It is difficult to overstate the importance of Pentecost in our salvation history. Pentecost completed the Easter mysteries: it followed from the Ascension, fulfilling Christ’s promises. At Pentecost, God instituted his Church as the ordinary instrument of his saving work in man. Ever since then, the Holy Spirit has been the source of the Church’s unity, and the guarantor of her settled doctrines.
The feast of Pentecost is therefore one of the most important and joyous in the Church’s year. However, the modern Roman Calendar barely communicates this fact to the faithful. For in the modern calendar, we Western Catholics reach the culmination of Easter on Pentecost Sunday, and yet the following week is a “green” week, entirely untied to liturgical time; indeed, it is often a week that could have fallen on the other side of the paschal cycle. The Church is revealed—and then suddenly our liturgical narrative ends.
Nor is this the only problem. Pentecost naturally leads the faithful into Trinity Sunday because it marks the point at which the whole Christian community starts to experience the working of the Holy Spirit: in a sense, Pentecost is the day on which Trinitarian theology becomes possible. Accordingly, the liturgical year was traditionally seen as having two parts. From Advent until the Saturday of the Octave of Pentecost—the mid-point of the year—the Church slowly recounted salvation history and God’s progressive revelation of himself; then from Trinity Sunday onwards, during the “green” time of summer and autumn (which used to be called the time “after Pentecost”), she reflected on what she had recounted. Yet in the modern calendar, six “green” or festal days of Ordinary Time now obtrude between Pentecost and Trinity Sunday, breaking the natural liturgical movement and the logical connection between these two feasts, and spoiling the traditional, logical division of the liturgical year into its expository and reflective halves.
This, then, is the prima facie case for the vigil and octave of Pentecost, the period that ran from Pentecost Sunday until the Saturday before Trinity Sunday, and which is found in the earliest Roman liturgical books, such as the eighth-century Gelasian sacramentary. I now want briefly to look at the rich materials that the old vigil and octave contained.
Old Vigil Revisited
First, the vigil of Pentecost (the Saturday before Pentecost Sunday) gave the faithful a foretaste of the great feast to come. As we shall see, the entire octave of Pentecost had a proper preface, a proper Communicantes, and proper Hanc igitur (shared with the Easter octave), and the vigil used these too. The vigil’s non-gospel reading was Acts 19:1-8 (Paul confirms the Ephesian disciples), and the gospel was John 14:15-21 (Jesus promises to send the Holy Spirit to those that love him). Red vestments were also donned this day. From these various elements the faithful absorbed a sense of spiritual anticipation: a feeling that a great outpouring of the Holy Spirit was imminent.
Then from Pentecost Sunday began the octave of Pentecost proper, all eight days of which were equivalent to modern solemnities, like the octave days of Easter, and could never be displaced by other feasts. As mentioned, the Masses of the octave featured a proper preface, a proper Communicantes, a proper Hanc igitur, and red vestments. In addition, a long pre-Gospel sequence, Veni, Sancte Spiritus, was said or sung throughout the octave. In the Divine Office, the same psalms and antiphons were used each day, and every morning the hour of Terce began with the solemn hymn Veni, Creator Spiritus (“O come, Holy Spirit”), during the first of whose seven verses the congregation kneeled. (The number of verses, seven, reflected the sevenfold gifts of the Spirit of which the hymn spoke). Each day had its own Pentecostal collect, Matins readings (taken from a patristic commentary on the day’s gospel), Mass introit, offertory antiphon, secret, communion antiphon, and postcommunion. Notably, the introits and antiphons presented a beautiful range of scriptural verses about the Holy Spirit from the psalms and the New Testament.
