Q. I’ve heard that the Vatican does not approve of the lighting of the unity candle at wedding ceremonies. Is this true? (Albany, N.Y.)
A. For those unfamiliar with it, the ritual of the unity candle is sometimes inserted into a Catholic wedding ceremony following the exchange of vows and rings. The bride and groom each take a smaller lighted candle. Using those candles, they together light the larger candle in the middle. That’s referred to as the “unity candle.”
The bride and groom then blow out the smaller candles, showing in a symbolic way that their two lives are now blended into one. (As an added tweak, sometimes the mothers of the bride and groom light the two smaller candles at the beginning of the wedding ceremony.)
The lighting of a unity candle is not a part of the official Catholic wedding ceremony — i.e., it is not included in the Vatican-approved rite of marriage. However, I am not aware of any Vatican prohibition of this “add-on,” and most parishes allow it, should the couple desire it. Some parishes, though, do not permit it because they view it as a secular incursion into a sacred event.
The origins of the unity candle ritual are unclear, but it seems to have developed in America over the past 30-40 years. One theory is that the practice took off after it was done in a wedding on the soap opera “General Hospital” in 1981. Parishes that disallow a unity candle argue that it takes the focus away from the central ritual, which is the exchange of vows, and they advise couples who want to use the unity candle to do so at the reception rather than at the ceremony.
My approach is not to suggest the unity candle to couples but to accede to their wishes should they raise the issue. (I have them place the candles on a smaller table rather than on the altar so as to keep the altar table only for the Eucharist.) I take the same approach with couples who raise the possibility of bringing a floral bouquet to a Marian side altar after the vows and the rings, in honor of the Blessed Mother.
In general, I think the church fares best when we can grant a couple’s wishes on their special day. Sometimes, though, a line needs to be drawn. I had one couple who thought it would be “neat” if their dog could carry up the wedding rings in the bridal procession. I said I thought that might be inappropriate and that I would not be comfortable with it — which was code for saying that I wouldn’t allow it in a million years. They caught my drift.
Questions may be sent to Father Kenneth Doyle at firstname.lastname@example.org and 40 Hopewell St., Albany, N.Y. 12208.