What are the candles I never see lit?

By Shaun Johnson | Special to The Compass | November 16, 2021

Question

What are the candles that I see along the walls of the Cathedral? I never see them lit. — Green Bay.

Answer

This is a good question. On the walls of every Catholic church where Mass is celebrated, there should be either four or, preferably, 12 candles. These candles mark the spots that the bishop anointed during the dedication of that particular church building. 

Why does the bishop anoint the walls, you ask? Yet another good question. The document that governs and guides a bishop and those participating in the ministries of the Mass to dedicate that particular church and consecrate the altar of that church is The Order of the Dedication of a Church and an Altar. This text has a beautiful explanation. It tells us the following:

“… the anointing of the [walls of the] church signifies that it is given over entirely and perpetually to Christian worship. Twelve anointings are made … or, as circumstances suggest, four, signifying that the church is an image of the holy city of Jerusalem” (no. 16, a).

Put even more beautifully, the text states this about the incensation of the church: “… the incensation of the main body of the church indicates that the dedication makes it a house of prayer; but the People of God are incensed first, for they are the living temple in which each faithful member is a spiritual altar” (no. 16, b).

The church has been dedicated and anointed for the highest purpose of humanity: the honor, praise and worship of God. As such, it is important to retain the innate dignity and purpose for which the church has been dedicated, but also for all of us to remember the sanctity and dignity of those who gather as the body of Christ each Sunday.

To answer the second part of the question, one likely rarely sees the candles marking the places of consecration lit because they, ideally, should be lit rarely. Though there is no particular liturgical law legislating when the candles on the walls of a church should be lit, the tradition is that those candles are set alight on the anniversary of the dedication of the church — which in that particular church is elevated to a solemnity. On special solemnities or feasts that have a connection to the particular church, the candles on its wall are lit.  

At our cathedral in Green Bay, St. Francis Xavier, the date of the dedication is Nov. 20. It was dedicated on that date in 1881. 

Deacon Johnson is divine worship director for the Diocese of Green Bay.

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