The Armchair Liturgist: Candles on the Altar

I’m not completely sure what to make of the latest liturgical fad: candlesticks on the main altar. Sometimes two, but usually six. Sometimes, as in this image, it strikes me as an attempted iconostasis. Sometimes, the arrangements just seem to ask for something to tip over.

Maybe it emphasizes the Eucharist as a meal. When not dining in a fast food establishment, people sometimes still light candles at the meal table. Candles at an altar of sacrifice? Bonfire would be more likely, I would think. But what do you think?

Anybody in a parish doing this? Anybody want to do it? Anybody resisting the fad?

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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42 Responses to The Armchair Liturgist: Candles on the Altar

  1. Jeff Pinyan says:

    Are you being glib? The “latest liturgical fad”, “emphasiz[ing] the Eucharist as a meal”.

    First of all, this is in keeping with the liturgical tradition that was around during and even after Vatican II.

    Second, it is perfectly in line with the GIRM, n. 117: “… In addition, on 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. …”

    The order of “on or close to” is not happenstance, it is preferential. Most parishes I’ve attended only ever have two candles no matter what day it is. Some have three (although the GIRM mentions even numbers with the exception of seven for the bishop) which means they’re usually bunched together on one side of the sanctuary.

    No dinner I have ever attended had large candlesticks on the table with a crucifix in the center. The arrangement is not to give the impression of a dinner table, but is a tasteful way to adorn the altar; the crucifix is the focal point of the priest during the Liturgy of the Eucharist.

    Seriously… Msgr. Guido Marini is appointed Master of Papal Ceremonies and we start seeing more traditional elements returned to the liturgy (“restored”, to use the conciliar terminology) and you suggest it’s a “fad”.

  2. Jeff Pinyan says:

    I stopped a paragraph in mid-thought (and it kind of makes me look foolish if I don’t correct it). I said that the order of “on or close to” is preferential. But the GIRM also says “at least two for any celebration, or even for or six for a Sunday Mass or a holy day of obligation”. So, if we follow the “order = preference” rule, why should anyone complain when only two candles are used?

    The GIRM clarifies itself here. At least two candles (never less) are to be used, bare minimum. However, it is appropriate to use four or six candles, especially on Sundays and holy days.

    I just didn’t want to sound like I was using a double standard.

  3. Matthew Meloche says:

    I think it’s a really great set up and I wish we would do it at my Parish. We have a candle on each side next to the altar, but nothing on it…… yet.

  4. Anne says:

    Reform2 people love this. It’s a Roman thing catching on a little bit here. I saw it in Italy while I was there recently. Personally I think it’s one of those traditions that won’t make a full come-back. Those tacky, ornate candle sticks have got to be pretty expensive these days for the average parish. I guess they could dig them out of the attic, dust them off and polish them. It looks silly.

  5. pjsandstrom says:

    The original purpose of candles was for illumination — for the clergy to see the gifts, missal, lectionary, chalice & paten, etc. during the liturgy — which usually took place in early morning in buildings with out much light coming in from the outside. With the invention and use of electric lights all of this original purpose has changed — candles (and candle sticks become ‘decorations’ without much practical use. The question is then why the forest of six or seven candles on the altar with the lights so high up they have no real purpose or use? Why this ‘court ceremonial’ of differentiating the number of candles depending on exactly what? Altars generally are not tombstones or dining room tables — though they might look like one or the other — they are altars where the Holy Trinity and humankind come into contact and are nourished.

  6. Jeff Pinyan says:

    Anne: What makes them tacky; what makes it silly? Perhaps the ones in the picture wouldn’t go with the rest of my parish’s environment, but that’s a whole other problem. ;) To me, their ornateness is a reminder of the sacredness of the altar.

    pjsandstrom: What is the practical use of an alb under the chasuble, or of incensing the altar, or of bowing or making the sign of the cross? Not everything requires a “practical” use for there to be a purpose nonetheless. Candles are still a sign of illumination, of the light of Christ. As for why different numbers, a greater the number of candles signifies a greater solemnity of the event; the Mass is a ceremony, a celebration. And the altar is first and foremost the altar of sacrifice, so the presence of the candles and the crucifix on it add to our (or at least my) perception of that reality.

  7. Meg says:

    In that photograph, the candlesticks and crucifix look like a fence separating the presider(s) at the altar from the rest of the people.

    Crucifix on the altar, fine. Candles on the altar — save them for when mass is said ad orientem or move them to the side.

