Why do Catholics Light Candles in Church?
By Fr Kenneth Doyle –
Question: I have asked several people this, but no one seems to know: Why do Catholics light candles in church? When did this tradition start, and what was the reason?
Answer: The custom of lighting candles as a mark of respect and prayer actually predates Christianity. In Judaism, the Talmud prescribed that there be a perpetual lighted candle at the Ark of the Covenant where the writings of the sacred Scriptures were kept – as a sign of respect for the word of God.
This may well have contributed to the current practice of Catholic churches in keeping a lighted sanctuary lamp near the tabernacle to mark the presence of the Eucharist and to call believers to special reverence and veneration.
Today, many Catholic churches contain racks where vigil candles are lighted by parishioners in honour of particular saints or in memory of someone who is deceased.
The word “vigil” refers to keeping watch, and the symbolism is that the one who lights the candle desires to remain present to the Lord in prayer even while leaving to attend to other daily obligations.
This Christian practice can be traced back as far as the 200s, when lighted candles were kept burning in the catacombs at the tombs of martyrs by Christians honouring them and praying for their intercession.