The Sight of burning votive candles -real or electronic - is common in most Catholic churches. The candles are usually placed before statues of saints or at shrines. But how did this tradition get its start?
According to A Handbook of Catholic Sacramentals, by Ann Ball (Our Sunday Visitor Books), 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.
Vigil Lights (from the Latin vigilia, which means "waiting" or "watching") are traditionally accompanied by prayers of attention or waiting. Another common type of candle offering is the votive light. Such an offering is indicative of seeking some favor from the Lord or the saint before which the votive is placed.
Lighting a candle is a way of extending one's prayer and showing solidarity with the person on whose behalf the prayer is offered.
After the 9/11 tragedy, lit candles figured prominently in a televised concert affirming the power of goodness over the darkness of evil. The symbolism was similar to the Catholic custom of lighting candles as a form of prayer.
Source: "St. Anthony Messenger" Septmber 2003, Page 26
In the lighting of candles we remember and truly live the words of Our Lord: "I am the Light of the World." In the lighting of candles we not only pray, but our prayers become smaller symbols of the One Light of Christ. In burning candles, our prayers rise up to Heaven day and night; prayers for the saint's intercession are also common because of their friendship with God in Heaven. Saints are powerful intercessors. The lighting of candles has been observed since the early the time of the early martyrs.
I own several votive candles and nearly all churches have votive candles. Some churches ask for only a $1 donation to light one so they can purchase another, while some require up to $10. This is just to help them purchase new candles. Please realize it is a "donation" not an obligation; if you don't have the money, you will still be able to light a candle. There are many churches and Cathedrals over the Internet that will even light candles there for you if you send in a donation. Just one example is the St. Anthony Shrine of Cincinnati, Ohio.