The Masses of the octave were also rich in scripture readings about the Holy Spirit. On Pentecost Sunday, Acts 2:1-11 was read at Mass, as it still is in the Ordinary Form. But from Monday to Thursday, the narrative of Acts was continued, with readings of Acts 10:34, 42-48 (Peter speaks and the Spirit is poured upon the Gentiles); Acts 8:14-17 (Peter and John confirm the Samarians); Acts 2:14-21 (Peter declares that those speaking in tongues are not drunk, and quotes Joel) and Acts 5:12-16 (The apostles work many wonders); and Acts 8:5-8 (Philip works miracles in Samaria). The gospel readings were John 3:16-21 (Jesus teaching Nicodemus that he was sent to save, but that evil-doers hate the light); John 10:1-10 (Jesus tells the Pharisees that he is the “gate for the sheep”); John 6:44-52 (“I am the bread of life”); and John 6:44-52 (Jesus gives the Apostles the power of healing, and advice). These readings helped the faithful to understand the nature of the Trinity, and also the gifts of the Holy Spirit, and how to become receptive of him.
The Masses of Friday and Saturday then introduced some prophecy and typology of Christ and the Holy Spirit: Joel 2:23-24,26-27 on Friday; on Saturday always Joel 2:28-32 (which Peter quotes in Acts), and in the optional, longer form of Saturday’s Mass also Leviticus 23:9-11,15-17, 21; Deuteronomy 26:1-3,7-11; Leviticus 26:3-12; and Daniel 3:47-51. On Saturday, Romans 5:1-5 (about the Holy Spirit) was also read; Friday’s and Saturday’s gospels were Luke 5:17-26 (Jesus heals the paralytic) and Luke 4:38-44 (Jesus heals Peter’s mother-in-law and others). In these two days, the faithful saw that the scriptures had been fulfilled, and thus they were made ready for the theological conclusion that followed: Trinity Sunday.
The octave of Pentecost also combined feasting and fasting in an instructive way. The liturgy of the whole octave was basically festal, but the Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday of the octave were Ember (i.e., fasting) days. Hence the octave summed up and reconciled the whole of the preceding paschal cycle: as Christians, we do not fast in unmixed sorrow; rather, we keep fasts because, rejoicing in the gifts of the Holy Spirit, we wish to become more and more receptive of him. By this mixture of feast and fast, the octave reminded the faithful that the joyous saving truths celebrated at Easter mandated them to cultivate the gifts of the Holy Spirit with diligence, and it taught them not to be spiritually complacent.
Come, Holy Spirit!
Now, I have given a great deal of detail here, but I hope that it has illustrated both the valuable content, and the sheer reasonableness, of the old octave of Pentecost. The Roman rite has always been rather “binitarian” in its instincts, but when one looks at the rich spiritual texts of the old octave, one cannot but feel that our rite is now pneumatologically deficient. There is a person of the Trinity that we now focus on for only one day.
Here readers might well ask why the Counsel for the Implementation of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy suppressed the Octave of Pentecost. Did it have compelling reasons? We know that its members were very unsure about the suppression of the octave, but that they were won over by a promise that Pentecostal themes would be introduced into the season of Ascensiontide. As Annibale Bugini wrote: “Here again there was disagreement. The suppression was accepted with the expectation that the formularies of the Octave would be used during the nine days of preparation for Pentecost. On this point again there were changes of mind, but the decision of the Fathers finally prevailed… [However], it subsequently caused confusion and second thoughts.”
The argument for the suppression seems to have been that Easter originally had exactly fifty days. Bugnini again: “The Easter season lasts 50 days, beginning with the Easter Vigil and ending with Pentecost Sunday. This is attested by the ancient and universal tradition of the Church, which has always celebrated the seven weeks of Easter as though they were a single day that ends with the feast of Pentecost. For this reason, the octave of Pentecost, which was added to the 50 days of Easter in the 6th century, has been abolished.”
Bugnini’s argument here seems to rely on three premises. The first is that, until the sixth century at least, the Church celebrated the period from Easter until Pentecost as one prolonged feast-day. The second is that the Church should seek to return to her earliest forms of liturgical expression, as somehow being most authentic. The third is that, if the period from Easter to Pentecost Sunday was celebrated as a single festive day, then the time immediately after Pentecost Sunday cannot have been festive.
