As a sign of bringing light and hope to the dark memory of 9/11, the pope was going to light a large beeswax candle adorned with his papal coat of arms.
That simple symbolic act, however, required lots of preparation and a few excruciating seconds of uncertainty.
I found out the story behind the event when I happened to run into the self-described “papal candle maker” this summer.
Martin Marklin from Contoocook, N.H., has been making liturgical candles for U.S. dioceses and churches since 1985 as well as for events during stateside papal visits.
His candles are works of art — seamless and smooth because they’re hand-dipped after they’re released from their molds. They can be hand-carved, decorated with wax inlay or brushed with glittering gold leaf.
The key thing is they’re also made of 51% beeswax. Even though it’s much more expensive, beeswax has long been preferred over petroleum-based paraffin for church candles. Because the female worker bees, who produce the beeswax, do not mate, the beeswax symbolizes the pure flesh of Jesus born of the Virgin Mary.
Martin, whom I met during a regional beekeepers’ meeting in Pennsylvania (long story), told me about how he was commissioned — just a few weeks prior — to provide the 9/11 memorial candle for Pope Benedict’s April visit to ground zero.
The first worry was transport. Wax candles are extremely delicate and they can easily break, crack, melt, bend or get dents. They had to find a reliable shipper from their New Hampshire factory who could get the candle and a backup copy to New York safely and on time.
With three days to go before the event, the candles were put in a special container on a FedEx flight from Manchester. However, the plane broke down and the cargo had to be taken off and loaded onto a different plane. The papal payload, unfortunately, got lost and sent on a flight to Memphis, Tenn.
Martin got on the phone with FedEx right away and said he found “a good Catholic executive” who worked a miracle and got the shipment to New York Friday night for Sunday’s service.
When the candle safely arrived, Martin was then concerned about how it would be lit. It was Pope Benedict’s desire to light the candle himself and Martin wanted to make sure it could be done right. Lighting a candle may not seem like a big deal, but given the huge number of people watching and the importance of the event, the lighting needed to be dignified, smooth and actually result in a flame.
The event organizers took Martin’s advice and supplied a brazier and a taper that the pope would use to light the candle.
However, on the big day, the server was holding the taper in such a way that even though it had a glass draft protector, a breeze came and blew out the flame.
Msgr. Guido Marini, master of papal liturgical ceremonies, and the acolyte looked at each other. There was no light!
Msgr. Marini’s resourcefulness saved the day, however, Martin was disappointed that the thing he was trying to avoid (a tacky lighter) was the light’s source.
He confided in me that before he shipped the candle, he carved the initials of his four children in the candle base because “If we’re going to have a world to pass on to our children, we need to pray for peace.”
A highpoint of meeting Martin was his gift to me of a special candle he made in honor of Pope Francis’ election.
I haven’t been able to bear lighting the candle, feeling somehow it will become ruined. But Martin says, “A candle not lighted is dead,” as the flame proclaims the life and light of Jesus.
So I think today is the day I’ll light my papal candle, in memory of 9/11.