by Fr. Jean-Pierre Herman
This article was originally published at Schola Sainte Cecile and is translated here and at New Liturgical Movement with the kind permission of the author.
The Missal of Paul VI promulgated on the 3rd of April 1969 effectively eliminated the ancient custom of assigning vigils and octaves to major feasts.
Subsequently, octaves are celebrated only for Easter and Christmas. As for vigils, all that remains of them is a “vigil Mass in the evening” for certain feasts, which usually passes unnoticed. Further, the nature of this service is different. It has become an anticipation of the feast and no longer a day of fasting and preparation for it.
The Mass for the Vigil of Pentecost is a unique case. There are now four texts to choose from for the first reading, all Old Testament readings in which the gift of the Holy Spirit is prefigured. But this is all that remains of the rich ancient liturgy of the Vigil of Pentecost.
This reduction was accomplished in two steps. The Vigil disappeared first in the reforms of the ‘50s and then the octave was abolished with the promulgation of the new missal.
The Baptismal Character of the Ancient Vigil of Pentecost
In a conference on Pius XII’s “restored” 1955 Holy Week liturgy, Msgr Léon Gromier declares:
The Vigil of Pentecost no longer contains any reference to baptism. It has become a day like any other, and makes the Missal tell a lie in the Canon. This vigil was an annoying neighbor, a fearsome rival! Scholars in the future will likely be more severe in their judgement than pastoral types are today.
The rite he is referring to was in many respects a sort of repetition of the baptismal vigil of Easter, practiced by Christians from earliest antiquity at the Vigil of Pentecost.
The first Christians celebrated the entirety of the Paschal Mystery—death, resurrection, and the gift of the Holy Spirit—during the one great night of Easter. But very soon the teaching mind of the Church focused its attention on the various aspects of this mystery, and spread out the liturgical celebrations according to the chronology of the Gospels.
Moreover, as we know, the sacraments of Christian initiation—Baptism, Confirmation, and the Eucharist—were formerly conferred on candidates during the same celebration, a practice that the Eastern Churches have retained. Cardinal Schuster points out the intimate connection between Baptism and Confirmation and their distinct characters:
Although the sacrament of Baptism is entirely distinct from that of Confirmation, yet the latter takes its name of Confirmatio from the fact that the coming down of the Holy Ghost into the soul of the neophyte completes the work of his supernatural regeneration. Through its sacramental character it confers on him a more perfect likeness to Jesus Christ, impressing on his soul the final seal or ratification of his union with the divine Redeemer.
The word Confirmatio was used in Spain to denote also the invocation of the Holy Ghost in the Mass, Confirmatio Sacramenti. Hence the existing analogy between the epiklesis—that part of the Mass which begs from the Paraclete the fullness of his gifts upon those about to receive Holy Communion—and the sacrament of Confirmation, which in olden days was administered immediately after Baptism, shows very clearly the deep theological meaning hidden in the word Confirmatio as applied to this sacrament.
As early as Tertullian, we have evidence for the celebration of baptisms not only during the great Easter Vigil but also during the Vigil of Pentecost:
Another solemn day of Baptism is Pentecost, when a sufficient amount of time has passed to dispose and instruct those who are to be baptized.
The choice is not accidental, for during baptism the bishop places his right hand on the head of the neophyte “calling the Spirit by means of a blessing.”
We also have a letter written by Pope Siricius (384–399) to Bishop Himerius of Tarragona that attests this practice. Furthermore, in a letter to the bishops of Sicily, Pope St Leo the Great (440–461) exhorts them to imitate St. Peter, who baptized three thousand people on the day of the first Pentecost.
Liturgical books of a later period give the framework for a celebration of the same type as the Easter Vigil found in all the missals that preceded the Tridentine reform, as well as in the missal of St. Pius V up to the reform of the 1950s.
We will leave it to Dom Guéranger to describe the practice:
Formerly, this Vigil was kept like that of Easter. The faithful repaired to the church in the evening, that they might assist at the solemn administration of Baptism. During the night, the Sacrament of regeneration was conferred upon such catechumens as sickness or absence from home had prevented from receiving it on Easter night. Those, also, who had then been thought insufficiently tried or instructed, and had, during the interval, satisfied the conditions required by the Church, now formed part of the group of aspirants to the new birth of the sacred font. Instead of the twelve prophecies, which were read on Easter night while the priests were performing over the catechumens the rites preparatory to Baptism, six only were now read; at least, such was the usual custom, and it would lead us to suppose that the number of those baptized at Pentecost was less than at Easter.
