ASK FATHER: Electric, battery powered … candles?

candleFrom a reader…


Dear Father, We have, on occasion, attended Mass at a Novus Ordo parish when we cannot get to the distant Latin Holy Sacrifice of the Mass in our area. We were shocked to see young girl altar servers carrying battery operated candles in procession and placing them on the altar for Mass (no other candles at all). Further we were shocked at a friend’s funeral to see adult altar servers carrying same battery operated candles in procession and placed on the altar for Mass (no other candles). Is this licit? Even if it is, it seems beyond tacky.

The General Instruction of the Roman Missal speaks only of “candles” in the celebration of Holy Mass. It does not define what a candle is.  It’s sad that we have come so far that the definition of something so simple would be required. Then again, in our society, where all definitions seem to be up for grabs, perhaps defining “candle” is the least of our worries.

A couple years back, the U.S. Bishops Office on Sacred Worship issued a statement on the matter.  The statement comes from the bureaucratic officers who staff the USCCB, not from the bishops themselves. Therefore, it has no legislative authority.  However, it is a clarification.  It relies on clear legislative precedents as well as simple, common logic.  HERE

According to this statement, only wax candles are permissible.

Imitation candles should not be used, either at Mass, or in devotional settings.

That said, there is pressure from local governments and insurance companies about the possibility of fire damage from candles. This, despite the fact that churches have been using candles for centuries with less incidence of fire than that caused by faulty electric wiring. I’m just sayin’.

I sympathize with pastors who are been pushed by the local apparatchiks or by their insurance providers to switch to electric “candles”.  I urge them, insofar as possible, to resist the temptation.

A candle is a candle.

Candles are beautiful symbols of our sacrifices.  They are like living things.  They eat and drink the wax from the bees, made collectively in association with sweetness.  They breath air.  They move in their flames as they flicker.  They communicate to our eyes a beautiful light and give contrast to their surroundings by illumination.  They burn out at the end of their span.  So do we.  They are consumed for the Lord in the liturgy.  So should we be.  We do all these things.   And so, using candles in important times is a very wholesome and Catholic practice.  Leaving one of these little candles in a Church, as a symbolic sacrifice of your prayers and petitions is entirely natural.

When considering the electric option, Fathers, consider the symbolism of the flame gradually consuming the candle, transforming it into heat and light, just as our faith in Christ Jesus gradually consumes our body and soul, transforming us, through death, into Sons and Daughters of the Living God.

Does throwing switch do if for you?

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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  1. Giuseppe says:

    I work in a (non Catholic) hospital, and fire is not allowed. The Jewish patients have used electric Shabbos candles for years, and in the chapel electric candles are used. The very existence of Mass in a hospital has a beauty and specialness of its own that makes up for some of the cheesiness of electric candles. no excuse, though, for electric candles otherwise.

  2. Get rid of the carpeting and felt banners, and candles won’t be such a fire hazard.

  3. andia says:

    It’s not just fire damage that is the issue. Many churches house scared art- which can be damaged by the smoke. One chuch I used to work in ( it has sadly closed) had plain white walls –the wax candles did hundreds of dollars of smoke damage to those walls. Blessedly they were not near the sculptured stations of the cross, the oil paintings or other artworks that made the church so beautiful.
    The priest fought the battery operated candles, with the same tenacity he fought the parish closing…at least he won on the candles. But I do want folks to know that the decision to move to battery-operated candles is not always based on insurance or money…sometimes it’s proposed to save sacred objects and art. And it’s not always possible to reposition the candles and have them serve the same purpose.

  4. rodin says:

    When I was in Florence, about 15 years ago, I noticed that the candles used in Santa Croce were electric. Seemed like a good idea to me though it looks like there is not that much combustible material around. However, it is wise to take no chances where there is so much great art around. Enough damage was done in the 1966 flood.

  5. Matt R says:

    Oil candles are tacky too.

  6. Veritatis Splendor says:

    andia: However, we have used candles next to our sacred art for thousands of years. We clean it every once in a while, but the smoke itself can add to the beauty of the artwork by demonstrating how many imaginations the art has helped to holiness. The best example is Our Lady of Czestochowa.

  7. slainewe says:

    May I add an appeal for pastors to also resist the use of artificial flowers?

    The cut flower is also rich in meaning. Separated from plant and root, it has sacrificed any chance to bear physical fruit in exchange for the privilege of dying in the Presence of the Lord. This makes it a particularly beautiful symbol of the consecrated life. “For a day in thy courts is better than a thousand elsewhere.”

    Artificial flowers and worse, potted plants, in the Sanctuary symbolize what we should NOT want to be in the Presence of the Lord.

