Altar candles

In Paul Turner's Blog by Paul Turner

Q: Would it be the better part of discretion to ignore the following?  Like many parishes, we use a mix of oil lamps and wax candles – oil “candles” at the altar and wax for devotion.

Composition of Candles for Use in the Liturgy

From the April 2018 Newsletter of the Committee on Divine Worship

Prior to the Second Vatican Council altar candles were to be composed primarily or to a significant extent of pure beeswax, with the exact percentage determined by the diocesan bishop. The candle itself was given a mystical meaning: the beeswax symbolized the pure flesh Christ received from his Virgin Mother, the wick symbolized his soul, and the flame his divinity.

However, the current legislation is less specific. The General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM) does not address the composition of altar candles. Conferences of Bishops possess the faculty to determine their make-up, but the USCCB has never employed this faculty to permit materials other than wax in the production of candles, so candles for use in the Mass and other liturgical rites must be made of wax and provide “‘a living flame without being smoky or noxious.’ To safeguard ‘authenticity and the full symbolism of light,’ electric lights as a substitute for candles are not permitted” (Built of Living Stones, no. 93). This also applies to the so-called electric vigil lights used for devotional purposes. A bishop would have the authority to make an exception to a living flame in cases of necessity, if, for example, a prison or a hospital had a policy absolutely forbidding open flames.

It should be noted that while an oil lamp may be used to indicate the presence of the Blessed Sacrament in the tabernacle (see GIRM, no. 316), the U.S. bishops have never given permission for the use of oil lamps at the altar. Candles are symbols of the presence of Christ, the light of the world (Jn 8:12) and of Baptism by which we share in his light (Col 1:12), and are also signs of reverence and festivity.


A: I treated some of this in my book Let Us Pray under the paragraphs pertaining to candles (118-122). I came to a similar conclusion as the BCDW did last year, but through a different route.

The USCCB did address the issue in its Introduction to the Order of Mass, a book it calls “A Pastoral Resource of the Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy.” It is meant to be helpful, but “not a legislative document.” It says that candles “should be authentic and be made of a substance that gives a living flame and is seen to be consumed in giving its light” (52).

I’m not sure why the absence of legislation from the USCCB therefore allows only wax, but that appears to be the view of the BCDW. I think it could also be argued that the absence of legislation permits a variety of sources of light. The only candle that legislation explicitly holds must be wax is the paschal candle. 

Nonetheless, candles that are “seen to be consumed” are clearly the best option. The GIRM says that “attention should be paid to authenticity” (292). Again, that does not explicitly forbid oil candles, but you can see where they don’t quite fit the ideal.

You are correct that many parishes use oil candles at the altar, but I think it’s hard to build a good argument for their usage.