Not far from Puget Sound, at St. Mark Church in Shoreline, Washington, Mike Scarpelli regularly lights a five- or seven-day votive candle by the Sacred Heart statue and another votive candle before the statues of St. Joseph and the Blessed Mother on both sides of the sanctuary. He remembers as a child watching his grandmother and mother “light votive candles and say prayers, always at the statue of Mary. I learned it was a special way to pray, in that case to Immaculate Mary, and also to ask for her intervention to God to hear and answer our prayers.”

In Philadelphia, Vincentian Father Michael Carroll also uses candlelight to recall his loved ones in prayer.

“Every time I go into a new church, I light a candle for my parents,” he said. “It’s my custom and a way of remembering them and acknowledging them.”

The votive candle also recalls some memorable pontifical moments of prayer, said Father Carroll, noting that Pope Emeritus Benedict, while visiting Ground Zero in New York City, prayed for the lost souls of the horrific Sept. 11 attack there and lit a large candle. Likewise, more recently, after the 9/11 memorial was completed, Pope Francis visited Ground Zero while a candle was lit at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in memory of the 9/11 victims and their families.

Neither Scarpelli, Father Carroll nor the Holy Fathers are alone in their fondness for votive candles.

 

Enduring Legacy

Father Carroll, current director of the Miraculous Medal Shrine in Philadelphia, said that from the 1940s to the 1960s, people lit approximately 2,500 candles every Monday during several Miraculous Medal novena services held throughout that day. After every service, the candles had to be moved to the downstairs Marian shrine chapel. Even with fewer novena services scheduled today, still approximately 400 candles are lit every Monday at the shrine.

Lighting votive candles and vigil lights is a strong tradition in the Church that began at least 1,800 years ago, when lights were burned in the catacombs at the tomb of martyrs as a sign of unity with them. The lights kept “vigil”; hence they were named “vigil lights.”

 

Fire and Prayer

Father Carroll points out that candles have long been recognized with prayer. Whenever the faithful light a candle and say a prayer before or after lighting it, he said, they are “turning that lit candle into a continuation of our prayer … as long as that candle is lit.” It, too, keeps a vigil.

“The word ‘vigil’ comes from the Latin vigilia and means ‘to keep watch.’ How? With light,” explains Father Chris Alar of the Marian Fathers of the Immaculate Conception. “The vigil candle we light for a period of time symbolizes how we as persons wish to remain present to the Lord in prayer even though we might leave the church and go to our own homes.”

Scarpelli is comforted as he reflects on this. “The light staying there as the candle is burning will continue to maintain your prayer to God.”

Because the lit candle maintains that prayer, it is also called a votive candle. The terms “vigil lights” and “votive candles or lights” are basically interchangeable. The word “votive” comes from the Latin votum, meaning a “promise or a prayer,” indicating that “a candle which we call a votive candle really represents our prayer before God,” Father Alar said. “When we light a candle, we’re basically giving a prayer intention. It’s a physical sign of a spiritual prayer.”

“My prayer is in my heart,” he explained. “How do I show this internal prayer? The votive candle is the way we can express in a physical, tangible way our inward prayer. Our prayer is symbolized by the candle.”

We don’t light candles because God is going to be able to see and hear our prayer better, but because we need something visual to connect our body and our soul, he said. Even the Mass has this soul-body engagement when, for instance, we make the Sign of the Cross or kneel down.

By lighting the candle our prayer is physically represented, and we join our prayers to the light of Christ, explained Father Alar, allowing that light to burn on and on in our souls, even when we have left the church.

That’s also why these candles are official sacramentals, which, like the sacraments, are an external sign of an internal grace and involve the body and the spirit; although, unlike the seven sacraments, the Church’s sacramentals, which also include holy water and sacred images such as the crucifix, do not directly confer grace upon the faithful but prepare them to receive the graces of the sacraments (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1669-71).

 “This shows my intention,” Father Alar added. “This candle symbolizes the prayer.”

 

A Candle for All Reasons

The faithful illuminate up vigil lights and votive candles for any number of reasons.

“Everyone has an intention when they light the candle,” noted Father Carroll. They may tell a person, “I will light a candle for you. That’s an expression of ‘I will say a prayer for you.’”

He’s even found that when the faithful tell loved ones who’ve grown cold in their faith that they’ve lit a votive candle for their intention, those loved ones “find consolation and peace in it.”

