Jonathan Liedl at NCReg asks a question:

If you attended the Easter vigil … you experienced one of the Catholic liturgy’s most unique (and arguably spiritually compelling) aesthetic sequences: a pitch-black church, increasingly illuminated by the light from the Paschal candle.

But you also might have been left with a question: Why aren’t more liturgies celebrated with the artificial lighting off — or at least far more dimmed than seems to be typical?

There are probably a number of reasons, none of which are particularly liturgical. First, churches schedule most Masses during daylight hours. The first exception that comes to mind are the later Masses on Christmas Eve. Bishops are the main factor holding back the trend to earlier on December 24th. 2pm Mass would probably be optimal from a family point of view.

Some folks–not just the elderly–find it difficult to travel on foot in the dark. I’d like to use more darkened settings, but I have to take care with the issue of safety.

I think church personnel don’t think too much about lights. You come in a room, you turn on the switch. Next task, please. The artists tend not to be the ones opening up the buildings and getting things ready for Mass. 

I remember when the lighting at my parish in 1995 was tested. For most of the pews, it was five footcandles, and the ADA recommendation is 30 for reading. When new lighting was installed as part of the 1996 renovation, the designer included one to sixty-second timers on every bank of lighting. We made good use of that for many liturgies. But one does want to ensure people have enough light for reading.

A lot of people fuss about chit-chat before Mass. The easiest way to dampen conversation is to dim the lighting. There’s something to be said for holding off on full lights until the liturgy begins.

Mr Liedl’s questions are not off the mark. But he might be asking the wrong persons. Thoughts?

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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11 Responses to Lighting

  1. Liam says:

    “increasingly illuminated”? Not sure what that means. The lights of the church, but for the altar candles, are supposed to be lit at the conclusion of the Exsultet and beginning of the Liturgy of the Word.

    A former parish of mine did keep lighting reduced until just before the beginning of the liturgy. In my current parish, the amount of lighting used can vary with the level of natural light/sunshine. The fullest illumination of the windows (not ceiling) is used when the church is closed at night, for illuminating the windows to the outside, which transformed what was formerly a rather grim hulking mass.

    • For the Easter Vigil, the Missal is silent on church lighting, at least in the third edition. It instructs what to do with altar candles and individual ones (which are to be put aside), but no other lighting. In many parishes, I’ve inherited a dark Liturgy of the Word to varying degrees and church lighting is returned at the singing of the Gloria. I’ve never had a thought to change this wherever I’ve served.

      • Liam says:

        FWIW, tor the Easter Vigil, the last sentence of No. 17 on page 347 of the US edition of the Roman Missal directs:

        “And lights are lit *throughout* the church, *except* for the altar candles.” [emphases added]

        Following this direction avoids two things:

        1. The idea of the Easter Vigil liturgy as a chronological reenactment, a perennial temptation for misunderstanding Holy Week and the Triduum liturgies.

        2. The implication of the Hebrew Scriptures being in darkness, which hearkens to the old blind Synagoga tropes of prior times.

        The latter in particular is why I’ve seen the fading of the gradual illumination practice over the last 30 years. Having converts from Judaism may have hastened the end of it in communities around here.

      • Ah! Before the proclamation.

      • Liam says:

        Yes, I had misremembered its place within that part of the liturgy, but it certainly occurs before the Liturgy of the Word.

        Obviously, before the liturgical reforms, the readings of the Prophecies and associated psalmody were part of a preconciliar vigil liturgy, which had a penitential character – celebrant and other ministers in violet (the deacon doing the liturgy of fire/light was vested in white for that). The Gloria marked the beginning of the Mass properly speaking sans introductory rites, with vestments going white and veils being removed et cet. Now, any veils are removed before any part of the liturgy begins. The practice of gradual illumination is a misbegotten one that does not reflect and has no basis in the conciliar reforms of the liturgy, but arises from showcraft values that are in tension with the reforms. It’s long past time for that practice to be retired.

      • I think the Vigil lighting is a small thing. It’s a rubric without much meaning as a regulation in itself. I don’t recall lighting being dictated in the Ordo Missae. (But I admit I’m curious to comb through the Missal to see what else they say about church lights.) I have to say I’m surprised there’s more to mention than altar candles.

        My own preference would be an intermediate lighting for any liturgy of the word at a major liturgy, including this one. It’s not an all-or-nothing affair. Or it doesn’t have to be.

      • Liam says:

        Well, that same kind of reasoning (which is not reasoning as such but somewhat more adjacent to “We do it our way because we want to and who’s going to stop us?”) can be used to quibble with complying with rubrics/directions you might more strongly disagree with. As you no doubt are aware.

      • Sure, but it’s a matter of the relative importance of one rubric in a larger context of a major Church liturgy. I wouldn’t have thought to look for it in the midst of the directions for the Liturgy of Light, and you yourself had “misplaced” it in the Missal.

        As you well know, I’m the last liturgist that ignores the praenotanda, the details, and even the arcana of liturgy, and if I wasn’t aware of this particular directive at that particular moment, you might surmise many others outside of academia, cathedrals, and specialists aren’t either.

        The rubric’s placement might be (incorrectly, I would concede) interpreted as lighting the candles throughout the church, though that directive is given explicitly a few paragraphs prior.

        All that being said, I doubt I’d be seriously in arrears if I were to program the church’s electric lighting at 0% prior to the Proclamation, and bring it to intermediate dimming between 0 and 100% for one or more portions of the Mass until the Gloria or even the Preparation of the Gifts. I’d say it’s less a matter of going “Sinatra” on the liturgy, and more a matter of ritual staging. I’m disinclined to mark myself off for a rubric I didn’t know existed until a few days ago.

        The reasoning for continuing an old “incorrect” practice in many places (around the Twin Cities, as the author and I both locate) is probably focusing more on the parts of the Mass that matter more: preaching, choreography for RCIA, pacing for the readings and psalms, and even the teaching moments that might come with new “personnel.” In other words, the human element. That formation can certainly include turning up the lighting to some intermediate setting, and noting why it’s not optimal to remain in total darkness.

  2. Liam says:

    That is a much more effective explanation.

    • Liam says:

      Btw, one of the nice things when I was in the trenches and we ditched this piece of showcraft (the church I was then in had a perfect 19th century vault with inserted hanging bulbs that could be set to over a half dozen levels of dim/bright-ness) was realizing how much energy the showcraft had wasted doing the substance and form of the liturgy. Including, btw, realizing how much better the musicians and congregation sang with full lighting during the Liturgy of the Word. It hadn’t occurred to any of us that keeping the lights dim had had any effect on singing – until we ditched it. It turned out to be a mercy.

      The only people attached the former practice were the people invested in the showcraft. None of the PIPs, that is.

    • Liam says:

      PPS: My speculation for a possible cause-effect for this is that the Vigil comes as the biggest expenditure of effort in a week replete with effort (Palm Sunday – then a long rehearsal night – then either a healing reconciliation service – then the Triduum), and people’s sensory inputs/outputs get taxed cumulatively, so it doesn’t take much for dimmed lighting that, before liturgy, acts to dampen the level of conversation and interaction, to continue to do that during liturgy if maintained during it. I only mention this because the possible connection might be less likely in the context of a routine Sunday, as opposed to the flow state that is Palm Sunday through Easter Sunday.

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