Why Do Catholics Light Candles? Practices and Symbolism

Published February 16, 2021
Candle in The Church

Catholic candles represent the eternal light of God. Catholic candles are used in various religious rites and ceremonies, especially during prayer.

Catholic Candles for Prayer and Worship

Throughout the Bible, fire is associated with God. In modern cultures, lit candles provide individuals an object for focusing their thoughts and prayers.

Why Do Catholics Light Candles?

The most common image people have of Catholic candles is the candle rack of votives that parishioners light when saying a prayer. These candles are often referred to as prayer candles or intention candles, since the individual lighting the candle makes a prayer with a specific intention.

Reasons Catholics Light Candles

Catholics often light candles for an individual. This may be for the soul of a deceased loved one or someone who is sick. Prayers are said for those in need of divine intervention or a divine blessing. Individuals also light prayer candles when seeking divine guidance. The lighting of a votive candle isn't always in a prayer of request. Some Catholics light a candle in gratitude of blessings bestowed on them.

woman lighting a candle in the church

What Does the Candle Represent in Catholic Church?

Candles, specifically fire, have always been a significant element in holy worship. Jesus the Christ said, "I am the Light of the world; the one who follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have light and life" (John 8:12). Over time, the candle grew to represent Christ. People who light a candle in prayer often feel a spiritual connection/communion with Christ.

Moses and the Burning Bush

In the Old Testament, there is a clear connection between God and fire. In the Book of Exodus, God speaks to Moses from the burning bush that isn't consumed by the fire. God tells Moses to remove his shoes since the ground he is standing on is holy ground (Exodus 3:1-15).

Tabernacle in the Wilderness

God instructs Moses to build a portable Tabernacle so God can be with his people. This Tabernacle features the Brazen Altar (bronze altar) where animal sacrifices are made to God. Part of the instructions God gives to Moses includes the perpetual fire that must be maintained at the altar and never allowed to go out (Leviticus 6:13).

The Perpetual Fire and Adoration

The perpetual fire shows constant devotion to God and signifies that the place where the perpetual flame burns is a holy area that belongs only unto God since it is where God dwells. In the Catholic church, the fire, or in this instance, the burning candle becomes an adoration to God.

Candles Used in Catholic Worship

Since Catholic candles represent God's Light that is eternal, it's not surprising that candles have a prominent presence in Catholic worship services and rites. You'll find altar candles are lighted for mass as well as during the seven sacraments. These sacraments include the Eucharist, marriage, confirmation, baptism, anointing of the sick, holy orders (ordaining of a priest, deacon, or bishop), and penance.

Illumination of Statues

Some Catholic churches have bye-altars, which are side-altars much smaller and less prominent than the high altar (central altar). Religious statues are often placed in front of the bye-altar. These are traditionally statues of Jesus, the Blessed Virgin Mother Mary, and saints specific to a current church holy day. Candles are lit and set in front of these statues during these church holiday seasons or holy days.

Virgin Mary and candles in cathedral

Candle Use During Holy Holidays

Catholics use candles at home to celebrate holy holidays. Advent wreaths are used in Catholic homes, with the family lighting the candles in prayer and observance of the weeks leading up to Christmas. Another wreath commonly used is the Lenten wreath or cross that is lighted during the weeks preceding Easter.

Types of Candles Used in Catholic Religious Practices

There are several types of candles used in Catholic religious practices. Each candle plays a specific role in various worship practices.

Votive Candles

The votive candle is found in candle racks. These are the candles that Catholics light for individual prayers.

Tea Candles

The smaller candle size is the tea candle. The tea candle is often used to illuminate statues.

Taper Candles

Taper candles are lit during mass and other church rites and celebrations. A smaller taper known as congregational tapers are used by individuals during the Easter Vigil Services as well as other worship ceremonies.

Candlemas Candles

Tapers taken home on Candlemas Day and are referred to as Candlemas candles. The candles are representative of when Christ entered the temple of Jerusalem. Candles are used since Christ is the Light of the world.

Woman Holding Burning Candle

Glass Sanctuary Candle

Glass sanctuary candles are burned day and night during the Blessed Sacrament. These candles are usually contained in a red glass jar. The glass sanctuary candle signifies Christ's love and are symbols of love and adoration for the savior.

Paschal Candle

The Paschal candle is a large column candle that is supported by an equally large candlestick. It is lit during Easter Mass and then used throughout the calendar year for various sacred services, such as confirmations, baptisms, and funerals. The Paschal candle is replaced every Easter.

Complex Answer to Why Do Catholics Light Candles

There are many reasons why Catholics light candles. It is through the Catholic religious practices that the symbolism of a lighted candle is revealed with the one overriding reason that the candle signifies God's eternal Light.

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Why Do Catholics Light Candles? Practices and Symbolism