Father Alar pointed out the common practice of lighting votive candles before a saint’s statue to express devotion to that saint, such as St. Rita, the paton saint of impossible causes. Yet most candles are placed before Jesus and Mary. “When I light a candle before the Sacred Heart or in front of the Blessed Mother,” Father Alar said, “it shows my devotion to them, asking for their help.”

Along with showing devotion to Our Lord, Our Blessed Mother and the saints, the faithful will also light a vigil candle asking for God or his saints’ intercession or expressing thanksgiving for a favor granted.

St. Mark Church has “many places where people can take a quiet moment and can be in peace and prayer,” said Veronica Olson, pastoral assistant for liturgy and parish life. The faithful regularly light votive candles placed by every image and work of art in the church, including in the Shrine to Divine Mercy alcove, before the Infant of Prague statue, at the Pietà alcove, before the Sacred Heart image and Blessed Virgin Mary and St. Joseph statues, and before the painting of St. Thérèse of Lisieux.

“Everyone obviously prays in thanksgiving,” Olson explained. “We often see people kneeling and praying. We also see people having hardship and going through trials, some weeping, some for joy raising hands — any kind of emotion. They take special moments to be in the church, praying outside of normal Mass times.”

Scarpelli connects lighting the candles also to different events in life, “like illness in family, or death, or happier occasions and you want to emphasize your prayers to God more deeply.”

Similarly, at the National Shrine of Divine Mercy in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, visitors and pilgrims can light seven-day votive candles at different locations, such as at the Lourdes Grotto and the Immaculate Conception Candle Shrine, Holy Family Shrine, Shrine of the Holy Innocents and at Our Lady of Mercy Candle Shrine and Oratory.

As director of the Association of Marian Helpers, Father Alar said he has seen lots of answered prayers reported by the people who have lit candles with great devotion. “One case was a cure of cancer. One was a pregnancy for a woman who was told she could not have children.” He told the Register he hears of these answered prayers on “a regular basis.”

The many candles burning in the votive light racks in shrines and parish churches have another uplifting message.

As Father Carroll explained, “You’re not in the church alone; you’re there with the prayers of others. We know we are never alone in our prayer, and the candles around us remind us of it.”

 

Centuries-Old Tradition

“In the Tradition of the Church, the candle is a sign of Christ’s presence,” Father Carroll emphasized.

“The presence of God is shown by light,” noted Father Alar, explaining that in Scripture, God is symbolized by light, and both the Old Testament and Jewish tradition are full of references to candlelight.

Light shows God’s presence in Exodus (27:20-21) and Leviticus (24:2-4). The Jews always had candles lit in the temple and synagogue. The Talmud instructs a lit lamp to be at the Ark of the Covenant because the Ark held the Torah, which is God’s presence in his written word. 

“This is like what we do with the Blessed Sacrament today,” Father Alar said. “We look for the lit candle. It shows the presence of God in the tabernacle in the Eucharist — the presence of the real Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of our God, Jesus Christ.”

We also see this in the Pascal candle at the Easter vigil, when the priest says, “Christ, our light.” Our individual candles are lit from that Pascal candle, which “symbolizes our light being united with the light of Christ.”

Father Alar quoted Scripture to recall how Jesus revealed, “I am the light of the world” (John 8:12). Jesus made clear, “I have come as light into the world” (John 12:46). Christ’s words largely inform the tradition of candlelight as a symbol for the Savior of the world.

With this in mind, in the Middle Ages, a candle’s beeswax symbolized the purity of Jesus, its wick the human soul of Christ, and its light his divinity.

Father Alar associated this enlightenment to our lighting candles. “This is very powerful, not the candle in and of itself. It’s what is symbolizes: the light of Christ.”

 

Light From Light

Father Alar concluded, “The beauty of the votive candle is that the light signifies our prayer offered, united in faith going to the light of God. So with the light of faith, we basically ask Our Lord or a saint in prayer to help us. We ask the light be given to the Light, which is God.”

In the last several years, some places have made a slight change with votive candles and vigil lights. Some parishes have replaced wax or paraffin candles with electric or battery-powered ones.

“Fire safety is something we’re more conscious of,” explained Father Carroll from the Miraculous Medal Shrine, which has switched to battery-operated candles. “Prayers are the same,” he assured. “It’s really the light rather than whether the light is electric or wax. It’s the light, not the method” for votive candles. This is not true of all candles, however, as the Church does specify, for instance in the case of the Paschal candle, that a candle cannot be electric and must consist at least in part of beeswax.

Father Alar concurred. “Electric is an acceptable form of votive candle used in shrines for prayer intentions. The strength of the prayer is by the love with which you make it.”

 

Joseph Pronechen is a Register staff writer.