A Catholic Monthly Magazine

Votive Candles

Fr Merv Duffy sm

by Fr Merv Duffy sm

I am back into my normal working routine, lecturing at Good Shepherd College and the sabbatical I had last year seems a long time ago and even more pleasant in hindsight. I was nostalgically looking through photographs and I came across the ones illustrating this article.

I was wandering in central Paris when it started raining quite heavily. I ducked into a church called St Germain-des-Prés. It was bigger than it had looked from outside. High vaulted aisles. Side-chapels with statues and tombs. The interior was shadowed and dark on that rainy day. It was quiet and very prayerful.

St Germain exterior


Near the back of the church there was a beautiful statue of the Madonna and child in a elaborate gothic frame, white and gold against a blue background. Surrounding it were banks of votive candles, glowing in the dimness and scenting the air.

There was an honesty box arrangement for buying candles. The candles came in different sizes, colours and prices. An eight euro candle looked like it would burn for a week.

In no hurry to go back out into the rain, I stayed for a time, saying a few prayers, doing a bit of people-watching and thinking about the phenomenon of votive candles.

People came, dropped coins in the box, selected a candle (or several candles) found a space for them, set them up and lit them, then knelt at the prieu-dieu or sat on one of the pews for a longish time in silence before venturing back out into the bustle of the city.

Votive Candles

Interior of St.Germain-des-Prés

I remembered the explanation I was given as a child, that the candle symbolized my prayer and after I left the candle continued praying.

Votive candles are a very old idea that Christianity baptized. We see the candle as a symbol of ‘Christ the light’ as we declare in the Easter liturgy. The Paschal Candle is the “great candle” of our liturgy but we have lots of other ‘lights’. Candles illuminate the altar during the eucharist, the lighted candle is a symbol of faith at baptism, and the Paschal candle stands before the casket in a funeral. As they were being used in the Parisian church, a candle is the symbol of an intention – one candle for one prayer.

Prayer is not always easy. People who have not prayed for a long time, or who cannot find words, can still light a candle. Children find it delightful and appealing. It is a public act, yet at the same time very private – your action is flamingly obvious (sorry, I couldn’t resist the pun) but your intention is known only to you and God.

The Catholic faith is happy to use material objects for spiritual purposes. Holy water, holy relics, holy pictures and the like. Creation can aid and assist the lifting of the human mind and heart to God. Fire is a primal symbol and it impacts the human psyche at a very deep level. Pope Benedict in his encyclical God is Love reminded us that we are not beings of pure spirit:

It is neither the spirit alone nor the body alone that loves: it is the person, a unified creature composed of body and soul, who loves.( Benedict XVI, Deus Caritas Est 5)

Votive candles are making something of a comeback in New Zealand churches, and that seems to me to be a very good thing. In the dimness of that church in Paris, the flickering light of the votive candles before Mary’s statue spoke to me of faith, prayer and hope.


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