The Forgotten, Yet Ancient Vigil of Pentecost
The Feast of Pentecost (i.e., White Sunday) is one of the principal feasts in the life of the Church. After Pentecost Sunday and its Octave, we will conclude Pascaltide and begin the Season after Pentecost. Consequently, the Vigil of Pentecost has been a day of required fasting and abstinence for centuries and it was kept as such even through the early 1960s. Catholics should fast and partially abstain from meat on the Vigil of Pentecost to better prepare themselves to celebrate Pentecost.
The Vigil of Pentecost used to be celebrated in a manner like the Easter Vigil with Old Testament prophecies, the blessing of the font, the Litany of the Saints, and the Mass. Sadly, the Vigil of Pentecost was suppressed entirely in 1956 and has only recently been re-discovered by Catholics seeking to restore our practices that were lost even in the years preceding Vatican II. For a PDF copy of the prayers and readings for the ancient Pentecost Vigil, please click here.
Interestingly, the English name “White Sunday,” by which Pentecost is called, refers to the ancient practice of Baptisms associated with the Vigil of Pentecost. As was the case with Easter, the newly baptized would wear white garments to Mass on Pentecost in celebration of their baptisms.
Father Weiser in his “Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs” comments on some special customs which began on the vigil of Pentecost:
Like Easter night, the night of Pentecost is considered one of the great ‘blessed nights’ of the year. In many sections of Europe it is still the custom to ascend hilltops and mountains during the early dawn of Whitsunday to pray. People call this observance ‘catching the Holy Ghost.’ Thus they express in symbolic language the spiritual fact that only by means of prayer can the divine dove be ‘caught’ and the graces of the Holy Spirit obtained.
In rural sections of northern Europe superstitions ascribe a special power of healing to the dew that falls during Pentecost night. To obtain these blessings people walk barefoot through the grass on the early morning of the feast. They also collect the dew on pieces of bread which afterward are fed to their domestic animals as a protection against disease and accidents.
Roses From Heaven on Pentecost Sunday
As the Catholic Dictionary of Fr. John Hardon summarizes, this holy day
commemorat[es] the descent of the Holy Ghost on the Apostles. It takes its name from the fact that it comes about fifty days after Easter. The name was originally given to the Jewish Feast of Weeks, which fell in the fiftieth day after Passover, when the first fruits of the corn harvest were offered to the Lord (Deuteronomy 16:9), and later on the giving of the law to Moses was celebrated.
Our celebration is based on a greater gift than that of the Two Tables of the Law to Moses – today we celebrate the Apostles and Our Lady receiving God Himself – the Holy Ghost. As the Acts of the Apostles, Chapter 1, illustrates, there were 120 people praying for the Holy Ghost. And just as the heavens opened and a dove descended in the Baptism of Jesus, the Holy Ghost descended on the Apostles and the Blessed Virgin Mary at Pentecost. The same Spirit is within those that have been confirmed in the Catholic Church. We have the Holy Ghost, and we have the responsibility to go out and be beacons of the light of Christ, just like the Apostles did. For those who have been confirmed, recalling this reality and thanking God for the gift of our Confirmation should be a hallmark of our annual Pentecost observance.
Dom Guéranger provides us with this account of the liturgy of Pentecost Sunday while mentioning the ancient connection of Pentecost with roses:
The Christian Pentecost, prefigured by the ancient one of the Jews, is of the number of the feasts that were instituted by the apostles. As we have already remarked, it formerly shared with Easter the honour of the solemn administration of Baptism. Its octave, like that of Easter, and for the same reason, ended with the Saturday following the feast. The catechumens received Baptism on the night between Saturday and Sunday. So that the Pentecost solemnity began on the vigil, for the neophytes at once put on their white garments: on the eighth day, the Saturday, they laid them aside.
In the middle-ages, the feast of Pentecost was called by the beautiful name of ‘The Pasch of roses,’ just as the Sunday within the octave of the Ascension was termed the ‘Sunday of roses.’ The color and fragrance of this lovely flower were considered by our Catholic forefathers as emblems of the tongues of fire, which rested on the heads of the hundred and twenty disciples and poured forth the sweet gifts of love and grace on the infant Church. The same idea suggested the red-colored vestments for the liturgical services during the whole octave. In his Rational (a work which abounds in most interesting information regarding the medieval liturgical usages), Durandus tells us that, in the thirteenth century, a dove was allowed to fly about in the church, and flowers and lighted tow were thrown down from the roof, during the Mass on Whit Sunday; these were allusions to the two mysteries of Jesus’ baptism, and of the descent of the Holy Ghost on the day of Pentecost.
