Candles at the Gospel Reading

And More on Baptismal Fonts

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ROME, APRIL 27, 2010 ( Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.

Q: During Easter season at the reading of the Gospel at Mass on Sundays, are the ministers dispensed from carrying lit candles to the ambo if there is an Easter candle? — F.A., Rio de Mouro, Portugal

A: In principle, there is no such “dispensation” except during the Easter Vigil itself, because on this night the Easter candle itself suffices to honor the risen Lord in his Gospel.

The fact that the liturgical books specify that on this night Gospel candles are not used implies that they should be used on all other solemn occasions. At the same time, we recall that these candles, like incense, are recommended but not obligatory elements of the celebration of Mass and may be omitted.

During the rest of Eastertide the Easter candle and those that accompany the Gospel have different symbolic values.

The Easter candle represents the risen Christ and, while it is often placed near the ambo, this is not the only possibility. The other possibilities are at the center of the sanctuary or next to the altar. Because of this, the Easter candle is not necessarily or primarily associated with the Gospel.

The candles that accompany the Gospel are a means of honoring and emphasizing the particular centrality of the Gospel in salvation history and as the high point of the Liturgy of the Word.

As the Second Vatican Council’s dogmatic constitution Dei Verbum points out, these liturgical honors also establish a certain parallel with the honors attributed to the Blessed Sacrament, which is also accompanied by lighted torches and incense. This serves to underline the particular real presence of Christ in the liturgical proclamation of the Word, though without detriment to the unique nature of the substantial real presence of the Eucharist.

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Follow-up: Baptismal Font Near the Altar

Related to the questions on the baptismal fonts (see April 13), a Minnesota reader had asked: “In my parish we have a large baptismal font (sufficient to perform immersion baptisms) in a baptistry which is at the main entrance to the sanctuary. We also have a different set of doors where about half of the congregation exits the sanctuary. My question is: Can you have separate holy water fonts at the exit doors of the church or does that conflict with the theology of having only one font because there is only one baptism and we can only have one baptismal font?”

The question implies that in this parish the baptismal font doubles as a holy water stoup. This procedure is not ideal, since they are normally two distinct elements in church architecture.

In fact, except for Eastertide, the rite of baptism foresees the blessing of the baptismal holy water. It follows that, if the baptismal font habitually contains water, as occasionally occurs in new fonts, it is not necessarily blessed holy water as usually understood.

The tradition of placing holy water stoups at the entrance of the church probably originated with the custom of early Christians of washing their hands before entering the basilica in a fountain opportunely located in the atrium and called a cantharus or phiala. The custom was not just for practical purposes, as can be seen in St. John Chrysostom’s admonition to those who “enter church washing their hands but not their hearts” (Homily LXXI on St. John).

When in time the atrium of most churches was reduced to a porch or narthex, the cantharus gave way to smaller stoups placed just inside the entrance of the church.

This change also led to the disappearance of any practical usage of water, leaving only the religious meaning as a symbol of baptism and purification. Although the practice already existed in some places, it was Pope Leo IV (847-855) who ordered priests to bless and sprinkle the people with holy water every Sunday before Mass. In some places this was done by the priest as the people entered the church. The present custom of crossing oneself is apparently of later origin.

There are relatively few extant examples of stoups from before the 11th century, although there are some probable examples going back several centuries earlier. There are no universally established rules regarding the size, shape and design of stoups, and many forms are found.

The diocesan norms issued for Milan by St. Charles Borromeo (1538-1584) greatly influenced subsequent usages. He wrote: “The vessel intended for holy water … shall be of marble or of solid stone, neither porous nor with cracks. It shall rest upon a handsomely wrought column and shall not be placed outside of the church but within it and, insofar as possible, to the right of those who enter. There shall be one at the door by which the men enter and one at the women’s door. They shall not be fastened to the wall but removed from it as far as convenient. A column or a base will support them and it must represent nothing profane.”

In conclusion, the baptismal font is distinct from the holy water stoup, and there can be additional stoups at secondary church entrances so that the faithful can make use of this venerable sacramental.

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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. Father McNamara can only answer a small selection of the great number of questions that arrive.

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