  8. sirlouis says:

    As to the sacred art: Those charged with preservation of art should inquire about modern materials compounded to protect paintings and statuary and other furniture such as gilt candlesticks and fabric hangings. Current thinking is that no atmosphere is going to be free of soot and dust and other pollutants, so the best thing to do is not to hope that there will be so soot or dirt, but instead to coat the art work with something that will capture the dirt and can be removed, safely and easily, from time to time as dirt accumulates. With such protection, the presence of candles should not be a great issue.

    The USCCB clarification quotes from the GIRM. It is a little distressing to note that the GIRM says that candles should not be placed so as to “interfere with the faithful’s clear view of what takes place on the altar or what is placed on it,” which seems to accept the notion of worshipers as, in essence, spectators in what is a performance.

  9. Bea says:

    I had always understood that they had to be made of pure beeswax for liturgical purposes.
    I was wrong.
    article 67 in ceremonies of the Modern Roman Rite by (then) Mons. (now Bishop) Peter J. Elliott states: “There is no obligation to use beeswax, but high-quality candles seem to be preferable”

    At our parish, votive candles sold in the church reception office are the only ones permitted because of insurance constriction. They are made of wax and in an unbreakable glass container. After purchase most parishioners leave the candles there to be blessed by a priest before they are placed before the icon/statue the parishioners bring their request to.

    If someone brings in store-bought (breakable) glass that contains candles, they are quickly removed by church staff. These store-bought ones can be a fire hazard if they should break from the heat.

  10. Lavrans says:

    The other problem is the female altar boys. It never made sense and still doesn’t. Thank God more and more Catholics are coming to their senses and getting rid of this fad.

  11. erhatke says:

    We spend part of the year in a very small village in Northern Italy. Our parish lost its priest a few years ago and Rome has not sent us another. The lady who runs the little shop in the village has the key to the church. We DO have electric candles. How would it be possible to have candles always burning before the Blessed Sacrament otherwise? Our little village is very devout. In October and May the church bells ring every night in the early evening ( 8:00 or thereabouts…remember this is Italy) and slowly but surely the village goes up to the church for the rosary. The store lady has unlocked the doors. The church bells also ring out every hour and 1/2 hour. with special peals for the Angelus. So……with all of this, are we to be criticized for having electric candles?????

  12. Venerator Sti Lot says:

    “Does throwing switch do if for you?” reminds me to ask, on a slight tangent, are there rules or venerable traditions for lighting candles? Lucifers and other matches are fairly recent and lighters of various sorts more recent still. And, if one lights candles directly with some kind of wick or taper, with what does one light it, one step back?

  13. Militans says:

    For those worried about waste or regularly clearing used containers away (such as in a cathedral or other large church), or glass smashing / wax on floor / fire /etc I would recommend this system:

    No idea how pricy it is (I imagine fairly pricy because new-ish system and no competition due to patent protection), but it looks pretty perfect – and if the candles are low/no soot all the better.

    I’ve been trying to persuade my pastor to go for this system – we currently use tea lights (but you have to clear all the empty cases, which can be hard if the candles you have to reach over are still burning because of the heat) and he wants to go for tapers in a dish of sand (but I have seen these bend* – and also you are leaving stubs of wax in the sand which can make it difficult for others to light candles unless someone filters the sand regularly, and I can’t imagine removing the stubs or changing the sand to be a tidy job!

    * I helped at first confession and the children were given a taper after absolution to then place before the altar and pray their penance. One of the tapers was either bending or at a bad angle to start with and it melted the side of the plastic box containing the sand. Now the carpet on the altar step has melted plastic / burns in it.

  14. Grumpy Beggar says:

    My own apostolate has several common threads from Giuseppe’s scenario woven into it. I voluntarily assist a Catholic Chaplain in a large long-term and palliative care institution. I also spent 10 years in that same institution helping a priest who was half paralyzed by a stroke and who suffered from Parkinson’s, to celebrate Mass – almost on a daily basis.

    There are situations where candles just can’t be used depending where Mass happens to be celebrated on any given occasion in the 2 pavilions. At those times , we have to use 2 battery-powered pseudo-candles. Yet even in those areas where it is still permissible to use candles when celebrating Mass , any patient who has an oxygen tank is not permitted entry (but they can attend at the doorway) – house rules : oxygen tanks and open flames do not mix well.

    At one point not so long ago, our chapel even had four 24-candle banks of real 7-day votive candles , but they’ve all been replaced now by those “drop your coins in, push a button and watch the flickering bulb“-type contrivances. The weird thing is that my home parish replaced their votive candles with these electrical forgeries about 5 years before the chapel of this long-term/palliative care institution ever got around to doing it . . . You’d figure things would’ve gone more the reverse.

