Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and sacramental theology and director of the Sacerdos Institute at the Regina Apostolorum university.
Q: Should the paschal candle always be in a visible location in our Catholic churches? That is, after the Ascension, where should the paschal candle be put? In our church, the baptismal font is small and cannot be placed at the entry; should the candle be placed in a visible place in the sanctuary area close to the altar where it would be always visible, or should it be put away off to the side and taken out only when there are baptisms? — N.B., Alberta, Canada
A: There are several relevant documents. Among then is the 1988 circular letter from the Congregation for Divine Worship, Paschalis Sollemnitatis. This document states:
“[No 82] …The paschal candle should be prepared, which for effective symbolism must be made of wax, never be artificial, be renewed each year, be only one in number, and be of sufficiently large size so that it may evoke the truth that Christ is the light of the world. It is blessed with the signs and words prescribed in the Missal or by the conference of bishops.
“99. 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 baptistry, 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.”
To this, the document of the U.S. bishops’ conference adds some explanations as to the meaning of the paschal candle.
“The Paschal Candle
“§ 94. The paschal candle is the symbol of ‘the light of Christ, rising in glory,’ scattering ‘the darkness of our hearts and minds.’ Above all, the paschal candle should be a genuine candle, the pre-eminent symbol of the light of Christ. Choices of size, design, and color should be made in relationship to the sanctuary in which it will be placed. During the Easter Vigil and throughout the Easter season, the paschal candle belongs near the ambo or in the middle of the sanctuary. After the Easter season, it is moved to a place of honor in the baptistry for use in the celebration of baptisms. During funerals, the paschal candle is placed near the coffin as a sign of the Christian’s passover from death to life.”
First of all, contrary to our reader’s question, the paschal candle is now retired after Pentecost and not after the Ascension (as is the case of the extraordinary form).
Second, the documents are adamant that the paschal candle not be placed in the sanctuary area after Eastertide but near the baptistry. This leads us to the question of the proper location of the baptismal font.
The Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults says the following:
“No. 25: The baptistery or the area where the baptismal font is located should be reserved for the sacrament of baptism and should be worthy to serve as the place where Christians are reborn in water and the Holy Spirit. The baptistery may be situated in a chapel either inside or outside the church or in some other part of the church easily seen by the faithful; it should be large enough to accommodate a good number of people. After the Easter season, the Easter candle should be kept reverently in the baptistery, in such a way that it can be lighted for the celebration of baptism and so that from it the candles for the newly baptized can easily be lighted.”
The U.S. bishops’ conference document also offers valuable guidelines:
“§ 66. The rites of baptism, the first of the sacraments of initiation, require a prominent place for celebration. Initiation into the Church is entrance into a eucharistic community united in Jesus Christ. Because the rites of initiation of the Church begin with baptism and are completed by the reception of the Eucharist, the baptismal font and its location reflect the Christian’s journey through the waters of baptism to the altar. This integral relationship between the baptismal font and the altar can be demonstrated in a variety of ways, such as placing the font and altar on the same architectural axis, using natural or artificial lighting, using the same floor patterns, and using common or similar materials and elements of design.
“§ 67. The location of the baptismal font, its design, and the materials used for its construction are important considerations in the planning and design of the building. It is customary to locate the baptismal font either in a special area within the main body of the church or in a separate baptistry. Through the waters of baptism, the faithful enter the life of Christ. For this reason, the font should be visible and accessible to all who enter the church building. While the baptistry is proportioned to the building itself and should be able to hold a good number of people, its actual size will be determined by the needs of the local community.
“§ 68. Water is the key symbol of baptism and the focal point of the font. In this water, believers die to sin and are reborn to new life in Christ. In designing the font and the iconography in the baptismal area, the parish will want to consider the traditional symbolism that has been the inspiration for the font’s design throughout history. The font is a symbol of both tomb and womb; its power is the power of the triumphant cross; and baptism sets the Christian on the path to the life that will never end, the ‘eighth day’ of eternity where Christ’s reign of peace and justice is celebrated.
“§ 69. The following criteria can be helpful when choosing the design for the font:
“1. One font that will accommodate the baptism of both infants and adults symbolizes the one faith and one baptism that Christians share. The size and design of the font can facilitate the dignified celebration for all who are baptized at the one font.
“2. The font should be large enough to supply ample water for the baptism of both adults and infants. Since baptism in Catholic churches may take place by immersion in the water, or by infusion (pouring), fonts that permit all forms of baptismal practice are encouraged.
“3. Baptism is a sacrament of the whole Church and, in particular, of the local parish community. Therefore the ability of the congregation to participate in baptisms is an important consideration.
“4. The location of the baptistry will determine how, and how actively, the entire liturgical assembly can participate in the rite of baptism.
“5. Because of the essential relationship of baptism to the celebration of other sacraments and rituals, the parish will want to choose an area for the baptistry or the font that visually symbolizes that relationship. Some churches choose to place the baptistry and font near the entrance to the church. Confirmation and the Eucharist complete the initiation begun at baptism; marriage and ordination are ways of living the life of faith begun in baptism; the funeral of a Christian is the final journey of a life in Christ that began in baptism; and the sacrament of penance calls the faithful to conversion and to a renewal of their baptismal commitment. Placing the baptismal font in an area near the entrance or gathering space where the members pass regularly and setting it on an axis with the altar can symbolize the relationship between the various sacraments as well as the importance of the Eucharist within the life and faith development of the members.
“6. With the restoration of the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults that culminates in baptism at the Easter Vigil, churches need private spaces where the newly baptized can go immediately after their baptism to be clothed in their white garments and to prepare for the completion of initiation in the Eucharist. In some instances, nearby sacristies can serve this purpose.”
Now, our reader seems to know the best choice for locating the baptismal font, but the actual church seems to be too small to adopt a location near the entrance. The documents we quoted would preclude the installation of a permanent baptismal font within the sanctuary proper, although a portable baptismal font may be used in the sanctuary, especially for baptisms during Mass.
The document also allows for some other suitable location within the church, without going into detail.
My suggestions would be the following:
Presuming that our reader’s church is a parish church it would be best to explore the possibility of constructing a definitive baptistry as close as possible to the model presented in the official documents even though this might be a long-term project.
A temporary solution might be to place the baptismal font and paschal candle in relationship with the ambo albeit outside of the sanctuary area. In some churches, this has become a permanent solution as it provides visibility while remaining outside the sanctuary. However, due to the proximity of the two zones, it could also cause confusion, so prudence is called for, taking all elements into account.
In non-parish churches and oratories where baptisms are exceptional and there is no stable font, the paschal candle can be kept in the sacristy when not in use.