  8. Liam says:

    Understand that the candles are sized to the massiveness of the altar and baldacchino. I don’t see anything approach an iconostasis here. I can clearly see the liturgical action. Not every detail, but then I often can’t see every detail and that’s not a liturgical requirement. With an iconostasis, I have no visual sense of the liturgical action. So I don’t find that analogy apt at all.

    There’s certainly nothing faddish with the seven candles and crucifix being on the altar – after, the GIRM envisions it. (The Pope, having universal jurisdiction, can always have seven candles). The provisions of Built in Living Stones are, of course, not adhered to in the Vatican and only oblige in the US to the extent they are drawn from things like the GIRM, et cet.

    Personally, the candlesticks are not my taste. But then that’s true of candlesticks in many places. I’ve learned not to get in a twist over it.

    What I do find interesting is the implied notion that this is *IN*appropriate. Rather judgmental? I would not be happy with anyone saying this arrangement was REQUIRED under current liturgical law (it’s not); by the same token, I see no basis for treating it as abberant under current liturgical law.

    Pick your battles wisely, people…this is exactly the kind of thing that’s the wrong thing to get your knickers twisted over. It misses the point and makes shibboleths over areas where there is a legitimate diversity of practice.

  9. aplman says:

    I’m not as versed in this question as others above but I’ve gathered, over the past few months, that this arrangement of candles represents something called “liturgical east,” that the arrangement of cross and candles indicates “ad orientem” even if the altar does not face true east.

    Have I got that right?

  10. In the East, we do not have any candles upon the altars of our churches. Instead, we limit things on the altar to the altar cloth (usually a stylized epitaphion into which are sewn relics, the Gospels, and (at least in Russian usage), a small model of the church in which a small amount of the Sacred Body and Blood are reserved in case of illness or emergency of those needing the Holy Gifts. Occasionally, a worshiper will ask the priest at Divine Liturgy to bless an icon or a cross, in which case the item will be placed on the altar for a blessing.

    However, even an Easterner knows that the practice of having candles on Western altars is one of great antiquity, going back at least to the sixth century A.D., under Pope St. Gregory the Great, and continuing on until recently. As other writers have noted from their reading of the GIRM, this practice was not abandoned, or at least, not by Rome.

    To refer to the practice of having lit candles on a Western altar as a “fad”, Todd, either betrays your ignorance on the matter, or your willingness to pick a fight where none is necessary. I sincerely doubt that, as capable a liturgist as you are, you are in fact ignorant of the liturgical history in this matter. You are also too fine a person to persist in needless fighting.

    This entry was beneath you, Todd. You can and should do better.

  11. Brendan Kelleher SVD says:

    Putting candles and cross(whoops, sorry Crucifix) on the altar as in the photo is a ‘fad’; it’s the so called hermeneutic of continuity; a catch phrase used to justify the re-introduction of all sorts of pre-Vatican II excesses, anything that was possible under the rubrics of the 1962 Roman Missal.Yes the GIRM does talk of Crucifix and Candles on the Altar, but it also says they shouldn’t obscure the view of the Eucharistic elements. Though some of your commentators may be averse to anything published by The Liturgical Press, under the editorship of Edward Foley et alia they have recently published “A Commentary on the General Instruction of the Roman Missal. More than a few of the commentators need to read this before offering their comments.

  12. Jeff Pinyan says:

    Brendan Kelleher SVD: Pope Benedict himself used the phrase “hermeneutic of continuity” in his Apostolic Exhortation Sacramentum Caritatis, n. 3: “The Synod of Bishops was able to evaluate the reception of the renewal in the years following the Council. There were many expressions of appreciation. The difficulties and even the occasional abuses which were noted, it was affirmed, cannot overshadow the benefits and the validity of the liturgical renewal, whose riches are yet to be fully explored. Concretely, the changes which the Council called for need to be understood within the overall unity of the historical development of the rite itself, without the introduction of artificial discontinuities. {Footnote: I am referring here to the need for a hermeneutic of continuity also with regard to the correct interpretation of the liturgical development which followed the Second Vatican Council: cf. Benedict XVI, Address to the Roman Curia (22 December 2005): AAS 98 (2006), 44-45.}”

    Given the massive size of the candles and crucifix (not just a cross!) I would expect they were proportional to the size of the sanctuary, altar, baldacchino, etc. (as someone else said) and also so that all the congregation could see them. And I don’t think it obscures our view of the altar or what happened on it (as per GIRM 307).