    I’ll never get used to the idea of a power outage being able to extinguish the outer manifestation of everybody’s prayers. They spend all kinds of money developing bulbs that can flicker and dip – fakes, and rather ironic ones at that. Anyone who has watched the paraffin wax-based votive candles burn , might surely notice the flame a hip-hoppin’ and poppin’ all over the place during the candle’s life – even when there is no breeze or current of air in the room. A real bees wax candle OTH , without any breeze, burns straight and strong and true – it’s a steady flame.

    The bee is one of the symbols of our faith. The beehive , according to Fr. John Hardon, S.J., was the emblem of several saints, including: St. Ambrose, St John Chrysostom and St Bernard of Clairvaux.

    Dom Gueranger, O.S.B. , Candlemas
    “The mystery of to-day’s ceremony has frequently been explained by liturgists, dating from the 7th century. According to St. Ivo of Chartres [In his Second Sermon on the Purification], the wax which is formed from the juice of flowers by the bee, (which has always been considered as the emblem of virginity,) signifies the virginal flesh of the Divine Infant, who diminished not, either by his conception or his birth, the spotless purity of his Blessed Mother. The same holy Bishop would have us see, in the flame of our Candle, a symbol of Jesus, who came to enlighten our darkness. St. Anselm [Enarrations on St. Luke] Archbishop of Canterbury, speaking on the same mystery, bids us consider three things in the blest Candle: the Wax, the Wick, and the Flame. The Wax, he says, which is the production of the virginal bee, is the Flesh of our Lord; the Wick, which is within, is his Soul; the Flame, which burns on the top, is his Divinity.”

    Not that much of a tossup really: The age old tradition of the bee as a symbol in Catholicism vs (what do you suppose the symbol for electricity would be – perhaps) Benjamin Franklin . . . A bee vs a guy flying a kite in a lightning storm . . . Personally, the latter makes me a little uncomfortable from a religious perspective : There’s just something about that reference to lightning as an “act of God” , and a guy flying a kite in a lightning storm which remotely calls to mind that appropriate verse from scripture – “Thou shalt not put the Lord thy God to the test.”

  15. kimberley jean says:

    I visit a shrine in Maryland that is surrounded by vagrants, and many of them insane. They have security guards to protect the shrine and the pilgrims and electric candles. Real candles would be nice but the guard can’t be everywhere.

  16. Father P says:

    Veneratur — Remember the Easter Fire. In the days before easy access to matches and lighters the “new” fire was a “new” fire for the lamps in the church since all would have been extinguished on Holy Saturday.

    This discussion reminds me of a liturgy prof in the seminary who said to us….

    Gentlemen — everything that goes in the sanctuary (candles, flowers, vestments, books has to die and that applies to you, too, Father

    and Gentlemen — nothing artificial of fake belongs in the sanctuary …. and that applies to you, too, Father

  17. Rob in Maine says:

    I also work at a Catholic Hospital. In our Chapel there is an electric Sanctuary Lamp with a red globe and a flickering bulb. Our Chapel is in the basement level and the ceilings are less than 8’ high (I’m 6’4”). For Mass, we have these fake plastic candles with a recess at the top for votives – which is what is used. So, we do use candles, even if itty bitty ones.

  18. Gabriel Syme says:

    On honeymoon in Sorrento (2012), I attended a Novus Ordo – English language, aimed at tourists during the high season.

    All the candles in the place, bar just two, were electric.

    And then we had a power cut during the mass! There were gasps from the multi-nationality congregation when the lights went out, but the italian priest was unperturbed “eet ‘appens” he remarked casually with a shrug, not breaking his mass-saying stride.

    So that was the time I attended mass in near total darkness. The effect of having just two candles on in the entire Church was actually quite dramatic / atmospheric.

    (also on that honeymoon, I later attended a few masses at a Church serving the American Embassy community in Rome and then in Venice I attended another tourist mass; the Venice mass was one of the most shambolic novus ordos I had ever been at – and thats really saying something – and was undoutedly a stepping stone for me towards the mass of all time).

  19. acricketchirps says:

    Venerator Sti Lot: And, if one lights candles directly with some kind of wick or taper, with what does one light it, one step back?

    Definitely extra points if you can trace it back to the Flame of Anor.

  20. Venerator Sti Lot says:

    Father P,

    I wondered about the Easter Fire: was – and in some places, is – some flame ultimately from it kept burning thoughout the year, so that all new lightings can be traced back to it?

    Is – or would – it customarily be lit using a flint (from a tinderbox)?


    That would be tracing it back!

    Genesis 22:6 suddenly came to mind: “ipse vero portabat in manibus ignem”.

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