President Obama Lights a Candle for Our Lady

President Obama Lights a Candle for Our Lady June 1, 2015

VOTIVE CANDLES By Tiger Craven (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
By Tiger Craven (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
President Obama has visited the National Shrine of Our Lady of Charity in Miami, where he paused to light a candle before the Virgin Mary.

Crux has the story of the unexpected presidential visit to a Catholic shrine:

The president was on his way to the airport after attending a Democratic fundraiser the night before and spending the morning at the National Hurricane Center….

Obama is the first sitting US president to visit. And Dominguez had barely an hour to prepare. He was in a meeting with his staff when Secret Service agents appeared at the office, telling him the president “was nearby and he wanted to get to know this place.”

Within seconds, carloads of SWAT-clad agents with bomb-sniffing dogs descended on the shrine, quickly and efficiently checking “every corner, every crevice, every door,” Dominguez said.

He asked if he should tell the dozen or so people praying inside to leave. The agents said no. They just had to be screened with metal detectors. A few minutes later, Dominguez was standing at the glass doors of the shrine, waiting to welcome the leader of the free world.

It’s good that the President had the opportunity to visit the Shrine, to see the image of Cuba’s patroness, and to hear from Father Dominguez about the history of Cuba and the suffering of Cuba’s people.

But I wonder whether President Obama fully realized the significance of the candle? That it’s a form of prayer, and that our prayer rises to God like the smoke from the flame.

Ann Ball, in her Handbook of Catholic Sacramentals, explains that the practice of lighting candles in order to obtain some favor probably has its origins in the custom of burning lights at the tombs of the martyrs in the catacombs. The lights burned as a sign of solidarity with Christians still on earth. Because the lights continually burned as a silent vigil, they became known as vigil lights. As we light the vigil light, we say a prayer and ask Mary or the saint whose altar we visit to intercede for us before the throne of God.

And Father William Saunders offers a comprehensive historical perspective in a column on the EWTN website. He begins:

In Judaism, a perpetual light was kept burning in the Temple and the synagogues not only to ensure the ability to light other candles or oil lamps in the evening but also to show the presence of God (cf. Ex 27:20-21 and Lv 24:24). Later, the Talmud prescribed a lit lamp at the Ark, where the Torah and other writings of Sacred Scripture were kept, to show reverence to the Word of God. (This practice probably influenced our own one of having a lit candle near the tabernacle to indicate the presence of and to show reverence for the Blessed Sacrament.)

He continues to describe the use of lit candles in liturgical processions, evening prayer services and funeral processions, then describes a very interesting medieval custom of lighting a candle or several candles to equal an individual’s height (called “measuring”).

In John 8:12, Jesus said,

I am the light of the world. No follower of Mine shall ever walk in darkness; no, he shall possess the light of life.”

The symbolism of the flame is emphasized again in John 12:46, when Jesus says,

“I have come to the world as its light, to keep anyone who believes in Me from remaining in the dark.”

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  • Wow, that’s cool, but the cynic in me figures he’s calculating the Holy Father’s visit into his actions. But God bless him for it.

    • Victor

      Hey Manny! Didn’t Jesus say in so many words that some problems can only be cured by prayers?.. Mark 9:29

      Please keep praying for me also.

      • Hey Victor. Don’t be a stranger. I’m missing you on my blog. 😉

  • Mary Anne

    Lighting a candle before the Blessed Virgin Mary. This gives me great hope. Not in our president, but in what our Lady can do through him. This may be a great sign of things to come for Catholics in the U.S.. Pray Pray Pray!!! Prayer AND fasting!

  • captcrisis

    I hope I’m really reading a positive post about Obama here at the Church of Hating Obama (sorry, the Patheos “Catholic Channel”). Y’know, that politician that Catholics support in greater percentages than any other religious group?
    If so, thanks.

    • Korou

      Can you really call this the Catholic Channel when it doesn’t represent Catholics?

      • Neko

        I’m a cradle Catholic, though one who left the Church for a verrrrry long time (I returned, go figure). I had the shock of my life when I started visiting the Patheos Catholic Channel. Clearly an alien army had invaded the Catholic Church in my absence and established such propaganda vehicles as the Catholic Channel and EWTN, stoking demagoguery and the politics of resentment, albeit with a sentimental (if belligerent) veneer of religiosity.

        Now they do throw in a few outlier blogs just to keep the people guessing. But Lord Have Mercy. Most Catholics do not spend their time seething toward gays, “the culture” and President Obama, who, some may recall, inherited a country in shambles after the debacle of the Bush years.

        • Korou

          Thanks for sharing that.
          Myself, I started off with quite a lot of respect for Catholics. After all, they were certainly much better than fundamentalists – they didn’t think evolution was a lie, didn’t try to get science thrown out of schools and spent a lot of time working for the poor.
          Then scandals started coming out, and I learned a lot more. I learned about the Magdalene laundries, the child abuse scandals, the fight against reproductive health. And then, like you, I came on to Catholic Patheos and found a whole other world in which these things were treated with denial that was, as you say, belligerent.

          It was a great relief, though, to find that the majority – sometimes the large majority – of Catholics have nothing to do with the policies perpetuated by the hierachy. Good for them!

          • Neko

            You’re welcome; thank you for your response.

            A few quibbles. A majority of US and European Catholics dissent from Church teaching (what you call “policies”) on this or that issue, but elsewhere, particularly in Africa, the culture is quite different–though apparently some African Catholic priests are complacent about polygamy and may even keep mistresses and have families of their own, a self-indulgence hardly unprecedented in the history of the Church. Neither are terrible scandals and abuses unprecedented, of course. The Church is a conservator of a venerable religious tradition; it’s also a political institution like any other and has been ever since Constantine. (Indeed Constantine strong-armed the Council of Nicaea into adopting the Nicene Creed, which we recite to this day, with its assertion of the then-controversial notion of the consubstantiality of Christ with the Father). Apologists wistfully protest that though the Church is full of sinners she cannot err in the faith because the Holy Spirit, etc. But the fact is Western Catholics have recoiled from the revelations of corruption and abuse and have been streaming out of the Church.

            Though the particular kind of conservatism prevalent on Patheos seems to me to be due in part to an influx of evangelical and other fundamentalist converts, Vatican II created a backlash that within years spawned conservative and reactionary movements. While they espouse minority views, these factions still represent a significant number of Catholics.

            The culture wars do distract from the good works of many Catholics, who toil away in obscurity in the vineyard. Catholicism can be a stirring, expansive way of life, but you wouldn’t know it from reading some of these blogs.

            I should also note that I’m not typical of even very liberal Catholics, who tend to be quite strong people of faith.

          • Korou

            Thank you. Very interesting. Very true about the Holy Spirit – that whole “we’re infallible” idea is backfiring now that the Church is being confronted more and more by reality. If only they could back off from the culture wars and focus more on helping people – not only would the Church be a force for good but they’d probably start winning back the people they’re losing.