Non Solum: The Placement of Candles

Last week I was home and looking through some of my old photographs from high school. I went to a Jesuit high school and one of the photos that caught my eye was from one of our monthly Masses. My high school had the practice of gathering weekly for a prayer service and once a month for Mass. After looking at the picture I thought back to the way we celebrated Mass, and I was reminded of one particular practice. Every Mass began with the candlesticks flanking the ambo. Then at the offertory they would be transferred to the altar.

I always thought it was an intriguing practice, obviously meant to highlight the importance of both the table of the Word and the table of the Eucharist. I have only seen a few other churches do the same thing, but I have seen many churches try to highlight the importance of both ambo and altar through the placement of their candlesticks.

Here are a few of the practices I have seen:

  • a few churches, like my high school, transfer the candles from the ambo to the altar at the offertory
  • some process candles from the altar to the ambo during the Gospel reading and then back again after the reading has concluded
  • others put two candles by both altar and ambo
  • then there is the preference for one candle on one side of the altar and another candle on the opposite side of the ambo
  • a few churches place the candles on the edge of the sanctuary
  • and finally, the most mysterious practice IMO, some churches place two candles by the altar and one by the ambo

Of course the list of practices could go on and on.

While it might seem silly to ask someone where they put their candles, I have come to discover that it says a lot about a community’s theological and liturgical sensibilities.

I know that the GIRM is clear about the placement of candles:

The altar is to be covered with at least one white cloth. In addition, on 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. (GIRM, 117)

But the reality is that there are many parishes that have a different practice then the one outlined in the GIRM. Furthermore, their practice often is based in good theological and liturgical reasons.

So I am curious…where does your community place it’s candles and why?

Please comment below.


  1. GIRM 133:

    “If the Book of the Gospels is on the altar, the Priest then takes it and approaches the ambo, carrying the Book of the Gospels slightly elevated. He is preceded by the lay ministers, who may carry the thurible and the candles.”

    That is the traditional and most widespread practice. As for where the candles are kept at other times, the GIRM somewhat ambiguously suggests the altar but I think the credence table is the more common placement.

    1. @John Mann – comment #1:

      The definite article in front of “candles” is an insertion of English, of course.

      I associate a *shift* in lit candles from ambo to altar as something from the 1980s that faded from the scene. If candles are used at the ambo, by far the most usual practice I’ve seen is the use of the candles that were used in the entrance procession along with the crux. Sometimes, I see candles stationed at the ambo, but the altar candles are stationed on or next to the altar, and lit before Mass begins, as ought to be.

  2. Would these candles carried at the Gospel be the processional torches that are carried on either side of the processional Crucifix? That is what we use at the Gospel at our parish. These are placed off to the side where the servers are seated and are not the candles used by the altar.

    Placement of candles today it seems is confusing because often I am unsure as to whether the candles are there because they need to be for the celebration of Mass or if they’re there as decoration in the sanctuary.

    An example: 2, 4, or 6 candles on or immediately around the altar (my own church), versus 4 candles, one in each corner of the sanctuary no where near the altar or pulpit (a church in my town). And to make it more confusing now in the Paschal season, having only the Paschal candle, standing immediately at the entrance to the sanctuary in front of the altar (church in my town and church in which I was married) as the only candle.

  3. In my parish we have one large candlestick on either side of the entrance to the sanctuary and one candlestick on each side of the altar. With the exception of solemnities when candelabra are used at the entrance to the sanctuary, this remains the candle placement for all liturgies.

    We have two lecterns. One of them is vested for the reading of the gospel. This is where the gospel book is kept permanently, so it also serves as a shrine. It has two small vigil lights kept burning most of the time.

    The other lectern on the south side is used for the Old and New Testament readings and by the cantor or deacon for the gradual psalm and litanies. Both of these lecterns are very close to the altar.

    The altar is almost always vested to match the gospel lectern. When the gospel is chanted on Sundays and feast days, acolytes and the thurifer stand at this lectern.

    In a few places I’ve noticed a thurible or an incense brazier and the incense boat are placed on a stand next to where the gospel is read. During weekday liturgies the deacon will light the brazier before reading or singing the gospel. Sometimes a number of candlesticks will be placed here as well seemingly to give the gospel added attention.

    A few churches have an ambo in the nave . Where the readings, including the gospel, are said and set off by one or two candles. The gospel rite is further enhanced by having candle bearers, crucifer, and a lay person (often a young woman) carrying a brazier of incense.

  4. Saint John Seminary in California (there are two others) uses “the most mysterious practice: two candles by the altar and one by the ambo.”

    Not a few churches in this archdiocese transfer the candles from the ambo to the altar at the offertory, or extinguish the ambo candles.

    Both are poor signs.

  5. When I was deeply involved in all aspects of the liturgy at my former parish, I reflected on the presences of Christ. The Eucharist, the scripture, the priest, the people of God are all considered to be where Christ is present. Thinking on that, i designed a new set of candle holders for our church (3/4 round) that matched in design and material. I had two for the altar, two for the ambo, and set of slightly taller holders set in the center of the six sections of pews in the assembly. All of them were designed to be removable for formal processions. We used them all quite a bit. The result was a renewed sense of liturgical procession in the assembly and a visual awareness that spoke to the presence of Christ in the assembled people of God.

  6. At my home parish, two are kept beside the altar. At the Gospel, two more are brought out from the sacristy and held by the ambo (by the thurifer) throughout the Gospel proclamation. Afterward, they are carried away. This is the common practice throughout my diocese (Birmingham, Ala.)

