The LED of Christ

The LED of Christ

In a rather unique attack on the Church, Saint Francis Health System became at risk of losing its ability to accept Medicare, Medicaid or the Children’s Health Insurance Program due to the “ever-present danger” of its sacristy candle. Sacred Heart, the twelfth-largest hospital in the U.S., has been told to either extinguish its candle next to the tabernacle in its chapel or be stripped of its federal funding.

This specific candle that represents the presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist. This “light of Christ” was cited in an inspection earlier this year as a safety hazard.  The audit cited a law that requires flames to be “placed in a substantial candle holder and supervised at all times they are lighted.” The hospital previously applied for a waiver from this law noting that “similar flames in the building such as pilot lights and those in gas stove heaters did not prove to be a problem.” Unlike those other flames, the sanctuary candle “encased in glass, covered with brass and located near sprinklers far away from medical equipment.”  

Flames are a safety hazard in certain environments. I once had to develop a new technique to detect isopropanol in a pharmaceutical manufacturing area since the standard technique for this, process gas chromatography, used a small flame. As with Sacred Heart’s audit, it did not matter to the site safety group that the “flame” in the detector probably could not light a cigarette. Any risk was unacceptable to the manufacturing operation. However, unlike in my manufacturing example, a hospital chapel has no ascertainable risk that such a flame would ignite volatile gases. If volatile gases traversed all the way to the chapel, the actual risk to lives would be breached long before the gas would reach the sacristy candle.

Is this religious discrimination or just an overreach in the auditor’s interpretation of the law? The courts can decide. In the interim, is there an alternative for the Chapel? One proposal would be to use an LED (light emitting diode) candle for the “flame.” LED’s have been promoted for use with votive candles, processional candles but can they be used as the tabernacle candle?

Before Vatican II, there were strict norms for candles. All candles based on animal fat were strictly forbidden for use on the altar. Beeswax was always preferred but since it could be difficult to obtain, a standard of “at least 10% beeswax” was required. (The exact percentage was determined by the diocesan bishop.) Beeswax symbolized the “pure flesh” Christ received from his Virgin Mother. The candle wick symbolized the Lord’s soul, and the flame His divinity. As technology advanced, the norms became increasingly relaxed. We see the use of LED candles increasing. Their maintenance cost is lower. After a fire incident in our Church, the company insuring our building requested that the traditional votive candles which caused the issue be replaced with an LED alternative.

LED Candles

LED candles emit light in a different mechanism than the vacuum bulb used in incandescent lights or from a gas. LED light emits from a semiconductor. In terms of creating a fire, semiconductors do not radiate heat like CFL (compact fluorescent), halogen or incandescent bulbs. In fact, it is this ability to operate a lower temperature which enables the control of color in the LED. LED lights can produce heat but it is more likely the electronics associated with the device would cause heating or igniting a flame. Thus, only fire-rated LED fittings should be used in hazardous settings. Interestingly, while my plant safety engineers were worried about the “flame” in a portable gas chromatograph, they probably should have been more worried about the light fixtures in the manufacturing area.

It is sufficient to say that the use of a LED candle in a chapel would be intuitively safer than a flame. However, as importantly, is such a use of a LEC candle as a tabernacle candle considered licit in the Catholic Church?

Tabernacle Candles

The use of the sacristy/tabernacle candle was first stipulated in Exodus 27:20-21:

You shall command the Israelites to bring you clear oil of crushed olives, to be used for the light, so that you may keep lamps burning always. From evening to morning Aaron and his sons shall maintain them before the Lord in the tent of meeting, outside the veil which hangs in front of the covenant. This shall be a perpetual statute for the Israelites throughout their generations.

Today’s tabernacle candle provides this “everlasting light” and “eternal flame” within each Catholic Church where the Eucharist is reposed. The current requirements for sacristy candles can be found in The General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM). In the “The Place for the Reservation of the Most Holy Eucharist” section of Chapter V: The Arrangement and Ornamentation of Churches for the Celebration of the Eucharist, GIRM 316 states:

“In accordance with traditional custom, near the tabernacle a special lamp, fueled by oil or wax, should be kept alight to indicate and honor the presence of Christ.”

To date, LEDs are not “fueled” by oil or wax.  

Canon Law takes a different approach. Canon #940 in the Code of Canon Law states:

“A special lamp which indicates and honors the presence of Christ is to shine continuously before a tabernacle in which the Most Holy Eucharist is reserved.”

Here the canon specifies form; the lamp is to “shine” continuously. Certainly, a LED candle would meet this criterion as much as a candle does. Thus, Canon Law alone does not support using a LED candle as the tabernacle lamp as being illicit.  

USCCB Stance

Based on Canon 940, one can reference many posts on the internet that incorrectly support the use of electronic candles in the sacristy. Their use is still not permitted in the United States. In the April 2018 Newsletter of the Committee on Divine Worship, the United States Catholic Bishops noted that while the GIRM does not address the composition of altar candles, the USCCB have never permitted materials other than wax to be used in the Mass and other liturgical rites. More directly it states that “electric lights as a substitute for candles are not permitted. (Built of Living Stones, no. 93) Only the bishop has the authority to make an exception to a living flame in cases of necessity, such as a prison or a hospital having a policy absolutely forbidding open flames. In addition, it was noted that the U.S. bishops have never given permission for the use of oil lamps at the altar outside its use as a sanctuary candle. 

Moving Forward

This month, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reversed the auditor’s decision and St. Francis can keep its sanctuary flame intact. Until that ruling, the hospital had only two routes of moving forward either: (1) challenge the interpretations of the current law admonishing the use of flames in a hospital chapel setting or (2) seek dispensation from using a flame by the local bishop in each diocese where the tabernacle in the chapel resides.

Aside from the political aspects of this issue, a key reminder for us is that technical solutions to issues in the Church are not always licit. We must study the background and consult our dioceses. As Catholics, we defer to the bishop, not to the internet or our own accord.

And for those keeping score, Sacred Heart 1, Satan 0.

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Written by
Deacon Gregory Webster