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The word candle (candela, from candeo, to burn) was introduced into the English language as an ecclesiastical term, probably as early as the eighth century. It was known in classical times and denoted any kind of taper in which a wick, not uncommonly made of a strip of papyrus, was encased in wax or animal fat. We need not shrink from admitting that candles, like incense and lustral water, were commonly employed in pagan worship and in the rites paid to the dead. But the Church from a very early period took them into her service, just as she adopted many other things indifferent in themselves, which seemed proper to enhance the splendour of religious ceremonial. We must not forget that most of these adjuncts to worship, like music, lights, perfumes, ablutions, floral decorations, canopies, fans, screens, bells, vestments, etc. were not identified with any idolatrous cult in particular; they were common to almost all cults. They are, in fact, part of the natural language of mystical expression, and such things belong quite as much to secular ceremonial as they do to religion. The salute of an assigned number of guns, a tribute which is paid by a warship to the flag of a foreign power, is just as much or as little worthy to be described as superstitious as the display of an assigned number of candles upon the altar at high Mass. The carrying of tapers figures among the marks of respect prescribed to be shown to the highest dignitaries of the Roman Empire in the "Notitia Dignitatum Imperii". It is highly probable that the candles which were borne from a very early period before the pope or the bishop when he went in procession to the sanctuary, or which attended the transport of the book of the Gospels to the ambo or pulpit from which the deacon read, were nothing more than an adaptation of this secular practice.

The use of a multitude of candles and lamps was undoubtedly a prominent feature of the celebration of the Easter vigil, dating, we may believe, almost from Apostolic times. Eusebius (Vita Constant., IV, xxii) speaks of the "pillars of wax" with which Constantine transformed night into day, and Prudentius and other authors have left eloquent descriptions of the brilliance within the churches. Neither was the use of candles in the basilicas confined to those hours at which artificial light was necessary. Not to speak of the decree of the Spanish council at Elvira (c. 300), which seems to condemn as an abuse some superstitious burning of candles during the daytime in cemeteries, we know that the heretic Vigilantius towards the close of the same century made it a reproach against the orthodox that while the sun was still shining they lighted great piles of candles (moles cereorum accendi faciunt), and St. Jerome in answer declared that the candles were lighted when the Gospel was read, not indeed to put darkness to flight, but as a sign of joy. (Migne, P.L., XXIII, 345.) This remark and the close association of lighted candles with the baptismal ceremony, which took place on Easter Eve and which no doubt occasioned the description of that sacrament as photismos (illumination), shows that the Christian symbolism of blessed candles was already making itself felt at that early date. This conclusion is further confirmed by the language of the Exultet, still used in our day on Holy Saturday for the blessing of the paschal candle. It is highly probable that St. Jerome himself composed such a praeconium paschale (see Morin in Revue Bénédictine, Jan., 1891), and in this the idea of the supposed virginity of bees is insisted on, and the wax is therefore regarded as typifying in a most appropriate way the flesh of Jesus Christ born of a virgin mother. From this has sprung the further conception that the wick symbolizes more particularly the soul of Jesus Christ and the flame the Divinity which absorbs and dominates both. Thus the great paschal candle represents Christ, "the true light", and the smaller candles are typical of each individual Christian who strives to reproduce Christ in his life. This symbolism we may say is still accepted in the Church at large.

