In some rites and some liturgies itt is becoming increasingly common to see lighted candles burning at the lectern during the Liturgy of the Word. Is this appropriate? Could you please indicate the correct use of candles at a parish Sunday Mass?
I have observed this practice in some rites, especially eastern Catholic rites but there is no mention of it in the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM). Nor does it form part of liturgical tradition. Candles are traditionally brought to the ambo only for the reading of the Gospel and usually accompany the procession of the Book of the Gospels from the altar to the ambo. Certainly all Scripture is God’s Word, but the Gospel has traditionally received special veneration.
GIRM, No. 60, says: “The reading of the Gospel is the high point of the Liturgy of the Word. The Liturgy itself teaches that great reverence is to be shown to it by setting it off from the other readings with special marks of honor: whether the minister appointed to proclaim it prepares himself by a blessing or prayer; or the faithful, standing as they listen to it being read, through their acclamations acknowledge and confess Christ present and speaking to them; or the very marks of reverence are given to the Book of the Gospels.”
And later in GIRM 133: “If the Book of the Gospels is on the altar, the priest then takes it and goes to the ambo, carrying the Book of the Gospels slightly elevated and preceded by the lay ministers, who may carry the thurible and the candles. Those present turn towards the ambo as a sign of special reverence to the Gospel of Christ.” In earlier centuries the differences between the Gospel and other readings was even more emphasized, including reserving a special and highly decorated ambo for the Gospel readings. This can still be seen in some ancient churches such as Rome’s St. Lawrence Outside the Walls.
The practice of placing permanent candles at the ambo tends to blur the special role of the Gospel and, as Monsignor Peter Elliott mentions in his “Liturgical Question Box,” could also tend to “overemphasize the distinction between the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist, to the point of symbolically separating the two phases of the one liturgy.”
Regarding the use of candles in general, GIRM 117 specifies: “[O]n 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.”
An open question remains regarding the use of unlit candles during a celebration. Certainly the liturgical books do not envisage the use of any unlit candles during a celebration and some authors hold that this implies that unlit candles should not be placed on or near the altar. It is also true, however, that this is not always a practical or aesthetical possibility. Many churches use candlesticks with several branches; in other cases they form a set with the altar and ambo and can also be quite heavy or even fixed to the floor. In churches that practice perpetual adoration it seems rather much to insist that candles used during exposition be removed for the duration of Mass. It is surely enough to snuff the extra candles and relight them after Mass. For such reasons I tend to hold a more flexible position on this point.