Why do we light candles in church?

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Though there are many different kinds of candles in a typical parish church, this question is most often directed to the practice of lighting votive candles. These candles, which are smaller than the candles that adorn the altar or the tabernacle are often found grouped together near a side altar or a statue of a saint. The devotion of lighting votive candles is so revered in some parishes, that a dedicated room has been set aside expressly for this purpose. For those that may be new to the faith or just unfamiliar with this pious practice, it can be helpful to have an explanation ready for them.

The name votive candle helps us to get a better understanding of the devotion. It stems from the Latin word votum, which means vow or promise. The lighting of one of these candles is a concrete action signifying our commitment to pray for some person or some special intention. At times, one may wish to light a candle before the statue or sacred image of whichever saint’s intercession that they are seeking. Much like burning incense used in the liturgy, which in part symbolize our prayers rising up to the throne of God, the candles that we light illustrate the spiritual reality taking place.

Votive candles also serve as a visual reminder for us. When one enters a church and sees a rack of votive candles, it calls to mind our own need to pray for those persons who have asked for our prayers as well. It’s quite opportune, that this reminder comes in a sacred place where we are able to receive that reminder and act upon it in a place that is conducive to prayer.

So the next time you light a votive candle or notice them in passing, take a moment to reflect on the spiritual depth of this devotion. Please God, may this long standing tradition in the Catholic Church continue to endure in our parishes and cathedrals for many years to come.

“Ask the Newly Ordained” features Fathers Brian Morris, Joseph Brice and Stephen Battey — who respond to questions about the faith from Rhode Island Catholic readers.

Have a question? Ask the Newly Ordained! Readers may submit questions by sending them to Editor@thericatholic.com.