Little-Known Pentecost Vigil Mass Is a Hidden Gem of the Catholic Liturgy
The Pentecost vigil includes an extended number of readings and texts that reflect on, in particular, the Resurrection, Ascension and the descent of the Holy Spirit — and on the role of the Holy Spirit in the life of the Church.
That the celebration of even one Mass has infinite value is a keystone teaching of the Church regarding its liturgy.
For Father Dennis Gill, the rector and pastor of the Cathedral Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul, the director of the Office of Divine Worship for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, and a professor of sacred liturgy at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary, there is one Mass in particular that also holds infinite value for him — the extended form of the vigil of Pentecost. He hopes that others in the Church will also discover the richness of this Mass.
As things stand now, though, Father Gill is one of only a relative handful of priests in the United States celebrating this form. He has been celebrating this little-known-but-powerful liturgy since 2016. This year he will be celebrating it the evening of June 8 at Sts. Peter and Paul Cathedral.
With a history that stretches back to the early Church, this more elaborate form of the Pentecost vigil Mass celebrates the same mystery of the Holy Spirit coming upon the apostles to institute the Church that the simple form of the vigil and the Mass for Pentecost Sunday celebrate. As part of the concluding celebration of Easter, it also harks back to the first Mass of the Easter season — the Easter vigil Mass.
Like this “mother of all vigils,” as St. Augustine referred to Easter vigil, the Pentecost vigil includes an extended number of readings and texts that reflect a particular aspect of the Paschal mystery (the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Christ and the descent of the Holy Spirit) — in this case, focusing on the last of these and more generally on the role of the Holy Spirit in the life of the Church.
Unlike the Easter vigil, which typically also celebrates baptism and confirmation, the Pentecost vigil places no special emphasis on the sacraments other than the Eucharist. But Father Gill noted that the Pentecost vigil would be a fitting opportunity to celebrate confirmation “because this sacrament has, as one of its unique gifts, the outpouring of the Spirit.”
Also unlike the Easter vigil, which is to be celebrated only between the hours after sunset and before sunrise, the Pentecost vigil Mass can be celebrated any time during the day — although it is preferably celebrated in the evening, much like, yet distinct from, a typical Saturday Mass of anticipation.
But if the extended form of the Pentecost vigil Mass hasn’t quite met with universal acclaim, it’s not from a lack of trying on the part of the Church in the United States.
For their part, the U.S. bishops have promoted the Mass, including taking steps to facilitate its celebration, and Father Gill encourages anyone and everyone in the Church to participate in this unique celebration of the Third Person of the Holy Trinity.
Father Gill first began to celebrate the extended form of the Pentecost vigil when he was appointed rector of Sts. Peter and Paul Cathedral in 2016 “because the cathedral is the mother church of the archdiocese and should set the example for each parish in the archdiocese.”
Beginning with that first celebration four years ago, “several hundred” faithful have attended each year, Father Gill reported, “and we also invite the charismatic community in the archdiocese to be present. It is a beautiful, reverent, joyful celebration of Pentecost.”
For the faithful who have been attending the Pentecost vigil at the cathedral, Father Gill told the Register, the celebration is an opportunity to see the fullness of the Easter season with its completion.
“For those who come to it, there is a more profound understanding of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit with Pentecost,” he said. “Part of that has to do with the preaching — I try to give an effective homily based on the text and the mystery. We also celebrate the Mass bilingually, in English and Spanish, and I think that also gives a sense of the mission of the Church and the unity of the Church.”
Father Gill acknowledged that the Pentecost vigil is not widely known, and therefore not widely celebrated, in the United States. In his capacity as the director of the Office of Divine Worship for the archdiocese, Father Gill sends out a letter every year before Pentecost, encouraging parishes to celebrate this seemingly hidden treasure of the Church’s liturgy.
“But it hasn’t really taken off yet,” he admitted.
Father Andrew Menke, the executive director of the Secretariat of Divine Worship for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), told the Register that the faithful would do well to acquaint themselves with the extended form of the Pentecost vigil Mass. But, like Father Gill, Father Menke admitted that the response has been underwhelming.
“The USCCB has tried to promote the extended Pentecost vigil in various ways, but I don’t have the impression that it has really caught on yet,” he said. “But it’s an ancient Catholic tradition and a beautiful way to invoke the Holy Spirit on this awesome day, so I hope the practice will change with time.”
To help priests more easily celebrate the Pentecost vigil, Father Menke said, the USSCB published a supplement to the Lectionary in 2017, which includes all the readings of the extended form of the Pentecost vigil Mass in one location.
“Before the publication of the supplement,” he said, “to get the readings assigned for the celebration you’d have to use more than one volume of the Lectionary.”
In addition, Father Menke said, both the Latin and English editions of the Roman Missal present the extended form of the Pentecost Vigil Mass as the first option and the simple form as the second option. The U.S. Spanish version of the Roman Missal — Misal Romano — which was published last year, he added, has followed suit.
“The various worldwide Spanish versions of the Missal, however, reverse that order, which seems to de-emphasize that option,” he said. “But when the U.S. Spanish version of the missal was assembled, the arrangement of the text was made to match the Latin and the English, so the option of celebrating the extended vigil has more emphasis in the U.S. Spanish missal that it does in other countries that use Spanish in the liturgy. Hopefully that will help it to catch on.”
