Q. What is the reason for the use of candles in the Catholic Church? What is the meaning behind the different candles in the Church?
A. The symbol of light—and therefore candles—is a fitting sign used in the devotional life of Christians. Jesus said, “I am the light of the world; the one who follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have light and life (John 8:12).
Our Lord entered a world of darkness, and he brought the light of his truth and his love to dispel it. His light is meant to enter into the individual soul of every human person.
A beautiful expression of this reality is the procession of the Paschal Candle at the beginning of the Easter Vigil Mass. In this Liturgy, the deacon or priest carries the Paschal Candle down the center aisle of a completely darkened church. All in attendance hold individual candles that are lit as he processes to the sanctuary.
This procession of the Paschal Candle expresses the reality of baptism. It is only Christ who can conquer the darkness of sin and give us true light, and it is through the sacrament of baptism that Christians receive the light of Christ within their souls. The parents and godparents of a newly baptized infant are given the gift of a candle, lit from the Paschal Candle, as a sign of the light of Christ now burning in the heart of the newly baptized.
The symbol of light has been used in a variety of religious practices. Our ancestors in the faith, the people of Israel, had a perpetual light burning in the temple and in synagogues to symbolize the presence of God.
The ancient Romans used candles as well. Around the time of Christ, the Romans believed their emperors to be divine, and they would light candles near the image of the emperor as a sign of reverence to them.
Christians in the early Church adopted the practice of the use of candles at Mass, in funeral processions, and to indicate the presence of the Holy Eucharist. The use of a “presence candle” or “sanctuary lamp” continues to be used today, as a reminder of Christ’s abiding love for us and the presence of the Eucharist in a church.
At least two candles are to be used at every celebration of the Eucharist, as signs of reverence and solemnity.
Candles are also used to help facilitate prayer. Votive candles are lit in churches with some intention in mind: perhaps in thanksgiving for a special blessing received from God, as a cry for help, or for healing in one’s heart or the heart of a loved one. The votive candle serves as a reminder of the person’s intention.
Write to Ask the Register using our online form, or write to 3700 Sheridan Blvd., Suite 10, Lincoln NE 68506-6100. All questions are subject to editing. Editors decide which questions to publish. Personal questions cannot be answered. People with such questions are urged to take them to their nearest Catholic priest.