HEN YOU SCROLL to the bottom of this article, you’ll discover photographs proving the ceremonies of Holy Week formerly took place in the morning. After 1955, these ceremonies were pushed back to a later time (which, incidentally, annihilated the ancient custom of TENEBRAE). Some Catholics will never admit these ceremonies traditionally happened in the morning—no matter how much evidence is provided. They believe an “Easter Vigil” can only happen the night before Easter Sunday. They fail to understand that all of the vigils in the Extraordinary Form traditionally happen in the morning: Ascension Vigil, Christmas Vigil, Pentecost Vigil, and so forth. Yet it’s more than passing strange these same “liturgy experts” have no problem allowing anticipated Masses early on Saturday afternoons…
Why Was Holy Saturday Moved? All authors admit that many centuries ago (“in former ages,” as Sir Walter K. Blount put it) the Easter Vigil happened around midnight on Holy Saturday night—it was not originally in the morning. In this article, I examine how it went from the Evening to Morning—then ended up back in the Evening! Let me say: THERE IS NO SIMPLE ANSWER to this question. But that’s okay, because many things in life don’t have a simple answer.
The Common Reason Given: When it comes to why the Holy Week Services were in the morning prior to 1955, the most frequent response is: Communion Fasting Regulations. That’s actually a decent answer (cf. CHRISTUS DOMINUS: Concerning The Discipline To Be Observed With Respect To The Eucharistic Fast, 6 January 1953), especially when it comes to Holy Thursday. The fasting laws also help explain why Solemn Mass was often at 5:30am on Easter Sunday morning, allowing elderly pastors to have breakfast after the Solemn Mass had ended.
An Even Better Reason: However, the major reason why the Vigil Mass on Holy Saturday was moved from Night to Morning was the same basic reason certain sections of the Divine Office were gradually pushed back in time. For example, a cleric praying the Divine Office in the Extraordinary Form may “anticipate” Matins (the morning prayers) the day before it happens as early as 2:00pm. Father Adrian Fortescue put it this way:
The first thing to understand about the service of Holy Saturday morning is that it was all composed to be held during the night between Saturday and Sunday. This is the most conspicuous case of the way services so often are pushed back in time. Gradual development first drove it back to the evening before, then to the afternoon, and now finally we keep it on Saturday morning. […] In the West, it must soon have seemed strange to sing Mass in the afternoon; so, once the original hour was changed, the time would soon become the morning rather than the evening of Saturday.
Get An Obligation Over With: When Monsignor Francis P. Schmitt visited the Abbey of Solesmes, he commented: “I wondered, too, through the never-ending offices of night and day, about losing the mundane satisfaction that I had ‘finished’ my prayers.” Father Valentine Young (d. 2020)—who entered the seminary in 1942—agrees with Father Fortescue’s explanation about Holy Saturday. Father Valentine wrote to me as follows in 2018:
I don’t think everything done before the reforms of Pius XII was necessarily all that good. I certainly didn’t think it was a good idea to celebrate Holy Thursday Last Supper Mass on Thursday morning or Holy Saturday Easter Vigil Services on Saturday morning was a good idea, but that was what we did. The practice probably developed because of the desire of people—and the desire of priests and religious and monks—to get their religious obligations out of the way, just like now a lot of elderly people will go to Mass on Saturdays, in spite of the fact that they don’t have a thing to do on Sundays. They just want to get their obligation “over with.” It’s kind of a human nature thing.
Secular Vs. Monastic: As a young boy, I remember hearing Father Peter Gee, FSSP, argue with another priest about “veritas horarum.” Essentially, Father Gee said the hours should be prayed close to their titles: Matins in the morning, Vespers toward the evening, and so forth. The other priest was saying that this is only possible in monasteries; secular priests are very busy and they can pray their breviary at a convenient time. I’m not sure this dispute will ever be resolved. They say Rafael Merry del Val was so busy he’d say his Divine Office “two-days-at-once,” starting at 10:30pm and praying right through midnight, making it possible for him to finish two days in one sitting. Another story tells of the reformers of the Breviary who came and proudly presented their finished work to Pope Saint John XXIII. The smiling pope exclaimed: “Oh, how I love the Divine Office—I say mine every morning!” The Divine Office matters because many sources say the Easter Vigil should begin “after NONE.” We are talking here about the ninth hour, circa 3:00pm. (We are not talking about “Noon.”) As far as I can tell, however, there is no legislation for the Extraordinary Form stipulating that NONE has to be prayed at a certain time. In 1939, the Roman Catholic Cathedral of Westminster prayed NONE at 8:45AM.
Our Imagination: I stumbled across an article on the blog of the Church Music Association of America, wherein author Gregory DiPippo makes the following statement: “The reform of Pope Pius XII did not in fact restore the Easter vigil to its proper historical time after NONE, since it mandated that the vigil is to start at such an hour that the actual Mass will begin around midnight.” I do not understand why Mr. DiPippo would make such a statement, in light of what Father Herbert Thurston (d. 1939) has written: 1
It is difficult to persuade oneself at 8:00AM on Saturday morning that the sun has already set, that our watch is nearly over, that more than 24 hours have elapsed since our Blessed Lord was laid in the Tomb. That is, however, the effort of the imagination which the Church requires us to make. Of course, originally the service did not begin until the evening. Even as late as the 9th or 10th century it is expressly stipulated by liturgical writers that the Gloria in excelsis should not be sung until the stars had begun to appear, while in primitive times it would seem that the service was later still, and lasted almost until dawn on Easter Sunday.
