Sacrificial lights stand in a church.
Picture: © katholisch.de
Empty churches, but full candlesticks

Why so many people still light candles in churches

Berlin - People are leaving the churches in droves - but there is one place in many places of worship that is still very popular: the candle stations in front of a cross or a statue of a saint. Why do so many people continue to light a candle there? And what does this mean for the churches?

Published  on 12.02.2024 at 12:00  – by Steffen Zimmermann

Anyone who has visited a church in the past few frosty and cold weeks will have felt it for themselves: In winter, many places of worship are extremely cold. A complete lack of heating or heating systems that only run on a low flame to save energy mean that the temperatures in many churches are barely higher than outside in the cold season. However, at least in almost all Catholic churches, there is one place from which a little warmth emanates even in winter, and not just in a figurative sense: the candle stations in front of a cross or a statue of a saint, where worshippers and visitors can light candles themselves.

Anyone who takes a closer look at these stations soon realises that they are among the most frequented places in many places of worship - large cathedrals and small parish churches alike. And that's not all: although the Catholic and Protestant churches have been suffering dramatic membership losses for years and large sections of society are now considered secularised, the number of people who go to church to light a candle is apparently continuing to rise. An enquiry at Cologne Cathedral confirms this impression: around two million sacrificial candles were lit there by worshippers and visitors last year - the same number as before the coronavirus pandemic for the first time. Other churches have also recently reported record consumption of sacrificial candles. How can this candle boom be explained?

Sociologist: Two groups responsible for the candle boom

According to Leipzig-based sociologist of religion Gert Pickel, two groups are primarily responsible for this: convinced Christians who remain loyal to their church despite all the crises and scandals and in whose lives religious practices continue to play an important role, and visitors who go to a church as part of a visit. "Although people from this group are often not or no longer believers themselves, they often light a candle because they remember this practice from their own parents or grandparents, for example, or because they want to remember someone," explains Pickel in an interview with katholisch.de.

Among people of faith, on the other hand, lighting a candle is still a very common religious ritual. This is also confirmed by the Church Membership Survey (KMU) published last autumn by the Protestant Church, in which the Catholic Church also participated for the first time. In principle, the study found that "forms of church-related religiosity" had declined significantly in Germany. However, "lighting a candle for religious reasons" is hardly affected by this decline, as 61 per cent of Catholics alone still practise this ritual at least occasionally, according to the SME.

Hamburg brand sociologist Oliver Errichiello sees the heavy use of candle stations as an indicator that, despite all the secularisation trends of recent years, "the need for religiosity and for God has not diminished in society, but on the contrary continues to exist and be relevant". However, this also shows how much the forms of religiosity have changed. Just like almost all other areas of life, religious practice has become increasingly individualised in recent years. "Those who are alienated by the rigid schedules of Sunday services, for example because they are not compatible with family life, are now less inhibited to look for other ways to live out their personal spirituality," the Catholic tells katholisch.de.

Candlelit stations as an example of "increasing autonomy of the faithful"

The candle stations are a good example of this increasing autonomy of the faithful in relation to the church. "People decide for themselves when and for what reason they want to light a sacrificial candle and seek God's closeness in this way," says Errichiello. Individual occasions for going to a candle station in a church could be the illness or death of a close relative or an upcoming exam at school. The tradition of lighting a candle offering on such occasions is also still so popular because - unlike other church customs - people understand the meaning behind it.

Benedictine priest and bestselling author Anselm Grün has a similar view. "Many people no longer know what or how to pray for someone else. But they often light a candle anyway. What these people, who are often far removed from the church, instinctively do is in line with Christian tradition. Lighting a candle for someone else is a way of praying for them," writes Grün in the magazine "einfach leben". Tradition says that as long as the candle is lit, the prayer goes to heaven. "And as long as the candle is burning, my prayer brings light into this person's life. After all, that is the deepest longing when we light a candle for someone else: We wish for his life to become brighter and warmer through God's love, for love to overcome the coldness within him, and for the light to drive away everything dark," says the Benedictine.

Bild: ©privat

Brand sociologist Oliver Errichiello warns the churches against "commercialising" the strong demand at the candle stations for advertising on their own behalf.

The high level of public traffic at many candle stations raises the question of whether there is a previously untapped potential here for the churches. According to the sociologist Pickel, many people light a candle there who otherwise have nothing or nothing more to do with the church. In times of dramatic membership losses, would the stations therefore be an opportunity for the churches to get in touch with the people there and interest them in other church programmes or even in joining or re-joining?

Urgent warning against "commercialisation" of the candle stations

No, say Pickel and Errichiello in unison - and urgently warn against such attempts. According to Errichiello, "commercialising" the strong demand at the candle stations for advertising on their own behalf is the "worst thing" the churches could do. On the one hand, you have to bear in mind that people often light a candle there who are grieving for a deceased relative or have worries that they pray for at the candle stand. Involving such people in a conversation or even approaching them along the lines of "If you are already lighting a candle here - are you perhaps also interested in other offers from our church?" is absolutely inappropriate.

On the other hand, many people make a conscious decision to light a candle in a church on their own and at a time that suits them personally, emphasises Errichiello. "They may not want any closer contact with the church at all, but simply want to live out their personal spirituality in peace." The church's main task is therefore to ensure that there are enough candles in stock and that the church doors are open as long as possible for people to fulfil their needs, not just in a proverbial sense. The only thing the sociologist could get on board with is a book placed by the church congregation on the candlestick. "People could leave prayers, concerns or wishes there, which could then be included in the intercessions at the next service, for example."

by Steffen Zimmermann