Hey, Father! What kind of candles must be used at Mass?

Is it OK to use oil candles on the altar or must the candles be made of beeswax? I thought oil candles were only to be used in the sacristy to indicate the presence of the Eucharist.

Michael from Alton

              It might seem the answer to your question should be a straightforward one, but the actual answer is not so clearcut. The General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM) governs the celebration of the holy Mass but does not directly address this question. It does, however, address this question as regards to the sanctuary candle, which designates the presence of the Eucharist in the tabernacle, may be an oil lamp: “In accordance with traditional custom, near the tabernacle a special lamp, fueled by oil or wax, should be kept alight to indicate and honor the presence of Christ” (GIRM, 316).

              To consider your question regarding the altar candles, we must turn to a question posed to the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments in 1974: “Must the lighted candles that are to be placed in candlesticks for the celebration of Mass consist in part of beeswax, olive oil, or other vegetable oil?”

              The Congregation answered the question without answering the question, if you take my meaning, responding as follows:

The GIRM prescribes candles for Mass ‘as a sign of reverence and festiveness’ (nos. 79, 269). But it makes no further determination regarding the material of their composition, except in the case of the sanctuary lamp, the fuel for which must be oil or wax (see Holy Communion and Worship of the Eucharist Outside Mass, Introduction no. 11). The faculty that the conferences of bishops possess to choose suitable materials for sacred furnishings applies therefore to the candles for Mass. The faculty is limited only by the condition that in the estimation of the people the materials are valued and worthy and that they are appropriate for sacred use. Candles intended for liturgical use should be made of material that can provide a living flame without being smoky or noxious and that does not stain the altar cloths or coverings. Electric bulbs are banned in the interest of safeguarding authenticity and the full symbolism of light.

It would seem, then, that, provided an oil lamp does not stain the altar cloths or create much smoke they are acceptable for use on the altar.

              Related to this question is the number of candles to be used during the celebration of the Mass. The GIRM sets out the number of candles as follows: “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” (no. 117).

              When considering this question in relation to the Paschal (Easter) Candle, it should be remembered that it “should be a genuine candle, the pre-eminent symbol of the light of Christ” because a natural candle — i.e., a wax candle — symbolizes the Paschal Mystery, the Death, and Resurrection of Christ (Built of Living Stones, no. 94).

Father Daren Zehnle, J.C.L., K.C.H.S., is pastor at St. Augustine Parish in Ashland and is the director for the Office of Divine Worship and the Catechumenate for the Diocese of Springfield in Illinois.