Are there non-Western equivalents of the Octave today? Most certainly! In the Byzantine Rite, the feast of Pentecost Sunday continues on into the following Monday and Tuesday, and a week-long after-feast of Pentecost begins on the Wednesday. In the Alexandrian Rite, the feast of Pentecost would, on first glance, appear to be isolated, since the Apostles’ Fast begins on the next day, and continues until the eve of the feast of Sts. Peter and Paul on the 29th June. However, the Apostles’ Fast recounts the Apostles’ early struggles to build up the Church, and so continues the narrative from Acts that begins with Pentecost. This fast—really a liturgical season—is highly Pentecostal, and rich in pneumatology. (In the Byzantine Rite, the same Apostles’ Fast begins on the second Monday after Pentecost).
In the East Syriac Rite, Pentecost begins the seven-week Season of the Apostles, which also continues the narrative of Acts. According to the Syro Malabar Commission for Liturgy, the main themes of this season are the “work of the Holy Spirit, [the] deep relationship between the apostles and the Church[…] the spirit and unity of the primitive Church and the mission and missionary nature of the Church.” In the West Syriac Rite, Pentecost begins a season actually named the Season of Pentecost, which runs until the day before the Feast of the Transfiguration on August 6. Readings from Acts are prominent in this season. Lastly, the personal ordinariates created to welcome Anglicans into the Catholic fold have also restored the octave of Pentecost, which the Anglo-Catholic tradition had faithfully preserved.
Given the above material, I strongly suspect that no rite in the history of the Church has celebrated Pentecost in as cursory a way as the modern Roman rite does. This is a sad loss, which unbalances the Roman liturgy. The modern Missal of course has a fine Mass of Pentecost, and it would be easy to build a Pentecost octave upon it, drawing on the readings cited above. The days within a restored octave of Pentecost would naturally have the same liturgical standing as those within the modern octave of Easter.
This raises a final question: how can Catholics recreate something of the spirituality of the Octave of Pentecost using the current resources of the Ordinary Form? Well, most obviously, the modern Missal contains three forms of the Votive Mass of the Holy Spirit, which Mass may be said on weekdays of Ordinary Time, and even on memoria “at the discretion of the rector of the church or the priest celebrant… if it is celebrated for a serious need or pastoral advantage” (General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM), 376). These Masses could be used where possible between Pentecost Sunday and Trinity Sunday. The readings for these Masses may be taken from the night-vigil Mass of Pentecost, or from the Pentecost Masses of Years A, B, or C, or from the various options for the ritual Mass for Confirmation. These options offer celebrants many good choices of readings, including many readings that overlap with or contain the readings of the old octave (viz., confirmation’s Old Testament reading no. 5, New Testament readings nos. 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6, and gospel no. 9). As we saw in the previous article, GIRM 248 and 250 would also permit a reading of suitable passages from Acts during the time of the old octave, supplemented by a patristic commentary.
What are the commonest errors amongst today’s Roman-rite laity, religious and clergy? I would suggest: religious relativism and a refusal of humble obedience to the Magisterium; a Pelagian focus on secular “issues”; spiritual complacency about one’s own basic goodness. As readers of Adoremus will well appreciate, good liturgy can combat errors as effectively as any other form of instruction. Taken together, Septuagesimatide and the Octave of Pentecost are good antidotes to precisely the errors just listed: they remind us that we are fallen sinners in need of God; that the Father sent his Son to save us, and instituted his holy Church to teach us the faith, guided by the Holy Spirit; that we must live by the Holy Spirit, or perish; that we must be sure to cast off the works of the flesh and let the Holy Spirit rebuild us anew. This is not bad going for the 25 liturgical days that constitute Septuagesimatide and the Pentecost Octave!
