St James Cathedral - Seattle, WA

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Leaving early? Light a candle.

After communion, it's very common to find me walking in the rear aisle of the church while holding my six month old daughter.  By this time, she's usually tired, and the walking helps keep her soothed.  I've been doing this for a while- I did the same thing with my son when he was this age.  When you're walking in the back, the number of people who leave right after receiving communion is really noticeable, especially when many of them smile at my daughter and I as they make their way to the door. 

I've accepted the fact that there are always people who will be leaving Mass early.  After all, this has been going on for the past 2,000 years.  Even at the Last Supper, one of the twelve left early (and we know what he had to go do).  

Now I don't think anyone who leaves Mass early is intentionally out to pull a Judas.  Maybe they need to get to work.  Maybe they blocked-in someone else in the parking lot.  Maybe they have to get to the airport, or visit someone in the hospital.  Maybe when they were children their parents always left early, so that's what they do now.  Maybe once they have their "little piece of Jesus" they don't see the need to stay any longer.  Maybe staying 50 minutes out of the hour is the best they can do, and I should just be thankful that they came. 

So leaving early by itself isn't what baffles me; what does is that I've noticed that more and more people are stopping to light a votive candle on their way out.  Lighting a votive candle is quite a nice gesture, but doing it as they leaving Mass early, that's what has me scratching my head a little.

For people that may not be familiar, a votive candle represents a specific intercessory prayer for someone or something.  Most of the time, you'll find racks of votive candles near a crucifix or some saintly image (they are also used to honor or show devotion).  A candle typically burns for at least most of the day, some up to a couple weeks depending on the size.  There's usually a box for a monetary donation nearby, this enables the individual to attach some sacrificial offering to their prayer and help cover the cost of the candle.  (In case you were curious, a box of a dozen 7-day candles is $50.20 plus shipping.)

Votive candles are a time honored tradition.  Since the erection of churches, people would stop in and visit outside of Mass, many times to pray for a specific intention or need.  As people became busier and had less time to visit in church, the custom of lighting a candle to supplement their visit and/or represent their desire to remain came into practice.

Well now it appears that two longtime traditions, leaving early and lighting votive candles, are becoming intertwined.  But should they be?  In my mind, leaving early and lighting a votive candle is like leaving before the movie is over and stopping to get popcorn on the way out.  What's the point of buying over-priced popcorn if you're not going back into the theater?

As Catholics, we are taught that the Eucharist is the source and summit of the Christian life (Lumen Gentium, 11).  Everything else, including a votive candle, is secondary.  If you want your prayer to be heard, what better way than to celebrate the entire Mass (including the last 10 minutes).  If you want to honor or show your devotion to Jesus or to someone saintly, why not do so by fully joining in the celebration that gets us a little closer to heaven?  Yes, it may cause you to have to wait in the parking lot, get stuck is some post-liturgical traffic, or be a few minutes late for the next thing; but if its more efficacious than leaving early and lighting a candle, isn't it worth it?

If it is, then good.  If it isn't, then I think my parish is going to have to install more candle racks!


  1. Our priest calls them the down and outers. They come "down" the aisle and then "out" the door. Recently the priest not saying Mass stands in the back of church to say, goodbye!

  2. Paul, nicely done and what a gorgeous church! sometimes when I come in late I get to be in the back and you would be surprised at the mass exodus after Communion...and the Mass is not over. Of course, these people are the ones who start talking to the others leaving while some of us are still praying, etc. True, some have to leave for work, or airport, or whatever, but mostly, it is to beat the crowd for breakfast....

  3. Growing up, I had a friend who told me that after his pastor processed down the main aisle after the final blessing, he would stand in the back of the church, right in front of the doors, until the last song was finished, lest anyone try to get past him out the door.

    It didn't take long before the custom of having people leave early died out.

  4. What a nice reflection. I remember the toddler meltdowns well, although they're more than two decades behind me.

    Alas, I just wish we had candles in my parish. They were banned for mysterious reasons back in the 1980s and anyone who brings one in anyway will find it whisked away. The little electric numbers just don't do it.

    Vicky, Obl. OSB

  5. Paul - I wanted to comment on this before but forgot. I think part of the problem here (to the extent it is a problem) is a sense of engagement. I'm not sure how many Catholics really think of Mass as a prayer, so much as a weekly ritual/obligation. Lighting a candle is a very modern spiritual thing, and also quite tangible, and I think there are a lot of people who relate to that act much more than what is going on in the Mass. Obviously for a Catholic that is not ultimately ideal. While individuals need to be held responsible for their own actions, and more specifically efforts, I do think there is a failure of the Church in educating it's members as to what is really going on. In the lead up to the new translation changes I happened to attend Mass in the dioceses of Erie, Pittsburgh, Buffalo and Baltimore. While in each location the priests reviewed the new language and we all practiced, never once was an explanation given. Never once was it even put forth for instance that "one in being with" might sound like it makes sense but we don't actually understand it and at least saying consubstantial underscores that. It was never pointed out that "Lord I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof" is the exact phrase the guard says to Jesus in Matthew's gospel asking him to heal his son and that we say those words still 2000 years later because Jesus was astounded by the faith of that man. I think there was a huge opportunity to educate the faithful and it wasn't taken and that is representative of the biggest problem the Church faces today - people don't really understand what is going on. I'm glad that your blogging because I think it will help.


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