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Home > Catholic Encyclopedia > A > Altar Candles

Altar Candles

For mystical reasons the Church prescribes that the candles used at Mass and at other liturgical functions be made of beeswax (luminaria cerea. — Missale Rom., De Defectibus, X, I; Cong. Sac. Rites, 4 September, 1875). The pure wax extracted by bees from flowers symbolizes the pure flesh of Christ received from His Virgin Mother, the wick signifies the soul of Christ, and the flame represents His divinity. Although the two latter properties are found in all kinds of candles, the first is proper of beeswax candles only. It is, however, not necessary that they be made of beeswax without any admixture. The paschal candle and the two candles used at Mass should be made ex cera apum saltem in maxima parte, but the other candles in majori vel notabili quantitate ex eadem cera (Cong. Sac. Rit., 14 December, 1904). As a rule they should be of white bleached wax, but at funerals, at the office of Tenebrae in Holy Week, and at the Mass of the Presanctified, on Good Friday, they should be of yellow unbleached wax (Caerem. Episc.). De Herdt (I, no. 183, Resp. 2) says that unbleached wax candles should be used during Advent and Lent except on feasts, solemnities, and especially during the exposition and procession of the Blessed Sacrament. Candles made wholly of any other material, such as tallow (Cong. Sac. Rit., 10 December, 1857) stearine (Cong. Sac. Rit., 4 September, 1875), paraffin, etc., are forbidden. The Cong. Sac. Rit. (7 September, 1850) made an exception for the missionaries of Oceania, who, on account of the impossibility of obtaining wax candles, are allowed to use sperm-whale candles. Without an Apostolic indult it is not allowable, and it constitutes a grievous offense to celebrate Mass without any light (Cong. Sac. Rit., 7 September, 1850), even for the purpose of giving Holy Viaticum, or of enabling the people to comply with their duty of assisting at Mass on Sundays and holy days (St. Lig., bk. VI, n. 394). In these, and similar cases of necessity it is the common opinion that Mass may be celebrated with tallow candles or oil lamps (ibid.). It is not permitted to begin Mass before the candles are lighted, nor are they to be extinguished until the end of Mass. If the candles go out before the Consecration, and cannot be again lighted, most authors say that Mass should be discontinued; if this happens after the Consecration, Mass should not be interrupted, although some authors say that if they can possibly be lighted again within fifteen minutes the celebrant ought to interrupt Mass for this space of time (ibid.) If only one rubrical candle can be had, Mass may be celebrated even ex devotione (ibid).

Number of candles at mass

(1) At a pontifical high Mass, celebrated by the ordinary, seven candles are lighted. The seventh candle should be somewhat higher than the others, and should be placed at the middle of the altar in line with the other six. For this reason the altar crucifix is moved forward a little. In Requiem Masses, and at other liturgical services. e.g. Vespers, the seventh candle is not used. If the bishop celebrate outside his diocese. or if he be the administrator, auxiliary, or coadjutor, the seventh candle is not lighted.

(2) At a solemn high Mass, i.e. when the celebrant is assisted by a deacon and subdeacon, six candles are lighted. This is not expressly prescribed by the rubrics, but merely deduced from the rubric describing the manner of incensing the altar (Ritus celebrandi Missam, tit. iv, n. 4), which says that the celebrant incenses both sides of the altar with three swings of the censer prout distribuuntur candelabra.

(3) At a high Mass (missa cantata), which is celebrated without the assistance of deacon and subdeacon, at least four candles are required (Cong. Sac. Rit., 12 August, 1854), although six may be lighted. At these Masses under (l), (2), (3), the two lighted candles prescribed by the Missal (Rubr. XX) to be placed one on each side of the cross, are not necessary (Cong. Sac. Rit., 5 December, 1891).

(4) At low Mass celebrated by any bishop, four candles are usually lighted, although the "Caeremoniale Episcoporum" (I, cap. xxix, n. 4) prescribes this number only for the more solemn feasts, and two on feasts of lower rite.

(5) At a strictly low Mass celebrated by any priest inferior to a bishop, whatever be his dignity, only two candles may be used.

(6) In a not strictly low Mass, i.e. in a parochial or community Mass on more solemn feasts or the Mass which is said instead of a solemn or high Mass on the occasion of a great solemnity (Cong. Sac. Rit., 12 September, 1857), when celebrated by a priest more than two candles, and when celebrated by a bishop more than four candles may be used.

At all functions throughout the year except on Good Friday and Holy Saturday, before the Mass bishops are allowed the use of the bugia or hand-candlestick. The use of the bugia is not permitted to priests, whatever be their dignity, unless it be granted by an Apostolic privilege either personal, or by reason of their being curial dignitaries. If, on account of darkness a priest stands in need of a light near the Missal he may use a candle, but the candlestick on which it is fastened cannot have the form of the bugia (Cong. Sac. Rit., 31 May, 1817). An oil lamp can never be used for this purpose (Cong. Sac. Rit., 20 June, 1899). At the Forty Hours Devotion at least twenty candles should burn continuously (Instructio Clementina, section 6); at other public expositions of the Blessed Sacrament at least five (Cong. Sac. Rit., 8 February, 1879); at the private exposition, at least six (Cong. Episc. et Reg., 9 December, 1602). The only blessings at which lighted candles are prescribed are:

About this page

APA citation. Schulte, A.J. (1907). Altar Candles. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

MLA citation. Schulte, Augustin Joseph. "Altar Candles." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 1. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1907. <>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Michael C. Tinkler.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. March 1, 1907. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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