7 Candles at a Bishop's Mass

And More on Communion for the Remarried

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Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and dean of theology at the Regina Apostolorum university.

Q: Is there a relationship between the seven candles used whenever a bishop celebrates Mass and the menorah of the Temple of Jerusalem? — C.S., Rome

A: There is no direct relationship and probably no indirect relationship either.

Some Jewish customs have entered directly into Catholic worship from the beginning — for example, words such as Amen, Alleluia and the underlying structures of some of our prayers for blessing and of the Eucharistic Prayers.

Many others have indirectly entered much later, inspired in the Sacred Scripture we hold in common with Judaism. For example, during the Middle Ages prayers were composed for the rite of ordination that made reference to the sacred robes of Aaron and the other high priests. After a few generations these prayers inspired the introduction of rites in which the newly ordained were ritually vested during the celebration. There are many similar examples of these indirect influences.

With respect to our question the earliest witnesses to the use of seven acolytes with candles comes from the seventh-century papal liturgy. These candles were later placed at ground level in front of the altar, not upon it.

The use of acolytes with torches is probably derived from the Roman custom of accompanying certain high imperial officials with lighted torches while another accompanied him carrying a richly decorated copy of the legal code of laws.

However, the number of such torches was not specified. Therefore, even if the practice derives from Roman usage, the choice of seven acolytes would not appear to be casual. Some authors say that this number might have been inspired by the seven lamps found in the Book of Revelation, Chapter 1. This attribution is just a hypothesis, however, with scant evidence to back it up.

The seven apocalyptic lamps might be in some way related to the menorah, but this would not have influenced their introduction into the liturgy.

The practice described in the seventh-century evidence was later discontinued in Rome although maintained in some monasteries. Sometime around the first half of the 11th century candles appear upon the altar itself. However, neither this practice nor the number of candles was universal.

It was not until the late 13th century that the custom of seven candles upon the altar for the bishop’s Mass was restored to the Roman liturgy. It was firmly established in a book of ceremonies written by Cardinal Giacomo Stefaneschi (1270-1343) who observed, «When the Pope celebrates solemnly, seven candles must be placed upon the altar.»

This practice continues today. For the extraordinary form the indications of the Ceremonial of Bishops for a bishop’s Pontifical Mass are to place seven candelabras upon the altar. The cross is placed in front of the middle high candle at the center.

The practice for the ordinary form is less precise. This is because it is permitted to have candles near the altar and not just upon it. Nos. 125 and 128 of the Ceremonial of Bishops foresee the possibility of having from two to seven acolytes with lighted candles form part of the entrance procession. These candles may then be located upon or near the altar.

Although it is not specifically stated in the liturgical book, and in accordance with the practice of papal celebrations, it is possible to have seven candles upon or near the altar before Mass begins. For the entrance procession two candle bearers accompany the processional cross and they may be followed by six torch bearers. In this case the candles used in the entrance procession are discreetly placed to one side once the procession is over. The two candles are used during the proclamation of the Gospel and at the end of Mass. The six torches accompany the thurible in front of the altar during the Eucharistic Prayer.

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Follow-up: Communion and the Divorced and Remarried

Several readers responded to our Feb. 11 piece on Communion for divorced and remarried Catholics, including some who suffer greatly because of their situation. They are in our prayers even though we cannot offer them any concrete solutions to their present difficulties apart from those already offered by the Church.

Some pastors wrote asking if the absence of a marriage tribunal, or one which has a backlog of several years, would change the answer I gave.

Since the reply was based on the principle that the internal forum cannot decide questions of marital validity, the lack of legal resources does not change that principle.

This does not mean that these problems should not be addressed; indeed, in some countries the efficiency of tribunals requires urgent action. While not a canonist I am sure that some streamlining of procedures could be done that would speed up the conclusion of the process, especially in those cases where the evidence for invalidity is quite clear.

At the same time, the annulment process has to be serious so as to establish the fact of nullity. With respect to the invalidity of a sacrament, probability is insufficient.

This is also one area where a wider use of canonically trained women religious and laity could be of great benefit. Some positions such as judicial vicar are necessarily priests, but priests are often engaged in a wide range of pastoral activities as well as the tribunal. Qualified laity and religious could, and indeed in some countries already do, improve the efficiency of tribunals with no difference in the scrupulous attention to establishing the facts.

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Readers may send questions to zenit.liturgy@gmail.com. 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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Fr. Edward McNamara

Padre Edward McNamara, L.C., è professore di Teologia e direttore spirituale

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