top of page

“Twinkle, twinkle, little—”


Peregrinus Gasolinus: Wandering Notes on the Liturgy

Chapter 33


“So this is Newark!” cried the Antiquary, as the majestic towers of that city loomed up across the salt marshes before the “Scoot,” homeward bound.


“I’d always thought of Newark as a state of mind, somewhat actuarial and as strong as Gibraltar, entirely surrounded by Oranges![1] It looks substantial enough—yet was it not a Bishop of Newark who precipitated the question of gas lights on altars?”


“It was,” growled the Liturgiologist, who was not as anxious as he ought to be to get home, only to start out again to attend the diocesan retreat. “And plenty of answers did his Lordship get from Rome on that light and scintillating matter!”


“Which answers seem to have changed things more or less,” ventured the Liturgiologist.


“More, rather than less,” was the Liturgiologist’s grudging concession to fact. “Yet one sees the theatrical lighting of altars and sanctuaries still, the gas and electric candles at High Mass have practically and fortunately vanished. I’ve seen ‘em, however, not so long ago, and not so far from here.”


“I seem to remember reading something or other from your facile Corona[2] on the subject,” murmured the Antiquary with a gleam in his eye which escaped his ancient friend, who was driving at the moment. “Did you not once give the pastor of St. Rusticus a bad quarter of an hour because he had an electric corona[3] on one of his statues?”


“I did, and he deserved it,” quoth the Liturgiologist.


“But,” gently insisted the Antiquary, “isn’t there some sort of a decree or faculty permitting them?”


“There is!” barked the Liturgiologist. “S.R.C. n. 4210 ad 1 (Jan. 17, 1908) give the faculty to Ordinaries[4] to permit electric lights round statues, extra altare,[5] but always with the proviso that these shall not produce a theatrical effect, and shall not be used in any way for the cultus[6] of the subject of the statue. Now an illuminated halo, or corona if you prefer the term, is emphatically ad cultum,[7] and it is somewhat difficult to see how it can be other than theatrical. This matter of halos is only part of the general subject of electric lights in churches, and on that we have very definite rulings.”


“They’re not permitted on the altar—” began the Liturgiologist.


“I noticed an article in the Ephemerides Liturgicae—”[8] ventured the Antiquary.


“I thought you had,” chortled the Liturgiologist. “The information you’ve been promulgating was hardly antiquarian, so I had my suspicions. You doubtless noticed the distinction made regarding electric lights used with or in place of the required candles. That is an abuse which, fortunately, has well-nigh vanished. But other arrangements in wiring and bulbs which were made in the hey-day of ecclesiastical theatricalism, still remain and are too frequently used on state occasions.”[9]


“You mean electric lights about the exposition throne?” asked the Antiquary, enjoying himself hugely. As an antiquary he would gladly have banished any lamp of any sort not absolutely needed in order to see at all.


“Or in the tabernacle itself,” added the Liturgiologist. “Any illumination which is directed upon the Sacred Host, either inside the tabernacle or the exposition (ciborium, in the architectural sense, canopy, throne[10]) is strictly forbidden, and the decree mentions that the matter of lighting up the locality in order that the Blessed Sacrament may be better seen by the congregation. Lamps of various colors are expressly forbidden, and the custom of turning on additional lights for Benediction or during the Canon of the Mass is reprehended as theatrical and ad cultum.”


“But the article in the Ephemerides made one point which interested me as an Antiquary,” said that person, slyly.


“You’ll steal no march on me there,” was the Liturgiologist’s instant retort. “You mean that the general illumination of the altar and sanctuary on special occasions is quite in accord with Roman custom, since it is done in St. Peter’s at canonizations and at other times?”


“Not that I quite admire the Italian taste in such matters,” ventured the Antiquary. “However, de gustibus.[11] The point is that it seems quite lawful to outline the architectural lines of the sanctuary, and even the reredos[12] of the altar, with electric lights.”


“Certainly,” said the Liturgiologist. “But you will notice, in the pictures of such functions, that the electric lights are not placed near the altar itself, but limited to the higher parts of the reredos, and to the outlines of windows, columns, arches and the like. They are thus within the law, whereas if they were clustered about the throne of exposition, or in the way of halos on statues close to the altar, they would evidently fall under the prohibition of the S.R.C. The purpose served is the more splendid ornamentation of the altar, which is permitted. The reredos is not liturgically part of the altar, but even statues on the reredos may not be crowned with electric globes, and whatever lighting is used must avoid being theatrical. Nor may it be switched on and off, according to the ceremonies going on, but lighted before the function begins, and extinguished when it is ended. Suddenly to light up the reredos at the moment the Blessed Sacrament is placed on the throne, is both ad cultum (which still continues in many places) which the decrees condemn.”


“What about electric lights in the sanctuary lamp before the Blessed Sacrament?” asked the Antiquary.


“A special faculty was given, during the War,[13] to Ordinaries to permit this in churches which, through poverty or on account of circumstances arising from the disturbed state of things at the time, could not provide the liturgical light.” The mind of the Liturgiologist did not seem to be on the point under discussion. He slowed down the “Scoot” and glanced to right and left in a somewhat bewildered manner.


“And has that faculty been rescinded now that the War is over?” asked the Antiquary.


“Where on earth are we?” gasped the Liturgiologist, bringing the “Scoot” to a jerky stop, “Where’s Newark?”


The Antiquary gazed about him at the wide-spreading marshes which entirely surrounded them. The road stretched forward and back in a straight line, but the towers and Gibraltar-like buildings they had marked as their destination for lunch was nowhere visible.


“Must have taken the wrong turn,” he grinned. “Here comes a flivver; let’s ask him.”


“Which way to Newark?” shouted the Liturgiologist, as the oncoming machine slowed down at his signal.


“Six miles back,” came the response. “How did you miss it!”



1 Referring to an outlining area called “the Oranges” due to the city of Orange the various outlying towns also sharing the name: East Orange, West Orange and South Orange.


2 Latin for “working Corona”—i.e., the Liturgiologist’s typewriter.


3 A type of crown—in this case, illuminated with light bulbs.


4 I.e., bishops of their dioceses.


5 Latin for “outside [away] from the altar”.


6 The Latin term for the set of devotions or veneration of the saint.


7 A Latin phrase that means “against the rules of worship”, thus in contradiction of the proviso.


8 The title of the Holy See’s periodical (in English, Liturgical Matters, which provided many useful and informative articles—often of academic quality—on the liturgy.


9 For example, the visit of a bishop.


10 See The Liturgical Altar for more information on these important architectural details that make up the altar structure.


11 A Latin phrase meaning “according to one’s tastes”.


12 A screen or high wall behind the altar—the word is derived from “to stand behind”.


13 Referring to World War I, which affected the United States from 1917 to 1919.

bottom of page