Oil Candles at Mass
Date: July 30, 2023
Author: Fr. Edward McNamara, LC
Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and sacramental theology and director of the Sacerdos Institute at the Pontifical Regina Apostolorum University.
Question: Can paraffin oil candles be used on the altar during Mass? Or should candles be made of at least 51% beeswax? -- M.R., Alton, Illinois
Answer: This question frequently arises, so much of what I can say will repeat earlier answers.
Before the conciliar reform, strict laws governed the kind of candles used on the altar or at specific times of the year.
These universal laws are mostly no longer in force. This is not because they have been formally abrogated but because the Holy See no longer legislates on this subject and leaves such matters to the bishops’ conferences. Thus, there is a variety of legislation concerning the norms regarding the composition of candles.
Indeed, even before the liturgical reform, beginning in 1902, the Holy See allowed bishops fairly wide latitude in determining the composition of candles to adjust to the availability of pure beeswax. According to the ceremonies book of A. Fortescue, J.B. O’Connor and A. Reid:
“The proportion of beeswax in church candles is regulated by law. The Pascal candle, the two candles for low Mass, six for High Mass, and the twelve necessary for Benediction must have at least 65 percent of real beeswax. All other candles used on the altar must have at least 25 percent of real beeswax. …
"So the Bishops of England and Wales on 4 December 1906, and the Bishops of Ireland, in October 1905, directed that the Pascal Candle and the two principal candles on the altar at Mass should contain at least 65 percent of beeswax and that all other candles used on the altar should contain at least 25 percent of beeswax."
In a footnote, the authors add:
“A decision of the Sacred Congregation of Rites (13 December 1957) allows local episcopal conferences to modify the ruling of decree 4147.”
In light of this 1957 decree, some bishops’ conferences made changes. For example, a 1961 decree for Italy determined that the minimum two candles required for Mass and the Easter candle had to have a minimum of 10 percent pure beeswax. Other candles used in the church required at least 5 percent. Some paraffins and other vegetable and mineral waxes were also allowed in the mix.
Waxes and oils derived from animal fat were totally excluded. Artificial candles, within which there was a metal container with a spring that ensured that the candles burned upward rather than downward, were considered as "tolerated."
After the liturgical reform, the General Instruction of the Roman Missal is this subject. No. 117 briefly describes their location and number without specifying their composition.
An exception to this silence is the Easter candle. For example, the 1988 Circular Letter on the preparation for Easter published by the Congregation for Divine Worship states:
"The paschal candle should be prepared, which for effective symbolism must be made of wax, never be artificial, be renewed each year, be only one in number, and be of sufficiently large size, so that it may evoke the truth that Christ is the light of the world. It is blessed with the signs and words prescribed in the Missal or by the Conference of Bishops."
For the United States, there is an official stance from the bishops’ Conference. To wit:
“The Secretariat of the Bishops' Committee on the Liturgy has received a number of inquiries in the last year concerning the Church's norms governing the use of candles and oil lamps in the liturgy. Many have asked whether oil lamps may be used as substitutes for candles during the celebration of the liturgy. The last time this question was addressed by the Secretariat was in the June-July 1974 edition of this Newsletter.
“The General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM) states the following concerning the use of candles:
"Candles are to be used at every liturgical service as a sign of reverence and festiveness (no. 269; see also no. 79).
“In a 1974 interpretation of GIRM 269, the Congregation for Divine Worship noted that the GIRM makes no further determination regarding the material of which candles are made except in the case of the sanctuary lamp, the fuel for which must be oil or wax. The Congregation then recalled the faculty that the bishops' conferences possess to choose suitable materials.
“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 materials either as a substitute for or in imitation 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. Furthermore, because of their very nature, imitations of candles should not be used in the liturgy as, for example, 'permanent' paschal candles, nor should electric bulbs be used in liturgical celebration. In the interests of authenticity and symbolism, it is likewise unfitting that so-called electric vigil lights be used for devotional purposes.”
This would be the applicable law since our reader writes from the United States.
A 2005 document by the Bishops of England and Wales says regarding candles:
“In order that the symbolism of the candle be an authentic one, only genuine wax candles should be used in the liturgy. The use of fake ‘candles’ with wax or oil inserts, is not permitted at Mass.”
Some other countries have not legislated, but this has not been interpreted as leaving the former norm intact as in the United States but rather as allowing for alternative solutions. Thus, over the last 50 years, the use of "liquid wax" artificial candles has become very popular in Italy and other parts of the world. Almost every religious goods store in Rome, including those belonging to the Holy See, offers a wide selection of such "candles," along with the liquid to refill them.
Their availability in Roman stores is, of course, no guarantee of legitimate use. And I have seen quite a selection of bizarre liturgical fantasies in Roman emporiums. It is true, however, that this form of candle is very common in the Eternal City's churches and convents.
That said, I have found no decree in Italy that has specifically authorized it, nor anything that has forbidden it.
At the same time, we have seen above that even before the Second Vatican Council, the Italian bishops allowed for several combinations with a very low degree of authentic wax, so this practice would be a logical continuation of the earlier concessions. It would therefore appear to be an application of the legal principle of “Qui tacet consentire” or more fully: “He who is silent, when he ought to have spoken and was able to, is taken to agree.”
Papal celebrations continue to adhere to the traditional wax candles, and it must be admitted that from the symbolic and aesthetic points of view, they are the more beautiful and apt.
The Church Fathers saw several symbolic meanings in the use of beeswax. Some saw the spotless wax representing Christ's most spotless Body; the enclosed wick enclosed an image of his soul, while the glowing flame typifies the divine nature united with the human in one divine Person. The conclusive verses of the Easter Proclamation also testify to this tradition:
“The sanctifying power of this night
dispels wickedness, washes faults away,
restores innocence to the fallen, and joy to mourners,
drives out hatred, fosters concord, and brings down the mighty.
On this, your night of grace, O holy Father,
accept this candle, a solemn offering,
the work of bees and of your servants’ hands,
an evening sacrifice of praise,
this gift from your most holy Church.
“But now we know the praises of this pillar,
which glowing fire ignites for God's honor,
a fire into many flames divided,
yet never dimmed by sharing of its light,
for it is fed by melting wax,
drawn out by mother bees
to build a torch so precious.
“O truly blessed night,
when things of heaven are wed to those of earth,
and divine to the human.
“Therefore, O Lord,
we pray you that this candle,
hallowed to the honor of your name,
may persevere undimmed,
to overcome the darkness of this night.
“Receive it as a pleasing fragrance,
and let it mingle with the lights of heaven.
"May this flame be found still burning
by the Morning Star:
the one Morning Star who never sets,
Christ your Son,
who, coming back from death's domain,
has shed his peaceful light on humanity,
and lives and reigns for ever and ever.
* * *
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