  7. 2 candles next two (never on) the altar and 2 by the ambo during Ordinary Time, Easter, and Christmas (further away from the ambo during the Easter Season so as not to compete with the Paschal Candle).

    2 candles by the altar (never on) during Lent and Advent.

    I would love to have them more at the edges of the sanctuary, but they are just too small and thus look silly–so either I’d need larger ones or more than the 4 we own. There’s a whole issue of proportionality at work here, at any church. Not to mention sanctuary layout in general.

  8. During my wedding, I decided to have the altar dressed as part of the preparation of the altar and gifts with the required white cloth, a second cloth indigenous to Ecuador and the altar candles lit as a sign of renewed focus during the liturgy of the Eucharist. Does anyone have any thoughts on having candles lit if the altar is bare? I drew my inspiration from Triduum since that’s one of the few times (second day) that there are specific instructions to strip the altar of cloths and candles. Also I figured that lighting the candles after the altar was dressed was a sure way of preventing a fire.

  9. The last parish I regularly worshiped at before going on active duty had: six on the altar, two on the credence table to be lit on Sundays for the Canon of the Mass and blown out after ablutions, two processional torches which along with the processional crucifix have their own receptacle on the pavement on the Gospel side of the altar, and if we’re feeling especially ambitious, two pediment candles on the first step leading up to the altar. During the appropriate times of the year, the Paschal candle has its own home in the sanctuary. The sanctuary lamp hangs from the ceiling just as one passes into the sanctuary, almost directly above the gate for the altar rail. They were all real candles with at least 50% beeswax and not the faux candles that are really oil lamps, which are quite common in military chapels.

    I don’t mind oil lamps, for what it’s worth. I just mind oil lamps that are deceptively designed look like candles. Why would I want deception in a sanctuary, of all places?

    As a final bit of gee-whiz trivia, the entire congregation was accustomed to kneeling for a prayer at the end of the recessional hymn and remain kneeling in silent prayer until the six altar candles were extinguished by a well-trained acolyte.

  10. Most of the time, one on the floor by the ambo and one on the floor by the altar. Log ago it used to be the custom for them to be unlit at the beginning of Mass and then for the first reader to light the one by the ambo before reading and the deacon (as I recall) to light the one by the altar before the preparation of the gifts. We eventually did away with this as too fussy and precious.

  11. Shall we entirely overlook the fact that candles were used in worship to give light to read by. After churches were designed to provide lots of natural light, the candles were reimagined as signs of The Light. Then came churches awash with electronic lighting reducing candles to lovely decorations albeit with slight and vague directives. Lighting and extinguishing them give servers and sacristans something to do. But since Pope Benedict, the placement and number of candles seems to have something to do with greater and lesser “reverence” or piety. At least a few churches in my diocese feature in excess of ten candles: six big ones on or surrounding the altar, two big ones flanking the tabernacle, and two beside the ambo…..all ablaze throughout the Mass. I’d love to be the beeswax vendor for them, must be quite profitable. In our parish we have two candlestands by the ambo and two behind the altar. Torches are moved from the ambo to the altar at the beginning of the Liturgy of the Eucharist. The symbolism is simple and clear.

    1. Thank you Fr. Jack. Simple and clear. Too many seem to think that MASSIVE everything is reverence.
      Simple and clear.

    2. I would also like your opinion Fr. on candles remaining at or moved from the ambo during Holy week. Seems very odd to me.

  12. For much of the year, we have some variation of two tall candles on the corner steps of the Sanctuary. During Lent, we have two smaller candle stands, one on either side of the Altar (standing on the floor). In Advent, we tend to forego the candles for oil lamps on stands. (The oil lamps are obviously oil lamps… not meant as faux candles!). There is something to be said, I think, for changing candle placement (and Processional Cross) seasonally.

    This year, during the Triduum, we had four tall candles carried in at the Preparation on Holy Thursday, as the Altar was being dressed, and they were placed in the four corners of the Sanctuary. (We had a candelabra near the Ambo for the Liturgy of the Word, lit as Mass began.) These then processed to the side chapel with the Blessed Sacrament as it was transferred, and were placed around the Altar upon which the Sacrament was reserved. They then reemerged on Good Friday when the reserved Sacrament was brought forth for Holy Communion to their places in the corners of the Sanctuary. I found this quite lovely, the way they accompanied the Lord. At the Easter Vigil, we had two tall candles on the corner of the Sanctuary, with greater prominence given to the Paschal Candle, which is mounted to appear very tall in a place of honor near the Ambo. This placement is excellent when proclaiming the Exsultet from the Ambo, and it has remained there through the season, surrounded by flowers and the wonderful illuminated Exsultet by Charles Rohrbacher, which sits open at the foot of the candle stand.

  13. On Sundays, we have a total of six candles. I work in a Mission Church with flexible seating (!); the Altar Table is put in the center of the chruch, horizontally, and the ambo is placed further down, around the edge of what is the sanctuary. Four candles – processional and around 3 ½ feet tall, are placed around the altar table dais and two are placed on either side of the ambo. The ambo candles are processed in and out. The church also plays with the light settings for the Liturgy of the Word, but that’s for another post. During the preparation of the gifts, an acolyte with a “candle snuffer” in hand takes light from an ambo candle and lights the four candles around the altar table and then proceeds to help with cruets, lavabo, etc.

    During the week, when the church is “reset” to a high altar for daily mass, two small candles are placed ON the altar table. Note, these candles are placed on the furthest edges of the table away from the presider.

    Also, note all these are liquid oil based candles in plastic tubes. The staff transitioned from real wax to oil candles with globes.

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