In Rome, rose petals would be dropped through the circular “oculus” at the Pantheon (now a minor basilica called “Sancta Maria ad martyres”). The petals would fall to the crowd below reminiscent of the coming of the Holy Spirit like tongues of flame. In keeping this custom alive, this practice still takes place at the end of the Masses on Pentecost Sunday at St. John Cantius Church in Chicago, Illinois.
Rose petals are dropped through the circular opening of the transept of the church during the recessional hymn, “Come Holy Ghost.” Some are surprised while others wait expectantly for the rose petals to fall.
Pentecost As a New Springtime
Roses are not the only flowers associated with Pentecost. In the Byzantine Catholic Tradition, green is the vestment color of Pentecost as the Byzantine tradition highlights Pentecost’s connection with the new springtime of the Church and the corresponding birth of nature and re-birth of souls in Baptism. Father Weiser alludes to – and expands upon – this in his “Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs”:
Some nations have appropriately named the feast after the ancient custom of decorating homes and churches with flowers and boughs. This practice goes back to the nature lore of the Indo-European races. At the time of full spring, when trees stood in their early foliage and flowers blossomed in abundance, our pre-Christian ancestors celebrated a gay festival, with maypole, May Queen, and May dance, during which they adorned their homes with flowers and branches of pale-green tender leaves. This custom was retained in Christian times, and some of its features were transferred to the Feast of Pentecost. Thus, the festival is called the ‘Green Holyday’ (Zielone Swieta) in Poland and among the Ukrainians, ‘Flower Feast’ (Blumenfest) in Germany, ‘Summer Feast’ (Slavnost Letnice) among the Czechs. In the Latin countries a similar term is used: Pascha Rosatum, in Latin, meaning ‘Feast of Roses.’ The Italian name Pascua Rossa (Red Pasch) was inspired by the color of the liturgical vestments.
The Forgotten Holy Days of Obligation on
Whit Monday & Whit Tuesday
When writing about the rank of days in the Catholic Liturgical calendar, there are various ways to label them. In the modern Church, they will use the terms solemnity, feast, memorial, or optional memorial. In the 1962 Missal, we have First, Second, Third, or Fourth Class feastdays. But before the 1962 Missal up until the changes made by Pope Pius XII in 1955, there were from least to most important: Simples, Semidoubles, Lesser Doubles or also known as Doubles, Greater Doubles, Doubles of the second class, and lastly Doubles of the first class.
Using the traditional pre-1955 calendar, we notice something very interesting about Whit Monday and Whit Tuesday. Both of these days, like their counterparts in the Easter Octave, are doubles of the first class whereas the rest of the Pentecost Octave is of Double rank. Why the special treatment for Monday and Tuesday in the Octave of Pentecost? It is because they were universal holy days of obligation for a very long time. Father Weiser writes in the “Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs”:
During the early centuries, just the day [of Pentecost Sunday] itself was celebrated in the Western Church. After the seventh century, however, the whole week came to be considered a time of festive observance. Law courts did not sit, and servile work was forbidden during the entire Octave. The Council of Constance (1094) limited this prohibition to three days.
In 1642, Pentecost Monday and Pentecost Tuesday were listed as Holy Days by Pope Urban VIII in Universa Per Orbem. In 1771, Pope Clement XIV abolished both Easter Tuesday and Pentecost Tuesday as days of refraining from servile work. By 1778, they ceased being days of obligatory Mass attendance. Pentecost Monday was dropped from the universal list only in 1911 by Pope St. Pius X’s significant reduction in Holy Days on the Universal Calendar.
The Monday after Pentecost is still a holiday in Antigua and Barbuda, Anguilla, Austria, The Bahamas, Barbados, Belgium, The British Virgin Islands, Cyprus, Denmark, Dominica, France, Germany, Greece, Grenada, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Ivory Coast, Luxembourg, Monaco, Montserrat, The Netherlands, Norway, Romania, Saint Lucia, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Solomon Islands, Switzerland, Togo, and Ukraine. Until 1973, it was also a holiday in Ireland, and until 1967 it was a bank holiday in the United Kingdom. And Sweden also continued to observe it as a public holiday until 2004
Whit Embertide: A Joyful Fast
Ember Days are set aside to pray and/or offer thanksgiving for a good harvest and God’s blessings. The fasting and abstinence on the Ember Days of Pentecost is unique in the Church as these are the only Ember Days celebrated without violet vestments as the Ember Days of Pentecost are meant to be a joyful fast. As the website “Catholic Culture” writes concerning the Ember Days:
Since the late 5th century, the Ember Days were also the preferred dates for ordination of priests. So, during these times the Church had a threefold focus: (1) sanctifying each new season by turning to God through prayer, fasting and almsgiving; (2) giving thanks to God for the various harvests of each season; and (3) praying for the newly ordained and for future vocations to the priesthood and religious life.