The 1917 Code of Canon Law made an exception for Christmas Mass at midnight. Perhaps Pope Pius XII just placed the vigil too late from force of habit?
Pius XII — Not A Trailblazer: According to Mr. James Monti, an effort to restore the entire Easter Vigil to the Evening was undertaken by Saint John Gualbert (d. 1073AD), founder of the Vallombrosan Order, a Benedictine congregation of Italy, as related by his biographer Blessed Andrew of Strumi (d. 1097AD): “Who in Tuscany other than he moved from the day to the night the annual and renowned office to be done on the night of the holy Resurrection? For with stealthy negligence and gathering gluttony this office was performed at NONE on Saturday, that is now rightly and worthily done in the holy night, this our father John beginning and establishing in our times.” Thus the Easter Vigil rubrics of the 12th-century Customary of Vallombrosa direct that the blessing of the Easter Fire—with which the vigil commences—is to start only when “the dusk of night shall have begun to appear.”
Conclusions: In the article I mentioned earlier, Mr. Gregory DiPippo says: “There is no particular reason why the Easter Vigil as it was prior to 1955 could not be celebrated at the hour newly appointed by Pope Pius XII.” In my opinion, however, the ceremonies should remain in the morning for the following reasons:
The main celebration should be on Easter Sunday, with the beautiful SEQUENCE (“Victimae Paschali Laudes”), and so forth. When the Faithful attend the Easter Vigil until 3:00AM, it is not “family friendly” to expect them to come back four hours later with their children.
It is not “traditional” to make the Easter Vigil more solemn than Easter Sunday. In my experience, where the Easter Vigil is celebrated with maximum solemnity the night before, the ceremonies on Easter Sunday always suffer. Prior to 1955, the Bishop of the Diocese would often not attend the Easter Vigil—let’s ponder that!
The character of the Easter Vigil was penitential, and during twelve long readings the catechumens were being prepared. (Yes, you read that correctly: while the readings were happening.) After the ceremony, there was frequently a reception for the people who’d just been baptized, becoming Catholic. This arrangement worked very well on Saturday afternoon, but I’ve seen it attempted at 3:00AM and it simply doesn’t work. I’m sure somebody will exclaim: “Oh, who cares about welcoming new converts to the Church?” But I really think there’s something beautiful in this.
A very ancient and powerful tradition called “TENEBRÆ” was destroyed when the Holy Week ceremonies were moved to the evening. Other devotions (e.g. “Seven Last Words”) were also destroyed.
Easter Sunday ought to be the main celebration of Easter. The Easter Vigil has less music than any other Mass. Even a ferial Mass has more music! There is no “Vidi Aquam.” There is no Introit. There is no Sequence. The (short) Alleluia is followed by a Tract! There is no Gradual or Greater Alleluia. There are no candles at the Gospel. There is no Creed. There is no Offertory Antiphon. The Kiss of Peace is omitted. There is no Agnus Dei. There is no Communion Antiphon. That’s why the Easter Vigil works well as a “penitential” ceremony on Holy Saturday morning, and Easter Sunday is a richly “happy” ceremony.
I cannot emphasize this statement enough: even a ferial Mass has more music than the Easter Vigil. That should tell us something, my friends! For the last 30+ years, an idea has arisen (in both the Ordinary Form and the Extraordinary Form) that the Easter Vigil is somehow the “crown jewel” of all ceremonies. I will never accept this, because a Mass which has less music than a ferial Mass cannot be the crown jewel.
In 1943, Holy Thursday started at 8:30AM, Good Friday started at 8:00AM, Holy Saturday started at 7:00AM, and Easter Sunday started at 5:30AM (Solemn Mass):
In 1905, Good Friday started at 9:00AM and Holy Saturday started at 8:00AM:
In 1946, Holy Thursday started at 8:00AM, Good Friday started at Noon, and Holy Saturday started at 7:00AM:
In 1948, Good Friday started at 9:00AM:
In 1941, Good Friday started at 9:00AM and Holy Saturday started at 6:30AM:
In 1954, Holy Thursday started at Noon, Good Friday started at 3:00PM, and Holy Saturday started at 11:00AM. In 1955, Holy Saturday would no longer be allowed to start in the morning.
Final Thoughts: For more than a thousand years, the ceremonies of Holy Saturday took place earlier in the day. The Extraordinary Form celebrates all vigils in the morning: the Vigil of Christmas, the Vigil of the Ascension, the Vigil of Pentecost, and so on. There’s nothing to be embarrassed about here. It is true the Exsultet makes reference to “this holy night”—but if we start down that road of “literalism” where will it end? Should we eliminate candles because we have electric lights? Surely not…
NOTES FROM THIS ARTICLE:
1 Abbot Fernand Cabrol (d. 1937) also agrees that in very ancient times the Easter Vigil took place on the evening of Holy Saturday: cf. The Complete Offices of Holy Week (Right Rev’d Fernand Cabrol, 1926).