Besides the use at baptism and at funerals (St. Cyprian in 258 was buried praelucentibus cereis), we learn from the so-called Fourth Council of Carthage, really a synod held in Southern Gaul (c. 514), that in conferring the minor order of acolyte The candidate had delivered to him "a candlestick with a candle". The usage is observed to the present day. Such candles as these when carried by acolytes, as we learn from he Gregorian Sacramentary and the "Ordines Romani", were constantly used in the Roman Ceremonial from the seventh century and probably still earlier. These candles were placed upon the pavement of the sanctuary and not until much later upon the altars. Still the practice of setting candles upon the table of the altar itself seems to be somewhat older than the twelfth century. As the Roman pontiff, according to the "Ordines", was preceded by seven acolytes carrying candles, and as these candles at a later period were placed upon the altar and no longer upon the pavement, it is a tempting hypothesis to identify the six altar-candlesticks of an ordinary high Mass (there are seven when the bishop of the diocese pontificates) with the acolytes' candlesticks of the Roman "Ordines". But on this, see Edmund Bishop in the "Downside Review", 1906. The lighting of six candles upon the altar is now enjoined for every high Mass, four at every Missa Cantata, or for the private Mass of a bishop on festivals, and two for all other Masses. Still a certain freedom is left of lighting more candles on occasions of solemnity. Six candles should also be lighted at Vespers and Lauds when the Office is sung on great feasts, but on less solemn occasions two or four suffice. The rubrics also prescribe that two acolytes with candles should walk at the head of the procession to the sanctuary, and these two candles are also carried to do honour to the chanting of the Gospel at high Mass, as well as to the singing of the little chapter and the collects at Vespers, etc. Similarly the bishop when he makes his entry into a church is received and escorted by the acolytes with their candles. Again a bishop when taking part in any ecclesiastical function in the sanctuary has a little candlestick of his own, known as the bugia, which is held beside him by a chaplain or cleric. Candles are also used in excommunications, the reconciling of penitents, and other exceptional functions. They play a conspicuous part in the rite of the dedication of a church and the blessing of cemeteries, and an offering of candles is also made at the Offertory of an ordination mass by those who have just been ordained. In the conferring of all the sacraments except that of penance, it is enjoined that candles should be lighted. At a baptism a burning candle is put into the hand of the catechumen or of the godfather as representing the infant. It is not lawful to say Mass without lighted candles, and if the candles are in danger of being blown out by the wind they must be protected by lanterns. The rubrics of the "Roman Missal" direct that at the Sanctus, even of any private Mass, an additional candle should be lighted and should burn until after the Communion of the priest. This rubric however is much neglected in practice even in Rome itself.

As regards material, the candles used for liturgical purposes should be of beeswax. This is adhered to on account probably of its symbolic reference to the flesh of Christ, as already explained. In the case of the paschal candle and the two candles which are of obligation at Mass, a recent decree of the Congregation of Rites (14 Dec., 1904) has decided that they must be of beeswax in maxima parte, which commentators have interpreted as meaning not less than 75 per cent. For other purposes the candles placed upon the altar, e.g. at Benediction, ought to be made of wax, "in great part". Of such candles a minimum of twelve is prescribed for any public exposition of the Blessed Sacrament, though six will suffice in a poor church or for a private exposition. As a rule the colour of candles should be white, though gilded and painted candles are permitted under certain restrictions. In Masses for the dead however and in Holy Week yellow or unbleached wax is used. It is also fitting that the candles for liturgical purposes should be blessed, but this is not prescribed as of obligation. An elaborate blessing for candles is provided on the feast of the Purification on 2 Feb., otherwise known as Candlemas Day, and this is followed by a distribution of candles and a procession. In former ages this function was performed by the sovereign pontiff wherever he was resident; and of the candles so blessed some were scattered among the crowd and others sent as presents to persons of note. A less elaborate form of blessing for candles on ordinary occasions is given in the Missal as well as in the Ritual.

Candles were, and are, commonly used to burn before shrines towards which the faithful wish to show special devotion. The candle burning its life out before a statue is no doubt felt in some ill-defined way to be symbolical of prayer and sacrifice. A curious medieval practice was that of offering at any favoured shrine a candle or a number of candles equalling in measurement the height of the persons for whom some favour was asked. This was called "measuring to" such or such a saint. The practice can be traced back to the time of St. Radegund (d. 587) and later right through the Middle Ages. It was especially common in England and the North of France in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. For many other uses of candles, e.g. in the service of Tenebræ, in the hands of the dying, at First Communion, etc., the reader must be referred to the respective articles. (See ALTAR, subtitle Altar-Candles.)


BAUMER in the Kirchenlexikon, s.v. Kerze, Vol. VII, 395-402; see also MUHLBAUER, Geschichte und Bedeutung der Wachalichter bei den kirchlichen Funktionen (Augsburg, 1874), a most satisfactory monograph; THALHOFER, Liturgik (Freiburg, 1893), I, 666-82; MARTIN AND CAHIER, Melanges d'Archeologie (Paris, 1853), III, 1-51; Bishop, Of six candles on the Altar in the Downside Review, July, 1906, 188-203. For recent decisions see S.L.T., The Furniture of the Altar in The Ecclesiastical Review (July, 1904), 60-64; VAN DE STAPPEN, Sacra Liturgia (Mechlin, 1902), III, 74-85; Callationes Brugenses (Bruges, 1905),X, 398-400; Ephemerides Liturgicae, XV, 379-88.

About this page

APA citation. Thurston, H. (1908). Candles. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

MLA citation. Thurston, Herbert. "Candles." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 3. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1908. <>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Dorothy E. Moloney. Dedicated to the memory of her father, Robert Michael Moloney (5/2/1925-9/20/1996).

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. November 1, 1908. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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