bees make honey and the wax of their honeycombs, and the virginal conception and birth of Jesus, is the basis for the old law that required that altar candles be made of beeswax and nothing else.

  12. Daniel Latinus says:

    The last time I looked at an ecclesiastical supply catalog, most of the candles offered were 51% beeswax. And all the documents I’ve ever read indicate this is acceptable for liturgical use. (Most of my reading on this is from sources dating from the middle decades of the 20th century.)

    Many churches use candles that are essentially a plastic tube with a spring-loaded device, which holds a small, wax taper. This allows the candle to burn without becoming shorter, and is meant to provide a pleasing appearance. Webb’s The Liturgical Altar, reflecting legislation in force in the 1930s, said that these devices are tolerated, but true candles are preferred. Webb also stated that adding extra candles to the altar was to be preferred over adding flowers on festive occasions.

    Some years ago, one of the cable channels ran a series on handcraft trades in Ireland. One episode showed a candle factory. The narrator mentioned, with horror, that in the US, they were using electric votive lights. The narrator commented, “if this keeps up, we’ll end up lighting a flashlight to the devil.” (The last word pronounced, “divul”.)

    I have to agree with the narrator.

  13. pelerin says:

    Over the years I have acquired quite a collection of candles of varying sizes from the different ceremonies I have attended. I was wondering what I should do with them as many were blessed and I don’t want to throw them out.

  14. BenedictXVIFan says:

    I once read a beautiful explanation of why candles continue to be used, when electric light has been available for decades: candles symbolize Christ who allowed Himself to be consumed to show us the way.

  15. BenedictXVIFan says:

    Sorry, that should have said ‘allows’ rather than ‘allowed’ since it is a reference to the Eucharist.

  16. Re: beeswax candles — If it’s hard to get beeswax candles at a price you like, people could always start a candlemaking guild for the parish. You buy wax, melt it in a double boiler (not Mom’s, if you love her!) on the stove, pour it in a mold with a wick, wait till it cools, and voila! Obviously not cheap cheap to start with, but only the wicks and the wax would be repeat buys. A lot of crafty and DIY people would be into this, and it’d be a better Confirmation class project than a lot of the junk they make kids do.

    Beeswax by the pound gets cheaper the closer you buy to the source. Craft stores at the mall will charge you a ton, but candlemaking supplies stores online will be a lot less. Buying it from the bee company, a lot less than that. You also get a lot of discount for buying wholesale, but I don’t imagine most parishes would want to make 55 pounds’ worth of candles in their first venture.

  17. Emilio III says:

    I was taught that church candles were to be made of beeswax and olive oil, and assumed that the difference between the “normal” bleached candles and the unbleached ones at funerals were due to different ratios of wax to oil. It followed logically that they should smell differently, but I could not tell. Burning one of each side by side seemed like a good experiment… but the sacristan was not amused!

  18. Oh, and since the melting wax thing has to be done slowly and carefully and temperature monitored at all times, so as not to let the wax suddenly sweep past the melting point and have the aerial vapors catch fire, it’s obviously a Dangerous Technical Thing which all your Serious Technical People can get into, while simultaneously being easy enough for everybody to understand what needs to be done. Since Mass candles aren’t usually going to be the colored or bleached kind of beeswax, this makes it the perfect Boy Scout activity: an easy craft done for the benefit of others, but having a soupcon of risk, which involves fire.

    Probably better done off parish property by adults only, for your insurance company’s peace of mind. :)

  19. Oops. I meant that, if you’re making white beeswax candles, you would be buying already-white beeswax from the supplier, not bleaching yellow beeswax to make it white. And if you were making unbleached beeswax candles, you’d just be buying the unbleached “yellow” beeswax and making that.

    The hard bit would be finding a mold that is the right size to fit the candlesticks at your church. Father wouldn’t want candles that are bigger or smaller than what he’s used to.

  20. Tim Ferguson says:

    Candles can be expensive. Good candles can be very expensive. I can understand a parish wanting to “cut corners” by going to a cheaper solution. Yet, candles are a worthy expense, especially when used in the worship of the Lord.

    Years ago, my parents had some “difficulties” with some of the goings-on at the parish they attended. Money was being spent on things my parents did not support. They called me to discuss what they could do – how to balance the obligation to support the Church (c. 222), and their obligation to be good stewards of their money. As we talked, we hit upon a brilliant (if I may say so myself) idea. My parents took the amount of money they normally contributed to the parish each month. They went to the local religious goods store, figured out how many candles their contribution would buy, and bought several boxes of altar candles for the church (after finding out the correct size the parish used). At the beginning of each month, my father would go to the parish office with the boxes of candles to donate. That way, their money was being used for something they could support (the worship of God) and a clear message was sent to the pastor, without avoiding their obligation to support the Church.

    I would say, if you’re in a parish that’s using cheap substitutes for candles, buying a couple boxes of good, wax candles to donate would be a good way of helping the parish out, and getting your message across. Of course, check with the pastor to see what size candles are needed, and talk with him respectfully (chances are he’s not going with substitute candles to prove any point, he’s simply trying to deal with financial difficulties). A well organized “altar guild” that can alleviate the expense of buying candles from the shoulders of the pastor could only be a good thing.

  21. Daniel Latinus says:

    Over the years I have acquired quite a collection of candles of varying sizes from the different ceremonies I have attended. I was wondering what I should do with them as many were blessed and I don’t want to throw them out.

    @pelerin: Use the candles when saying your daily prayers. Use them as personal votive lights. Light them on the anniversaries of baptisms, confirmations, deaths. Use them for your Advent wreath next year.

    Make sure you keep two on hand for sick calls.

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