The Paschal Candle was again brought forward during this night of grace, in order to impress the newly baptized with respect and love for the Son of God, who became Man that He might be the light of the world. The rites already described and explained for Holy Saturday were repeated on this occasion, and the Sacrifice of the Mass, at which the neophytes assisted, began before the break of day.
As Schuster relates, in ancient times the Vigil of Pentecost, as the Vigil of Easter, was celebrated in the Lateran during the night between Saturday to Sunday. By the 12th century, it had been moved to the afternoon. Towards the end of the day, the Pope betook himself to St Peter’s for the singing of Vespers and solemn Matins.
As Baptism began to be celebrated on other days and the practice of baptizing infants quam primum meant that these ceremonies were no longer exclusively performed on the Vigil of Pentecost. This brought the day down to the level of a preparation for a feast, like any other vigil, but it remained a celebration of a manifestly baptismal character.
Pius Parsch introduces it thus:
“Today is a solemn vigil and thus a day of full penance with fasting and abstinence (in certain diocese, however, this obligation is no longer binding under pain of sin but merely recommended). A vigil is always a day of preparation. The house of the soul must be cleaned and prepared for the great feast. Two thoughts should occupy the Christian who follows the Church in these days: 1) the memory of his baptism; b) preparation for Pentecost.”
Time and Structure of the Vigil
After None, the prophecies are read without title, with candles extinguished, as on Holy Saturday.
This is the rubric found before the Pentecost Vigil in the Missal. It is celebrated at the same hour as the Paschal Vigil. Once celebrated in the night of Saturday to Sunday, it was eventually fixed to be celebrated after None, a situation ratified by the rubrics of the Tridentine liturgical books. By the end of the Middle Ages it was commonly anticipated to Saturday morning, before noon, in imitation of the Paschal Vigil, which the Tridentine books mandate be celebrated before prandium.
Its structure is comparable to that of Holy Saturday, except for the blessing of the fire and Paschal candle. Pius Parsch describes it as an abridged imitation of the Office of Holy Saturday. It begins with the reading of the prophecies, three of which are followed by a Tract, and each one by a prayer said by the celebrant.
Then there is a procession to the Baptistry for the blessing of the water, accompanied by the chant of a Tract composed of verses from Psalm 41 (Sicut cervus ad fontes aquarum). After a prayer, the celebrant says the prayer for the blessing of water, as at the Paschal Vigil. The procession returns to the altar chanting the Litany of the Saints, while the celebrants go to the sacristy to vest for Mass.
The color used in the vigil is violet. The rubrics specify that the priest wear a cope for the procession to the baptismal font. The deacon and subdeacon wear “folded chasubles.” Red, the color of Pentecost, is used for the Mass.
When the litany is finished, the candles are lit, the ministers go to the altar, and while the choir chants the Kyrie they recite the prayers at the foot of the altar. Then the priest performs the incensation and intones the Gloria, during which the bells are rung.
The readings of Pentecost are taken from the readings of Easter, but in a different order.
||Gn. 22 Sacrifice of Abraham
||Ex. 14 and 15 The Passage of the Red Sea
||Dt. 31 The Mosaic Testament, Respect for the Law
||Is. 4 The Liberation of Jerusalem
||Bar. 3 Return to the Promised Land
||Ez. 37 Dry Bones
The second, third, and fourth prophecies are followed by Tracts, the same three Tracts as sung in the Paschal Vigil.
The prayers that follow the readings, however, are different. They are taken from the Gregorian Sacramentary.
They all focus, each in its own manner, on the continuity between the two Testaments, and the passage of the Israel of the Old Testament, liberated from slavery in Egypt, to the new Israel of the baptized, liberated from the bondage of sin. We cite here only those that follow the second and fourth reading, which are remarkable:
“O God, who by the light of the New Testament hast expounded the miracles wrought in the first ages of the world, so that the Red Sea was a figure of the sacred font, and the deliverance of the people out of the bondage of Egypt did represent the Christian sacraments: grant that all nations who have now obtained the birthright of Israel by the merit of faith may be born again by the participation of thy Spirit. Through the same Lord … in unity with the same Holy Ghost.”
