Electric Sanctuary Candles

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And More on Papal Ceremonies

ROME, MAY 27, 2008 (Zenit.org).- Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.

Q: I was told by our pastor that "Vatican II requires a 'light' before the Blessed Sacrament, but this does not have to be a candle," so he replaced the sanctuary candle with an electric "fake candle" because there was "wax all over the carpet." This is driving some of my fellow choir members nuts. Yet, we still have real, seven-day vigil candles going in the stands. Were this a safety issue, this makes no sense. All churches have always had problems with wax -- nothing new. I cannot see a fake candle giving a believable witness to the Real Presence when this is not a safety issue as in a hospital with oxygen that could cause an explosion. -- K.S., Oklahoma

A: Actually the norms refer not so much to candles as to lamps that should burn before the tabernacle. The General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM), No. 316, states:

"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."

An almost identical norm is given in Canon 940 of the 1983 Code of Canon Law, but here only a "special lamp" is spoken of. It would thus appear that the more recent GIRM, in specifically mentioning that it should be fueled by oil or wax, gives clear preference to this form over other recent innovations.

Thus, rather than a candle there should be a lamp, that is, a container made of glass or some other suitable material, which can hold the oil or wax.

This container is customarily a red hued cylinder, although this is not prescribed by law and other shapes and colors have also been used.

Unless the lamp is shattered or filled to excess, it usually presents no particular safety issue. Likewise, since nothing is spilled, the "wax on the floor" argument falls flat.

The oil may be of any kind, although the law has traditionally favored olive oil or some other vegetable oil.

The use of electric lamps is not forbidden but is generally seen as a last resort solution for particular circumstances.

Apart from the hospital situation mentioned by our reader, an electric sanctuary lamp could conceivably be used in very small oratory chapels where the constant lamp smoke would quickly stain the walls and ceiling or, for the same reason, if the lamp had to be placed next to a historic piece of art.

Other probable circumstances that would justify the use of an electric lamp would be isolated places in which obtaining suitable fuel is difficult or very expensive, or if a chapel has to be left unattended for a period longer than the habitual duration of the lamp. This can happen, for example, in communities where a priest celebrates Mass only about once a month and leaves sufficient hosts for an extraordinary minister of holy Communion to administer on the other Sundays.

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Follow-up: Pope's Processional Cross

Along the lines of our May 13 column on the Holy Father's processional cross, several readers have sent queries about some “new” aspects of papal celebrations that they have noted.

For example, a Rochester, Minnesota, reader asks: “It seems to me that the degree of solemnity at papal liturgy has increased. Certainly, there has been no wholesale restoration of old ceremonial, but music, ceremony and setting seem more dignified. I have also noticed a few other things:

"1. The camauro appeared before Christmas, although this Pope does not seem to use the broad Roman hat which matches his red cloak. This made a splash in the news.

"2. The Pope seems to use the state stole more than his predecessor.

"3. At the meeting with the diplomats for the New Year the Pope used the velvet-and-fur mozzetta (I think this was for winter and seems to have disappeared since Paul VI).

"4. Prelates of honor seem to be resuming the mantelletum and all sorts of clergy are using the biretta, rather openly at papal functions. During the last pontificate these were invisible, although I understand permitted. I do not know what to make of all of this. Is a signal being sent? Is there a move to what my mother called "a touch of class"? Indeed, what are the usual rules for customary "choir dress" for diocesan clergy?”

There are several questions involved. But first a distinction must be made between liturgical vesture and the non-liturgical vesture that popes traditionally wear and those that form part of papal protocol due to his role as a head of state.

Among traditional papal garments are the camauro (a red, fur-lined cap), the broad red-and- gold trimmed hat, and the several formal stoles and mozzettas used when receiving civil dignitaries.

Their use often depends on papal taste. For example, Pope Blessed John XXIII revived the use of the camauro which his predecessors had largely abandoned. Pope John Paul II rarely used the more formal vestures, and since he was Pontiff for so long perhaps many came to believe that they had somehow been abolished.

This was not the case, however, and Pope Benedict XVI has simply opted to use some of the more formal attire that remains part of papal protocol.

Thus he has used both the broad-brimmed hat and the camauro on some occasions. Apart from his personal taste, it must also be remembered that the Holy Father began his ministry when he had already turned 78 and probably needs more protection from heat and cold than the athletic John Paul II did when called to be Peter’s Successor at age 58.

Keeping warm was also a motivation for John XXIII’s use of the camauro. He was also elected as an elderly man.

The increase in some aspects of solemnity in papal liturgies is perhaps even more noteworthy. The Holy Father and his personally appointed master of liturgical celebrations have clearly opted to restore some elements that had fallen into disuse, in order to give more splendor to the rites.

This can be seen in the style of albs, surplices and vestments used in the celebrations. In some cases this means using older vestments from the pontifical sacristy such as the magnificent golden miter used in the elevation of new cardinals. This miter, emblazoned with the figure of Our Lady of Guadalupe, had been a gift from Mexican Catholics to Blessed Pope Pius IX.

The violet cope used for this year’s Palm Sunday procession was a new and faithful replica of one that had belonged to the renaissance Medici Pope Leo X. The custom has also been revived of having two cardinal deacons, in miter and dalmatic, accompany the Pope in these processions to hold the cope.

The practice of placing the crucifix at the center of the altar in front of the celebrant is certainly a personal initiative of Benedict XVI.

He had already made this suggestion as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger in his book “The Spirit of the Liturgy.” For him this practice is a means of creating a “liturgical east” that helps the celebrant to concentrate on the essential meaning of the sacrifice of the Mass even when celebrating facing the people.

Finally, the vesture of cardinals, bishops, canons and other honorary prelates is still determined by the norms emanated by Paul VI in the 1969 instruction of the Secretariat of State “Ut Sive Sollicite,” substantially repeated in the Ceremonial of Bishops, Nos. 1199-1210.

These norms cover most cases although a few classes of honorary prelates continue to jealously guard some age-old privileges allowing them to wear miters, pectoral crosses and the like on special occasions.

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Readers may send questions to liturgy@zenit.org. 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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