Lighting the Easter Candle

And More on Blessings at Communion

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ROME, APRIL 21, 2009 (Zenit.org).- Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.

Q: Quick question on the paschal candle: When in the sanctuary during Eastertide, is it to be lit during exposition of the Blessed Sacrament and Benediction? As an altar boy some 30 or so years ago I remember the Easter candle being solemnly extinguished at the end of vespers and before adoration and solemn Benediction. Is this still correct liturgical practice? Was it ever? -- A.B., Palm Beach, Florida

A: There is very little in the way of present rules regarding the use of the Easter candle. Of the few precise norms, there is No. 99 of "Paschales Solemnitatis," a circular letter from the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments on the Easter celebrations. To wit:

"The paschal candle has its proper place either by the ambo or by the altar and should be lit at least in all the more solemn liturgical celebrations of the season until Pentecost Sunday, whether at Mass or at Morning and Evening Prayer. After the Easter season, the candle should be kept with honor in the baptistery, so that in the celebration of baptism, the candles of the baptized may be lit from them. In the celebration of funerals the paschal candle should be placed near the coffin to indicate that the death of a Christian is his own Passover. The paschal candle should not otherwise be lit nor placed in the sanctuary outside the Easter season."

The expression that it should be lit "at least in all the more solemn liturgical celebrations of the season" would seem to allow for a certain degree of flexibility. For example, a parish with numerous baptisms and funerals during the year might opt to light it only on Sundays and solemnities so that it lasts the whole year long. A religious community with few celebrations outside of Eastertide might prefer to light it for all paschal liturgies.

The present norms don't mention anything regarding lighting the Easter candle during exposition. But if we may be guided by the norms applicable to the extraordinary form, these would indicate that in general it would not be done.

According to the collection "Decreta Authentica" of the then Congregation of Rites, the Easter candle could not be lit only for exposition of the Blessed Sacrament (Decree 3479,3). It would be lit, however, if vespers were celebrated before the Blessed Sacrament exposed, or Benediction followed immediately after vespers (Decree 4383,1-2).

The principle behind these decrees would appear to be that lighting the Easter candle is reserved for liturgical acts celebrated with some degree of solemnity. All the same, it is not incompatible with exposition of the Blessed Sacrament if a liturgical celebration is held during adoration.

Likewise, although the earlier decrees spoke only of vespers, the present norms include lauds and could perhaps be extended to other hours of the Liturgy of the Hours if celebrated with some solemnity.

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Follow-up: Blessings at Holy Communion

Several readers commented on the question of blessings at Communion (see March 24) after we presented a letter from the Holy See expressing a fairly negative assessment of this practice.

Our readers expressed opinions both in favor and against, often outlining situations that the practice would promote or hinder.

One reader, for example, commented on the value of Mass in itself: "I have read St. Leonard's [of Port Maurice, 1676-1751] 'The Hidden Treasure' and was deeply moved at his writing about the miracle and the power of the Mass. Everyone in this world should be invited to attend Holy Mass no matter what religion or in what state of grace they find themselves. Especially fallen away Catholics who might be divorced and remarried (but they really are not married in the eyes of the Catholic Church) or Catholics who are in the state of mortal sin due to addictions of one sort or another. They try to amend their lives but fall too often, and they must sit in their pews while 'everyone' else gets up into the procession line. This is an embarrassing situation to one who is guilty of mortal sin ... [but being unable to go to confession] would not dare to compound their sins by sins by the sacrilege of receiving the holy Eucharist.

"So, if they were allowed to join the procession to receive a blessing 'by the priest or deacon' they would not stand out as one who is in a state of mortal sin. For that is the only reason they would not receive, being that the fasting rule of one hour is almost impossible to break.

"I have come to the conclusion that many Catholics just stop going to Mass for this reason.

"Many people need a reason for not receiving the Eucharist on a Sunday morning and at least a three-hour fast would allow some excuse. The good Catholics would have a deeper respect for just what they are doing and the sacrifice of fasting is a good way to inspire respect."

I agree with our reader that even those who are unable to receive Communion should attend Mass; indeed, they retain the same obligation to do so as all Catholics.

However, I would point out that St. Leonard's work was written at a time when the practice of frequent and daily Communion was quite rare, even among vowed religious and pious Catholics. Therefore it cannot be supposed that the object of his work was particularly aimed at those unable to receive Communion.

Indeed, for those in such a situation the principal grace of the Mass would be that of conversion: that is, finding the strength to remove the obstacles to their being able to approach the altar and receive the bread of life. This is true both of those who are afflicted by sin as well as those, such as a non-Catholic attending Mass with a spouse, who cannot receive Communion for other reasons.

In some cases a blessing might help such people attend Mass by avoiding an embarrassing moment. But it could also have exactly the opposite effect by singling them out for a blessing when others receive Communion. Likewise, this situation is more often that not provoked by the bad habit in many parishes of insisting on an orderly pew-by-pew communion procession when a bit of confusion would be enough to help such people pass unnoticed.

In other cases, human frailty being what it is, the possibility of receiving a blessing in lieu of Communion might actually satisfy some people so that they never actually take the plunge of regularizing their situation before God and the Church.

All in all, anecdotal evidence could probably be presented for all sides, and the question should eventually be decided by Church authorities on the basis of solid theological arguments.

There are good arguments for restoring the three-hour fast, and our reader gives some of them. Some bishops proposed this a few years ago while others objected that it would make some successful pastoral initiatives, such as lunch-hour Masses in urban centers, almost impossible.

Another reader, a priest, asked, "What if a person coming for a blessing during Communion time is living in sin and a person who knows that person and sees that person thinks that the person is about to receive Communion? Since the communicant's back is to the people in the pews, could not this situation be a source of scandal?"

I would say that if the possibility of receiving a blessing is a known option, then a person who is unable to see whether or not someone has communicated should in all charity grant them the benefit of the doubt and not cede to the temptations of rash judgment.

Even if such a person believed that the other had received Communion, then, once more in charity, they should rejoice that the sinner has found a way to make his peace with God and is now able to approach the altar rail.

Except in cases of notorious public sins, the nature of which require some form of public reconciliation, we should respect the other's conscience and refrain from making judgments as to the state of their souls. It is true that pastoral practice usually advises some people who have been reconciled to attend Mass where they are unknown so as to avoid rash judgments. But even if this advice is not followed, then our tendency should always be toward charitable thoughts.

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Readers may send questions to liturgy@zenit.org. Please put the word "Liturgy" in the subject field. The text should include your initials, your city and your state, province or country. Father McNamara can only answer a small selection of the great number of questions that arrive.