Lighted Candles at the Lectern

And More on Priestly Celibacy

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ROME, SEPT. 27, 2005 ( Answered by Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical University.

Q: It is becoming increasingly common to see lighted candles burning at the lectern during the Liturgy of the Word. Is this appropriate? Could you please indicate the correct use of candles at a parish Sunday Mass? — O.M., Christchurch, New Zealand

A: I have observed this practice in some places but there is no mention of it in the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM). Nor does it form part of liturgical tradition.

Candles are traditionally brought to the ambo only for the reading of the Gospel and usually accompany the procession of the Book of the Gospels from the altar to the ambo. Certainly all Scripture is God’s Word, but the Gospel has traditionally received special veneration.

GIRM, No. 60, says:

«The reading of the Gospel is the high point of the Liturgy of the Word. The Liturgy itself teaches that great reverence is to be shown to it by setting it off from the other readings with special marks of honor: whether the minister appointed to proclaim it prepares himself by a blessing or prayer; or the faithful, standing as they listen to it being read, through their acclamations acknowledge and confess Christ present and speaking to them; or the very marks of reverence are given to the Book of the Gospels.»

And later in GIRM 133:

«If the Book of the Gospels is on the altar, the priest then takes it and goes to the ambo, carrying the Book of the Gospels slightly elevated and preceded by the lay ministers, who may carry the thurible and the candles. Those present turn towards the ambo as a sign of special reverence to the Gospel of Christ.»

In earlier centuries the differences between the Gospel and other readings was even more emphasized, including reserving a special and highly decorated ambo for the Gospel readings. This can still be seen in some ancient churches such as Rome’s St. Lawrence Outside the Walls.

The practice of placing permanent candles at the ambo tends to blur the special role of the Gospel and, as Monsignor Peter Elliott mentions in his «Liturgical Question Box,» could also tend to «overemphasize the distinction between the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist, to the point of symbolically separating the two phases of the one liturgy.»

Regarding the use of candles in general, GIRM 117 specifies:

«[O]n or next to the altar are to be placed candlesticks with lighted candles: at least two in any celebration, or even four or six, especially for a Sunday Mass or a holy day of obligation. If the Diocesan Bishop celebrates, then seven candles should be used. Also on or close to the altar, there is to be a cross with a figure of Christ crucified. The candles and the cross adorned with a figure of Christ crucified may also be carried in the Entrance Procession.»

An open question remains regarding the use of unlit candles during a celebration. Certainly the liturgical books do not envisage the use of any unlit candles during a celebration and some authors hold that this implies that unlit candles should not be placed on or near the altar.

It is also true, however, that this is not always a practical or aesthetical possibility. Many churches use candlesticks with several branches; in other cases they form a set with the altar and ambo and can also be quite heavy or even fixed to the floor.

In churches that practice perpetual adoration it seems rather much to insist that candles used during exposition be removed for the duration of Mass. It is surely enough to snuff the extra candles and relight them after Mass.

For such reasons I tend to hold a more flexible position on this point.

* * *

Follow-up: East-West Difference Over Priestly Celibacy

After our comments regarding priestly celibacy (Sept. 13) a priest from Australia asked that I clarify that priests or deacons can never marry after ordination. We certainly mentioned this point in our previous column but it is worth highlighting this important aspect.

Our correspondent wrote:

«[I]t might be helpful to correct the notion that, ‘in the Eastern Catholic Churches, priests can marry, unlike in the Roman Catholic Church.’

«In the East, married men are eligible for priesthood (there are restrictions varying from place to place, e.g., a higher age than celibates [e.g., 30 or 35]; consent of the wife; sometimes ordination only after the first child is born, etc.). But in East and West, uniformly and from the beginning, no priest can marry. A married man can become a priest, but a priest cannot marry. A widowed priest cannot remarry. Even if the Pope were to change the Church’s discipline regarding celibacy (out of the question), this would not affect one priest.»

Other correspondents mentioned several scientific studies defending the historical priority of priestly celibacy, or at least permanent continence if already married, over the practice of temporary continence of married priests accepted in many Eastern Churches.

I am aware of these arguments, and they are very important, but I eschewed dealing with them both because of their complexity and because the question of the origin does not affect the fact that, today, the Catholic Church respects the legitimacy of this tradition in those Eastern Catholic Churches which ordain married men to the priesthood.

Another priest mentioned that, since 1998, in the Roman rite, some permanent deacons have been permitted to remarry, a concession that seemingly breaks the tradition that the ordained can never marry or remarry.

The principle that a married deacon cannot remarry if widowed is still the norm in the Roman rite. However, some rare exceptions have been made for extraordinary situations such as a widowed deacon left to raise several young children. In such cases the permission to remarry has been granted, taking into account the needs of the family as a whole and not just the personal whims of the deacon.

In order to limit such situations, many bishops do not admit fathers of young children to the diaconate.

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Readers may send questions to Please put the word «Liturgy» in the subject field. The text should include your initials, your city and your state, province or country.

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