In Spain, Church Candles Go Digital

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Every week, Marta Hernández walks to Madrid's San Andres church and lights a candle for St. Isidro. Most of the time, the 75-year-old prays for the health of her children and grandchildren. Every now and then, though, she acts as proxy for her old friend Maria Teresa, who no longer lives in the neighborhood and misses her patron saint. "She can't come here to light a candle to St. Isidro, so I do it for her," says Hernández. But if David Doña and Marcos Rodríguez have their way, Maria Teresa may soon be able to light that candle herself — from the comfort of her own home.

On April 26, Doña and Rodríguez unveiled a digital candelabra in the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. The device, which consists of a computer screen mounted on a metal stand decorated with the Cross of St. James, allows the faithful to remotely light a virtual candle to a favorite saint through the website (translation: MyCandle). Simply click on the church and icon you want, type in your credit card or PayPal information — each candle costs about $2 — and in a dark corner of a faraway church, an onscreen candle "lights." The candles can also be lit via text message.

Rodríguez, an engineer, got the idea for the digital devotion when he came across an old candelabra in his father's metal shop and was struck by its beauty. Working with Doña, an information technologist, he designed a prototype and then set about trying to convince parish priests to let them install the digital candelabras in their sanctuaries. "It wasn't that hard, actually," says Doña. "About 99% of the priests we spoke to were enthusiastic about it."

So far, the candelabra has been installed in seven churches in Spain, including the cathedral of Santiago, the site of an important pilgrimage that draws more than 100,000 faithful to the town on the northwestern coast of Spain every year. But its inventors have bigger plans. They are in talks with authorities at Lourdes, a basilica in southern France that is renowned for the healing powers of its water, and Guadalupe in Mexico City, the site of a famed vision of the Virgin Mary. "With Guadalupe, there are many immigrants [in Spain] who would want to light a candle for their saint back home," says Doña. "And so many people who want to go to Lourdes, but precisely because of health problems, can't get there."

That accessibility, as well as the potential financial gain, has made the digital candelabra attractive to church authorities. According to José María Díaz, deacon at Santiago, the money the faithful pay to light a candle to St. James is the cathedral's principal source of income, yet it's hardly enough to meet expenses. "Other cathedrals charge admission, but we don't want to do that," Díaz said in an interview with El País. "So this seemed interesting."

Of course, any income depends on people using the service. It was only a couple of years ago when most churches in Spain switched from wax candles to electric ones, and that change met with resistance. But early indications suggest that this latest incarnation, which does not replace the electric candelabra but rather stands next to it, may get a warmer welcome. Two days after its debut, the digital candelabra for the icon of St. James at the Santiago cathedral had already received 388 petitions.

Religious practice has declined precipitously in Spain in the past few decades (nearly half of all Spaniards say they never attend Mass), but Doña isn't worried that his new invention will encourage even more people to stay away from church. "If anything, it's the opposite," he says. "Internet and text messaging, these are the languages that the new generation understands. We've created a way for them to be interactive with God."

But Marta Hernández says she prefers the old way. "The whole point is to come visit the saint," she says. "Besides, I don't know how to use a computer."