In October 2008, Notitiae, the official journal of the Congregation for Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments, published an article by Spanish theologian Father Juan Manuel Sierra López on the history of the texts used in the extended form of the Pentecost vigil Mass. Father Menke’s office provided the Register with a translation from the Italian. In the article, Father Lopez explains that the Pentecost vigil focuses on an exuberant celebration of the Holy Spirit.
“The texts of the Vigil of Pentecost celebrate this outpouring of the Holy Spirit and help the faithful, gathered in prayer, to welcome the divine gift that continues to operate in the Church down through the centuries,” Father Lopez writes. “Through the sacramental reliving of this mystery in the liturgy, we can give witness to the Risen Lord, who sits at the right hand of the Father.”
According to Father Gill, the Pentecost vigil emerged from the great liturgical tradition of celebrating the sacrament of baptism in the early Church at a vigil Mass.
“In antiquity, the three great vigils for baptism were celebrated for Epiphany, Easter and Pentecost,” Father Gill told the Register. “Although, after a while, only Easter and Pentecost were a part of the tradition, but each of these three vigils would prepare for a unique and powerful manifestation of the Lord, the manifestation of Jesus born [Epiphany], risen from the dead [Easter], and risen and alive through his Spirit in the Church [Pentecost].”
In a 2018 article for Adoremus Bulletin, Father Gill notes that the celebration of the vigil Mass for Pentecost was included for the first time in the revised Third Edition of the Roman Missal, published in Latin in 2000 and translated into English in 2011.
“The two previous editions of the post-conciliar Roman Missal included only a proper [that is, a simple form of the] vigil Mass for Pentecost,” Father Gill writes. “However, the extended form of the vigil proposed in the current Roman Missal brings forward to the present a part of our liturgical tradition that has both deep roots and contemporary value.”
This restoration of the extended form, Father Gill told the Register, was not simply about dusting off an old book or two, “but the recovery of something truly significant for the liturgical life of the Church, even today. If you look at how the vigil Mass is described, it prays for that more intense outpouring of the Spirit with the Easter season just celebrated by the Church.”
This same outpouring takes place every day at every Mass around the world, Father Gill said, but it does so in a special way at the vigil Mass for Pentecost, in which “we’re given the possibility of highlighting the Holy Spirit and bringing with it a fitting conclusion to the season of Easter by giving an emphasis to that aspect of the Paschal mystery which completes the Paschal mystery, the sending of the Holy Spirit.”
The Preface to the Eucharistic Prayer for the Mass for Pentecost (which is the same for the vigil and the Sunday celebration of this feast), Father Gill said, provides in condensed form the power and scope of the liturgical celebration:
For bringing your Paschal Mystery to completion,
you bestowed the Holy Spirit today
on those you made your adopted children
by uniting them to your Only Begotten Son.
This same Spirit, as the Church came to birth,
opened to all peoples the knowledge of God
and brought together many languages of the earth
in profession of the one faith.
“The Preface for Pentecost is absolutely beautiful and describes what the Church believes is happening with Pentecost,” he said. “I think in a wonderful way it also sums up the intention of the Church in celebrating the vigil.”
Easter to Pentecost
The extended form of the vigil Mass for Pentecost, Father Gill said, should remind the faithful of that other vigil Mass celebrated eight weeks prior.
As the Easter vigil presents seven Old Testament readings to contemplate the presence of Christ’s Paschal mystery throughout salvation history, Father Gill said, the vigil Mass for Pentecost presents four readings to communicate that same mystery with an emphasis on the working of the Holy Spirit.
“The vigil Mass is set up so we spend time with the word of God in a similar way to the readings for the Easter vigil Mass,” he said. “With four readings and four Psalms prior to the epistle and Gospel, we can travel with the word and long for the coming of the Spirit — as in the past, so today.”
Father Lopez summarizes the importance of these readings as they reflect on the Church’s teaching on the Holy Spirit’s power to redeem: “The readings refer to the outpouring of the Spirit, that overcomes sin (the first reading with the story of the Tower of Babel [Genesis 11:1-9]); that gives the law and shapes the covenant of God with his people (the second reading, on the Law of God given to Moses on Mount Sinai [Exodus 19: 3-8a, 16-20b]); that communicates true life (the third reading, in which the spirit gives life to dry bones through the prophetic words of Ezekiel [37:1-14]); and that allows people to speak in the name of God (the fourth reading, from the prophet Joel [3:1-15], announcing the Spirit of God being poured upon the faithful and turning them into prophets).”
Like the Easter vigil, too, the Pentecost vigil features responsorial psalms (taken from Psalm 33, Daniel 3 or Psalm 19, Psalm 107 and Psalm 104) interspersed among its four Old Testament readings.
According to Adam Bartlett, a composer, conductor and professor of Catholic sacred music and president of Illuminare Publications, the final Psalm and accompanying music for the vigil Mass for Pentecost — Psalm 104 (“Lord, send out your spirit and renew the face of the earth”) — is the same as that for the Easter vigil, for good reason. In this way, the act of creation and the act of redemption are liturgically intertwined, Bartlett said, in the first and last great celebration of the Easter season.
“When the Church chants, ‘Lord, send out your spirit’ during the Pentecost vigil, and in fact also on Pentecost Sunday, the Church understands that it is the same creative spirit of God … that descended on the apostles and on the Church at Pentecost. Through the Church and through the liturgy, the Lord continues to send out his spirit to renew the face of the earth and to draw all of us and all of fallen creation back to himself.”
Register correspondent Joseph O’Brien writes from Soldiers Grove, Wisconsin.