“O almighty and eternal God, who by thy only Son hast shown thyself the husbandman of thy Church, mercifully cultivating every branch which bringeth forth fruit in that same Christ, who is the true vine, that it may be more fruitful; let not the thorns of sin prevail against thy faithful, whom thou hast transplanted like a vineyard out of Egypt by the baptismal font; but protect them by thy holy Spirit, that they may be enriched by everlasting fruits. Through the same Lord … in unity with the same Holy Ghost.”
The procession to the baptismal font and the blessing of water that follow the prayer of the sixth prophecy re-use all the texts of the Paschal Vigil, with the exception of the collect that precedes the blessing of water, which speaks about the feast:
“Grant, we beseech thee, almighty God, that we who commemorate the giving of the Holy Spirit, being inflamed with heavenly desires, may thirst after the fountain of life. Through our Lord … in unity with the same Holy Ghost.”
In these texts the intimate links between Baptism, the gift of the Holy Spirit, and the Christian life are put in clear relief.
As we have already seen, the Mass follows directly upon the Litany. As at Easter, there is no introit. It was only at a later period, when the custom of private masses became widespread, that an introit was added: “Cum sanctificatus,” taken from Wednesday of the 4th week of Lent.
This Mass is the culmination of the Vigil and its collect expresses once more, in a very concise manner, the link between Baptism and the gift of the Holy Spirit:
“Grant, we beseech thee, almighty God, that the splendor of thy glory may shine forth upon us, and the light of thy light may by the illumination of the Holy Ghost confirm the hearts of those who have been regenerated by thy grace. … in the unity of the same Holy Ghost.”
This link is underscored once again in the Epistle taken from the Acts of the Apostles. The subject is the encounter of Paul with the disciples of John the Baptist, who “had not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit,” after which Paul baptises them “in the name of Jesus Christ.”
The rest of the Mass is entirely focused on Pentecost, including the Gospel in which Jesus promises never to leave his disciples orphans, but to pray the Father to send them the Comforter.
The Secret and Postcommunion both ask God to purify the hearts of his faithful in preparation for the effusion of the Holy Spirit.
The Canon contains two proper parts. In the Communicantes, mention is made of the day’s feast:
“Communicating, and keeping the most holy day of the Pentecost, whereon the Holy Ghost appeared to the Apostles in countless tongues; and also venerating the memory, first of the glorious Mary, ever a Virgin, Mother of the our God and Lord Jesus Christ …”
While the Hanc igitur, as at Easter, intercedes for those baptized that night:
“We therefore beseech thee, O Lord, to be appeased and accept this oblation of our service, as also of thy whole family; which we make unto thee on behalf of these also whom thou hast vouchsafed to bring to a new birth by water and the Holy Ghost, giving them remission of all their sins; dispose our days …”
The Reform of 1955
In the missals after 1955, the Vigil of Pentecost has been reduced to the Mass alone, in the form we just described, including the introit Cum sanctificatus. The prophecies, procession, and blessing of water have simply been abolished. The baptismal character of the vigil has been erased and the liturgy is entirely focused on the coming of the Holy Spirit.
The Epistle, which expresses the link between the two sacraments, has been retained. One wonders why the proper Hanc igitur, which intercedes for those who were baptized just before Mass, was retained, even though the baptism ritual it references was effaced. As in Easter, the proper Hanc igitur is said in the Vigil Mass, the Mass of the Day, and the masses throughout the octave.
This Hanc igitur had already become merely symbolic by the time of the reform, because in actual fact baptisms were practically never held during the celebration. Nevertheless, it referred back to the ceremonies performed at the baptistry before the Mass proper, and thus emphasized the baptismal character of the entire Vigil. The choice to retain the prayer here after having suppressed the ceremonies before the Mass renders it much more of a meaningless vestige.
The Missal of 1969
The Missal of 1969 contains, as we mentioned above, a “Vigil Mass in the evening.” It is an anticipatory mass of Pentecost that, apart from a prayer retained here and there, is quite different from the ancient Vigil.
The opening antiphon is no longer the ancient introit Cum sanctificatus, but a citation of Rm. 5:5: “The love of God has been poured into our hearts by his spirit living in us, alleluia,” rescued from the suppressed Mass of the Ember Saturday of Pentecost
The baptismal aspect no longer receives any explicit mention and the accent is placed on the coming of the Holy Spirit and the close of Paschal Time.
The ancient collect has been retained, but only as an alternative; another prayer, which is found in several ancient sacramentaries and was also used in the Ambrosian Rite, is set before it:
“Almighty ever-living God, who willed the Paschal mystery to be encompassed as a sign in fifty days; grant that from out of the scattered nations, the confusion of many tongues may be gathered by heavenly grace into one great confession of your name. Through our Lord.”