  13. Todd says:

    The post was intended to be provocative (in favor of calling, naming, etc.) and certainly wasn’t reflective of my ignorance of liturgy. I’m well aware that candles in pairs may be placed on the altar or near it.

    My intent was to provoke comment on a few things:

    1. Its usage in Rome being a jumpstart for reform2 folks rather than consulting the GIRM itself. Do liturgy people bother to read the GIRM and various commentaries of it? Or do they buy and wear the team colors based on what their friends are wearing?

    2. It’s going to need more staying power for it not to be a fad.

    3. For an overall aesthetic, I think big candlesticks really need to harmonize with the surrounding decor. It’s one reason why I think candle stands on the floor work better, especially in large churches with sizable sanctuaries.

    4. Liturgists who opt out of an aesthetic harmony could be putting up candlesticks just to get noticed. “Look at me! I’m reform 2!” In which case, they’re more of an inappropriate distraction, however well-meaning they seem to be.

  14. Liam says:

    Actually Todd, I think those candles do harmonize better with the massive Bernini mess in St Peter’s than floor pillars. The problem in relying on the photographs is that they crop the whole real visual. I’ve seen that altar with such candlesticks and without – in the entire context of that space, it does look markedly a better fit with the sticks than with the pillars.

    As for consulting the GIRM, I don’t see where consulting it would change this result. So I don’t think that’s a valid objection to people mimicking this. I do object to this becoming a team color (aka shibboleth), but picking a fight over it has the exact same effect, which is precisely why I object….

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  16. Jeff Pinyan says:

    Todd: Regarding point #1 — Its usage in Rome being a jumpstart for reform2 folks rather than consulting the GIRM itself.

    I think there is benefit in the top-down approach. When we see the Pope doing something, perhaps it gains “credibility”. Perhaps there’s a correlation between the flamboyant, “loose” liturgies under the former Marini and the increase of “loose” liturgies in the Catholic Church in America.

  17. Todd says:

    “Perhaps there’s a correlation between the flamboyant, “loose” liturgies under the former Marini and the increase of “loose” liturgies in the Catholic Church in America.”

    I doubt it. Too many points of departure: papal liturgies are always clergy-heavy, they’ve always been tightly-scripted and choreographed, the progressive liturgical ethic more often emphasizes participation and intelligibility. Catholicism’s liturgy experiments predated Marini 1.0 by two decades.

    America’s problem with pragmatism has always outstripped liturgical waywardness.

    I do think conservative Catholics find something in Rome to emulate these days. Not just “when in Rome …”

  18. Marilyn says:

    looks pretentious…the meal isn’t the focus but all the pomp and circumstance…clearly we uninformed sheep get to assume and wonder…there must be some high meaning of exactly six candles; doesn’t make the Eucharist any more sacred nor my reverence and gratitude anymore true either way…

  19. Liam says:


    It’s no ordinary meal. It is a meal, and much more. The symbolic use of the candles use of the candles in the service of progressive solemnity (long a value favored on either side of the liturgy wars) is part of that.

    I don’t see the use of the candles as any more pretentious than putting out Christmas lights as a token of the coming of the Light of the World in the Word Made Flesh, et cet. And the fact that most people (even the poorest people – I’ve witnessed this) take great pains to set a festive table for the best of guests. It’s something from pre-industrial society that we sometimes neglect today in our pursuit of an addled simplicity.

    Even in Jesus day, poor Jewish families were known to set tables elaborately for the great Jewish feasts. And this was continued in the early Church (one indicator of this is how persecutors of the Church went after the gold, silver and jewels that adorned CHristian worship service – as they had gone after Jewish items used similarly).

    There are a lot of modern assumptions about how simple things were in the past that say more about modernity than antiquity.

  20. Jeff Pinyan says:

    Marilyn: the meal isn’t the focusclearly we uninformed sheep get to assume and wonder…there must be some high meaning of exactly six candles

    The Eucharist is over-emphasized as “meal”, and under-emphasized as “sacrifice”. The phrase “sacrificial banquet” I think serves to highlight both aspects of the Most Blessed Sacrament.

    As for the meaning behind the candles (and all the other symbols using the Mass), wouldn’t it be nice if priests used some of their time in the homily teaching the faithful something about the liturgy?

  21. Todd says:

    “The Eucharist is over-emphasized as “meal”, and under-emphasized as “sacrifice”.”