Furthermore, the Roman rite, which now lacks these seasons or anything like them, is to that extent out of step with the other ancient Christian rites. The suppression of these seasons has achieved no reasonable reforming objective, and could quite easily be reversed. Sacrosanctum Concilium 107 stated that “The liturgical year is to be revised so that the traditional customs and discipline of the sacred seasons shall be preserved or restored to suit the conditions of modern times.” I think that “modern times” quite clearly show the need for Septuagesimatide and the Octave of Pentecost. It is time to restore them to the Church’s liturgical year. But for now, let us use the pastoral flexibility of the Ordinary Form to bring something of their spirit and their pastoral value back into our liturgical practice.
See Part I of Day-Milne’s article, “The Bookends of the Paschal Cycle, Part I—Septuagesimatide: A Sensible Approach to the Desert Days of Lent,” here.
Since 2018, the Monday after Pentecost has been the memorial of Mary, Mother of the Church, and has therefore been tied to the paschal cycle. Indeed, the NT reading of this day is Acts 1:12-14, which mentions Our Lady’s role in the early days of the Church. However, Pentecostal elements are not prominent on this day, which instead takes its theme from Jesus’s words on the cross, “woman, behold your son.” ↑
‘The Feast and Fast of Pentecost’, Gregory DiPippo, New Liturgical Movement, 2nd June 2020, available at http://www.newliturgicalmovement.org/2020/06/the-feast-and-fast-of-pentecost.html#.X-HMiC2l1QJ as of 22nd December 2020. ↑
- There were two forms of Mass for Pentecost Saturday, a longer and a shorter; the day was seen as especially suitable for ordinations, which would be always celebrated as part of the longer form. ↑
A. Bugnini, The Reform of the Liturgy, p. 307, n. 9; p. 319, n. 38. This and the next footnote are given in the (somewhat polemical) ‘Destroying the Octave of Pentecost’, Dr Carol Byrne, Tradition in Action, available at https://www.traditioninaction.org/HotTopics/f156_Dialogue_73.htm as of 15th February 2020. ↑
- (ibid) p.319 ↑
Consider, for example, the words for the fraction of the bread used in the Divine Liturgy of the Coptic Orthodox Church during the Apostles’ Fast: ‘You are the Word of the Father, God before the ages, the great High Priest. | You were incarnate and became man for the salvation of mankind. |And out of all the nations, You have called to You a chosen race, a kingdom and priesthood, a holy nation and a justified people. | Having sent the Holy Spirit upon Your Apostles on the day of Pentecost. | He came upon each one of them like cloven tongues of fire. | And filled them with all knowledge, all understanding, and all spiritual wisdom according to Your faithful promise.’ These words are taken from the Liturgical Book (in modern English, Coptic and Arabic) provided by the Diocese of the Midlands, UK of the Coptic Orthodox Church, available at https://ukmidcopts.org/resources/order-of-service/ as of 15th December 2015. ↑
- See the Syro Malabar calendar provided by the Syro Malabar Commission for liturgy, available at http://www.syromalabarliturgy.org/MainController/Realcalender as of 15th December 2020. ↑
- See, e.g. the Sacred Lectionary of the Syro-Malakara lectionary Catholic Church, available at http://syromalankarausa.org/sites/default/files/epl/Panchangom%202017-18%20English.pdf as of 15th December 2020, and the calendar of the Maronite Eparchy of Our Lady of Lebanon of Los Angeles, available at https://cdn.subsplash.com/documents/C92946/_source/a362fc49-3602-4737-a47d-1bce362a6a01/document.pdf as of 15th December 2020. ↑
- The modern missal’s evening vigil Mass of Pentecost draws much of its text from the Mass of the old vigil day, and so that vigil day itself would also be easy to restore–though it would perhaps make little sense to introduce a lone vigil day into the modern liturgy. ↑
Peter Day-Milne read Classics at Trinity College, Oxford, and took an MLitt in Philosophy at St Andrews. He was received into the Church in 2018, while studying 17th-century natural law theories at Cambridge. Lately he has been undertaking some private study, writing articles, working on a new adult Latin course, and maintaining his website of liturgical calendars.