The allusion is to Babel, the division of languages, and the reading of the next day from Acts, where each one understands the apostles preaching in his own language.
The particularity of this mass, making it unique in the missal, is the option of four texts for the first reading. They are:
—Genesis 11:1-9: The Tower of Babel
—Exodus 19:3-20: God manifests himself in the fire in the midst of his people
—Ezekiel 37:1-14: The Dry Bones
—Joel 3:1-5: The Spirit will make Its dwelling in all men
The prophecy of Ezekiel was traditionally said at both the Easter and Pentecost vigils: the others are selected ex novo.
The rest of the Liturgy of the Word is fixed:
–Psalm 103:1: Lord, send forth thy Spirit to renew the face of the earth.
–Romans 8:22-27: The Spirit come to our aid in our infirmity.
The Communicantes of the Eucharistic prayer is the one found in the ancient missal:
“Communicating, and keeping the most holy day of Pentecost, whereon the Holy Ghost appeared to the Apostles in countless tongues”
There is of course no mention of the baptised in the Hanc igitur or its equivalent in the new Eucharistic prayers.
The prayer over the offerings and the Postcommunion make abundant references to the Spirit:
“Pour out upon these gifts the blessing of your Spirit, we pray, O Lord, so that through them your Church may be imbued with such love that the truth of your saving mystery may shine forth for the whole world. Through Christ our Lord.”
“May these gifts we have consumed benefit us, O Lord, that we may always be aflame with the same Spirit, whom you wondrously poured out on your Apostles. Through Christ our Lord”
The Communion antiphon, it is taken from the Gospel:
“On the last day of the festival, Jesus stood and cried out: If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink, alleluia.”
One wonders why the following phrase—”but this he said of the Spirit, which they should receive who believed in him”—was not kept.
Continuity or Rupture?
“This renewal has also shown clearly that the formulas of the Roman Missal ought to be revised and enriched. The beginning of this renewal was the work of Our predecessor, this same Pius XII, in the restoration of the Paschal Vigil and of the Holy Week Rite, which formed the first stage of updating the Roman Missal for the present-day mentality.” Thus the words of Paul VI in the Apostolic Constitution Missale Romanum.
We return to the perennial question: have the changes made since the 1950s, during the liturgical reform, been in logical and historical continuity with the ancient Frankish-Roman rite or do they mark a rupture?
In this case of the Pentecost Vigil, an immemorial practice has simply been suppressed. As Msgr Gromier rightly said, this suppression effaced the baptismal character of this day, and all emphasis is now therefore laid on the coming of the Holy Spirit. The goal of the members of the Commission was manifestly to focus solely on Baptism at Easter and then on Confirmation at Pentecost, on account of the descent of the Holy Ghost.
Nevertheless, at least the Mass remains, without serious change, and even contains elements that hearken back to the Vigil. The least that can be said is that this is rather incoherent. The “restoration” of the 1950s did not restore anything. As a result of its vague operating criteria, it hewed with axe-strokes and didn’t bother to put finishing touches on its work. It doesn’t take any extraordinary perspicacity to see that this reform was carried out in haste, and its numerous incoherences are obvious.
With regard to the formulary of 1969, save for the two retentions mentioned above, we are dealing with a novel creation. Currently, the majority of dioceses organize a “vigil of Pentecost,” sometimes with the mass of the vigil, often with the sacrament of Confirmation, but in these cases one must allow for a large helping of “creation” and “creativity” due to the missal’s lack of sufficient directives.
Far from an “organic development” dear to Dom Alcuin Reid, we must once more note the absence of logic and continuity in the work of the commissions. In this case, it was largely a work of suppression that left a void and ample room for improvisation. Furthermore, perhaps more so than any other day in the liturgical year, the diversity of current practice regarding the vigil of Pentecost recalls one of the optional readings for the day: the one about the tower of Babel.
- SCHUSTER, I., The Sacramentary (Liber Sacramentorum): Historical and Liturgical Notes on the Roman Missal. Trans. by Arthur Levelis-Marke. Volume II. London, 1924.
- GUERANGER P., The Liturgical Year. Trans. by Laurence Shepherd. Volume IX. London, 1910.
- PARSCH, P., The Church’s Year of Grace, Liturgical Press, Collegeville, 1953.
- REID A., The Organic Development of the Liturgy, St Michael’s Abbey Press, Farnborough, 2004.