    Pope Benedict didn’t seem to think so. He said it was both. What is most instructive is to see what the texts of the liturgy themselves have to say about it, how both western and eastern anaphorae describe it. That is how we pray it.

    And teaching about the numbers of candles in the liturgy during the homily? Please. The poverty of good Scriptural preaching is enough not to waste time on a practice in search of a justification.

  22. Marilyn:

    I don’t get how the celebration–the “enactment”* for lack of a better word–of the singular, central event of all history, and the making-present of the center of all time and eternity, which is what each and every Mass is, can be “pretentious”: “making usually unjustified or excessive claims (as of value or standing)” or “expressive of affected, unwarranted, or exaggerated importance, worth, or stature” (from Merriam-Webster online). What claim does the Mass make that is “unjustified”? How can the importance of the Mass be “affected” or “unwarranted”?

    Of course, things such as vestments, candles, vessels and the setting are not per se essential to the Mass, so the worth is the same at St. Peter’s Basilica as on the hood of a humvee in Iraq. But I think if the war-zone chaplain tries to make the Mass he offers as splendid as his circumstances allows, imagining himself in St. Peter’s, he wouldn’t be pretentious, he’d be exactly right.

    I might also add that those candlesticks, particularly in ordinary parishes, were almost certainly the gift of parishioners, perhaps of modest means, who surely wanted them used–it’s a false simplicity that puts such gifts away never to be used.

    *not “re-enactment” in the usual sense–very important!

    FYI, in one parish, we have the “Benedictine arrangement” on the altar; at the other, we have something different, adapted to the situation. We’ll see what comes. It’s worth noting this arrangement is something the holy father himself expressly recommends.

  23. Jeff Pinyan says:

    Todd: I meant that lately, the Eucharist is not emphasized enough as the sacrifice of Calvary and is instead cast as a community meal. I’m not saying it isn’t a meal, but it’s a very very particular type of meal: it’s a sacrificial banquet, the wedding feast of the Lamb. It’s a big deal.

    And there’s nothing wrong with the priest teaching about the liturgy in his homily. The GIRM expressly mentions four or six candles being appropriate for Sundays. Why? Clearly there’s got to be a reason… but the GIRM doesn’t say it… perhaps the priest knows from his liturgical formation, and he could share his knowledge with us. Maybe not in the homily, maybe in the bulletin… but it stands to reason that “there is a pressing need for the biblical and liturgical formation of the people of God, both pastors and faithful” (Redemptionis Sacramentum, n. 170; Vicesimus quintus annus, n. 15).

  24. Todd says:

    Jeff, I think the reason is progressive solemnity. But what do candles themselves suggest? The baptism rites would say the faith of the newly baptized in that context. That might be reinforced by the long Catholic tradition of prayer with lighted candles. Candles also suggest Christ himself.

    You’re right: as long as the priest or liturgist is careful to allow all valid explanations, that kind of knowledge would be helpful. I suppose the question for a parish would be this: given the understanding of a community for candles, what would be the best use of them at Mass?

  25. Jeff Pinyan says:

    Todd: Well, here’s my take.

    The GIRM says candles can be used in procession with the crucifix. This is reminiscent of torches used in a royal procession for a king.

    The candles can then be placed on or near the altar; if the people have been watching the procession, then their attention is drawn to the altar by this act. Otherwise, the candles are already there. The candles are a symbol of the Light of Christ and the flame of the Holy Spirit. The candles on/near the altar speak to the sacred nature of the altar and of what happens there, so long as they don’t evoke the “romantic dinner by candlelight” image.

    Then there are the candles used for particular prayer intentions. And the Paschal Candle.

    (I know of a parish in Maryland that does something a little peculiar: they have a candle light at the ambo until the Offertory, when that candle is used to light the candles at the altar (and then extinguished). It’s an interesting innovation, and I can see its merits, but I don’t advocate it.)

  26. Liam says:


    I think Rome has since clarified that the altar candles must be lit before the beginning of the liturgy, so that aspect of the practice you cite (borrowed from practice in certain Lutheran churches, IIRC) is verboten.

  27. Jeff Pinyan says:

    Liam, oh, my bad. Candles may be used in procession, but not to the detriment of the altar, then?

  28. Jeff Pinyan says:

    Liam: do you have a source? GIRM 122 says: The cross adorned with a figure of Christ crucified and perhaps carried in procession may be placed next to the altar to serve as the altar cross, in which case it ought to be the only cross used; otherwise it is put away in a dignified place. In addition, the candlesticks are placed on the altar or near it.