Join the Church during these three days by fasting, abstaining from meat, and praying for vocations.
The Uniqueness of the Octave of Pentecost
During the Octave of Pentecost, the Church celebrates more especially the glories of the grace of the Holy Ghost and His secret work of sanctification in the Mystical Body of Christ.
Originally the feast of Pentecost brought to an end in Rome the fifty days of the Easter celebrations and introduced the fast of the Ember Days of the summer quarter. Afterward, it became customary to continue the festivity for two more days, the Monday and the Tuesday, and, finally, after the time of Pope St. Leo the Great, it was extended like the Octave of Easter through the entire week. For many centuries, as noted above, Pentecost Monday and Pentecost Tuesday were Holy Days of Obligation.
In medieval times, families in many parts of Europe would suspend a carved and painted wooden dove over their dining table during this time of Pentecost. Such a custom could be easily revived for the throughout the Octave of the Pentecost – and imagine that dining room table covered with a white tablecloth, sprinkled with red rose petals.
Dom Guéranger, in The Liturgical Year insightfully writes:
The Christian Pentecost, prefigured by the ancient one of the Jews, is of the number of the feasts that were instituted by the apostles. As we have already remarked, it formerly shared with Easter the honor of the solemn administration of Baptism. Its octave, like that of Easter, and for the same reason, ended with the Saturday following the feast. The catechumens received Baptism on the night between Saturday and Sunday. So that the Pentecost Solemnity began on the vigil, for the Neophytes at once put on their white garments: on the eighth day, the Saturday, they laid them aside.
There is a profound connection of the Scripture readings at Mass during the Octave of Pentecost with each of the Sacraments. And the Stational Churches of the Octave of Pentecost have a unique connection to the stations during the Octave of Easter. And in another unusual twist, Pentecost is the only major feastday without an Octave Day. The Sunday following Pentecost is known as the First Sunday after Pentecost which has been kept for several centuries now as the Feast of the Most Holy Trinity.
The Catholic Encyclopedia mentions another rather unusual feature for the Octave of Pentecost, which mirrors again Easter’s Octave:
The office of Pentecost has only one Nocturn during the entire week. At Terce the ‘Veni Creator’ is sung instead of the usual hymn, because at the third hour the Holy Ghost descended. The Mass has a Sequence, ‘Veni Sancte Spiritus’ the authorship of which by some is ascribed to King Robert of France. The color of the vestments is red, symbolic of the love of the Holy Ghost or of the tongues of fire.
Sadly, Paul VI abolished the Octave in 1969, although he did not even realize it when he signed the authorization, in one sad example of his lack of oversight. Thankfully, Traditional Catholic priests maintain this Octave. And even some priests who say the Novus Ordo Mass choose to celebrate Votive Masses in Honor of the Holy Ghost over this week.
While the Octave of Pentecost may not be days of precept anymore, we can certainly in our own prayer lives observe the Octave of Pentecost, hear Mass these days, pray the Divine Office more regularly, observe the Ember Days, and strive to do more than the minimum required by current Church Law. Let us keep these traditions alive.
As a reminder, a plenary indulgence may be gained by anyone who recites “Veni Creator Spiritus,” the Hymn for Pentecost. This of course requires us to fulfill the normal conditions of a plenary indulgence:
- One is free from all attachment from sin
- One receives the Sacraments of Penance and the Eucharist (within 7 days of Pentecost Sunday)
- One prays for the intentions of the Pope (An Our Father and Hail Mary will suffice)
Veni Sancte Spiritus!
Matthew Plese is a Third Order Dominican who resides in Chicago, IL. Matthew is a practicing Certified Public Accountant and Catechist. He is the President of CatechismClass.com, an online based organization whose mission is to make the best in Catholic religious education and Sacramental preparation available for those who need it. Matthew writes a monthly piece on apologetics and catechesis for Catholic Family News and a weekly column for the Fatima Center. He is also the author of Catholic Book Summaries: 54 Traditional and Contemporary Classics; Eschatology: The Catholic Study of the Four Last Things; and Understanding the Precepts of the Church. He also blogs at A Catholic Life.