  29. Liam says:


    GIRM 117 itself governs the candles to be prepared (ie, before liturgy begins) and specificallyl refers to the candles being lit. Candles held in procession are presumably lit and so would also qualify. When the procession is ended, lit candles must be on or near the altar.

  30. Jeff Pinyan says:

    Liam: Oh, sorry, I misunderstood you. I thought you were referring to processional candles being placed at the altar; you were referring to the parish in Maryland.

    Yes, I agree with you on that.

  31. Marilyn says:

    Dear Liam and Fr. Fox: Whether two or six, those particular candles would be more suited on the floor so as not to obstruct from the very sacred action on the altar…we light six candles when the bishop presides (and of course would do so if the Holy Father ever visited)…and six for adoration which these appear suited for when the liturgical action is not taking place…-M

  32. Marilyn says:

    whoa…guess we light 7 candles for the bishop…haven’t hosted one lately!

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  34. James says:

    I don’t see the point of this thread.

    This arrangement of candle sticks is the traditional arrangement. Why is it surprising to anyone? The candles in this arrangement certainly do not remind one of a meal. The “meal” arrangement usually places a couple candles together on one side of the altar, “out of the way.”

    Methinks some people are forgetting the purpose of the Mass. The priest is facing God and offering on behalf of the people. The crucifix represents this “east” even if it is placed between the priest and people. Read Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger’s “Spirit of the Liturgy” and you’ll see what I mean.

    The Pope (as Cardinal) suggested that even where ad orientem isn’t immediately introduced (as it should be everywhere), at least a sort of liturgical east can be had by using the candles and crucifix. Again, this is the age old traditional arrangement, and then how in the world can anyone argue that it’s reminiscent of a meal???

  35. Laurence says:

    As an Anglican we have somewhat of a different approach to the altar candles. in ancient times the candles had a very practical purpose. there was no light in very dark cathedral and medieval churches thus candles help to bring light to the church they also symbolise the light of christ. we are taught that there are two candles. one for the Old Testament and One for the New. the cross is of course important for the congregations consentration however, the cross should be on the wall behind the Altar. i know Anglican ways are differnt from that of Rome in some respects however i thought this was understood the world over and not just in England. Four candles of course can represent the Four Gospels bringing light to the nations. the easiest way of remembering all these lost things is to sing the Christmas Carol ‘twelve days of Christmas’ which was written in Reformation times so the Catholic church would not forget their tradition. all the secrets to what we practice as Anglo-catholics or RC are hidden within those lyrics.

  36. Eduardo says:

    I’m hoping the “restored” 6 or 7 candles like those for a papal mass (in the picture) do not become customary in parishes, but I have my fears.
    As I told a liturgist here, I’d feel like I was looking at the presence of Christ in the bread and wine through jail bars. (In fact, I’m not really sure in this setting who’s behind the bars–Jesus or me.)
    I don’t want something manmade to obstruct my abilty to behold the Lamb of God. It just makes Jesus more distant and unreachable.

  37. Ben says:

    I hear the reason for having the crucifix central is that it de-emphasizes the focus on the celebrant, and puts it all on christ (everyone is not focusing on Fr. X, but at Christ). In this way, it is very much like celebrating ad-orientem: Everyone is facing/looking at/focusing on Christ. Ad-o is far superior, but this is the next best thing.

  38. Annon says:

    Eduardo, I have a solution. Why don’t we begin celebrating Mass Ad Orientem, as Ben said?

  39. Joe says:

    you really need to study church history, its not a fad you *****.

    • Todd says:

      Oh, it’s definitely a fad. It might have been done in the past, but when people pick up on what the pope does and imitate it just because he’s doing it … it’s a fad.

      And by the way, name-calling is also a fad. A juvenile one, but imitative and unimaginative to boot.

  40. Robert M. Tandy says:

    I wish more churches would put the candles on the altar instead of on the sides. This is a throw-back to the good old days when the priest faced the altar and NOT the congregation when candles were ALWAYS on the altar itself. Pope Benedict has already brought back many nice traditions and gotten rid of some things from Novus Ordo like those horrid glass chalices. It is my dearest hope that the Pope will completely abolish Novus Ordo and bring back the glory of the FULL latin rite.

  41. katewacker says:

    Someone once said over matters such as these, why are we spending our time arguing over things such as this when as our Blessed Mother said in her apparition to the children at Fatima, “in our age souls are falling into hell like snowflakes”.

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