A Healthy Balance of Penitence and Anticipation: Rediscovering the Value of Vigil Days—Part II
Mar 30, 2023

A Healthy Balance of Penitence and Anticipation: Rediscovering the Value of Vigil Days—Part II

In part one of this essay, we considered the “Penitential Principle”: the principle that a time of waiting and penance sharpens our appetite for a coming feast, disposing us to celebrate it all the more joyfully and fruitfully. As we saw, the Church “baptized” this natural principle, realizing it in sombre, penitential vigils of the sanctoral cycle, and thus making the year resound with echoes of both Good Friday and Easter. But as we also saw, those penitential vigils were suppressed at the reform. In this second part of the essay, we first consider the reasons for this suppression, and then the case for restoring them now. Lastly, we shall see how we might best reintroduce traditional vigil-keeping into today’s Roman rite.

The Concilium and Modern Vigil Days

In the 1960s, the Consilium—the commission for implementing the decrees of the Second Vatican Council on the sacred liturgy—decided to suppress the traditional Vigil Days and to replace them with new eventide, festal vigil Masses that were to form part of the celebration of the feast itself. Unfortunately, there is very little readily accessible documentation about the reasons for this decision: for example, it is not mentioned even once in The Reform of the Liturgy, the quite extensive account of the reform written by Annibale Bugnini, who served as the secretary of the Consilium from 1964 to 1969.

Nevertheless, one sees why this decision must have seemed very logical and sensible in the context of its time. In the 1960s and 1970s, many liturgists and Church leaders were turning their minds to the question of how the Church could help the faithful to meet their obligations of Mass attendance under the circumstances of modern life. In consequence, from the 1960s onward, more and more bishops’ conferences sought indults from Rome so that the faithful might meet their Sunday and holy day obligations by attending “anticipated” Masses on the night before the obligatory day.1 Rome granted such requests, as far as I can tell, very readily: the U.S. Bishops’ Conference obtained one in 1970. But in the jurisdictions that received such indults before the introduction of the new Mass, it must have been the case that the old penitential Vigil Masses of Christmas, Epiphany, Ascension, Pentecost, Sts. Peter and Paul, and the Assumption were celebrated as anticipated evening Masses, meeting any local holy day obligations.

The Consilium probably reasoned that this was sub-optimal. Logically, a Mass that meets a holy day obligation ought to be of the feast celebrated on the holy day itself, not of the preceding vigil day. At the same time, however, the members of the Consilium were themselves certainly keen to help the faithful to meet their obligations2, and were, overall, clearly supportive of the use of “anticipated” Masses. Since at this time so many holy days of obligation were still preceded by traditional vigil days, the members of the Consilium no-doubt mentally associated “anticipated” Masses with traditional Vigil Masses, and so would have been well-disposed to the concept of the Vigil Mass. 

In this context, the Consilium’s eventual policy made good very sense: Vigil Day Masses would be retained as eventide Masses that met holy day obligations, but they would be festal Masses of the following solemnity, not penitential, anticipatory Masses. 

But has this decision stood the test of time? In this series (i.e., on Septuagesima, the Pentecost OctaveRogation Days, and Ember Days), I have criticized those of the Consilium’s decisions about the liturgical calendar that seem to me not to have stood that test, and which I believe now merit reconsideration. Nevertheless, I have generally found that the Consilium reasoned logically from its premises, and implemented its decisions coherently, so that one can see in the modern liturgy the results of its conclusions, just as one might infer a thoughtful artist’s philosophy from his artworks.

Yet as we turn now to consider the modern Vigil Masses, I feel compelled by the evidence of their texts to say that they manifest some definite incoherence, like paintings painted by two artists at loggerheads. For the modern Vigil Masses contain an uneasy mixture of properly festal elements drawn from the corresponding feast-day Masses, and traditional penitential elements drawn from the pre-1969 vigils. Thus, without being objectionable in any one respect, overall they fall into a liturgical no-man’s land, eliciting neither a fulsome joy nor a penitential waiting.

Today’s Vigil Masses fall into a liturgical no-man’s land, eliciting neither a fulsome joy nor a penitential waiting.

Consider, for example, the Vigil Mass of the Nativity of St. John. The entrance antiphon is future-tense, Luke 1:15,14: “He will be great in the sight of the Lord and will be filled with the Holy Spirit.” This is drawn from the Gospel reading, which is the same as that of the old, penitential Vigil Mass, namely Luke 1:5-17 (the angel tells Zachariah of St. John’s future birth). The Old Testament reading, too, is unchanged from the old rites, and is also prospective: Jeremiah 1:4-10, “I knew you before I formed you in the womb.” On the other hand, the preface of this Mass is shared with the daytime festal Mass, and seems to be presented as a celebratory preface for St. John’s now-accomplished birth: “His birth brought great rejoicing; even in the womb he leapt for joy at the coming of human salvation.” Furthermore, like all the modern Vigil Masses, this Mass has the Gloria and Creed, and uses the liturgical color of the feast day itself—all signs of festivity. 

This tension is also seen in the collect of the vigil Mass, which is that of the old Vigil Mass: “Grant, we pray, almighty God, that your family may walk in the way of salvation and, attentive to what Saint John the Precursor urged, may come safety to the One he foretold, our Lord Jesus Christ.” There is nothing wrong with the use of this collect as a festal collect, but it lacks the note of joy in the collect of the daytime Mass, which is slightly adapted from the old festal Mass: “O God, who raised up Saint John the Baptist to make ready a nation fit for Christ the Lord, give your people, we pray, the grace of spiritual joys and direct the hearts of all the faithful into the way of salvation and peace.”3

In short, the Vigil Mass of the Baptist presents a confused picture: it seems to look to a prospective birth, and its collect lacks the joy of the daytime festal one; but its preface presents the Baptist’s birth as a past event. The Mass does not give us a clear sense of whether we are, within liturgical time, celebrating a successful birth, or waiting eagerly for it; it gives us neither a fulsome sense of joy nor an exciting sense of anticipation. Chesterton’s “clear black line” between celebration and solemnity (which I mentioned in the previous essay) has become fuzzy. 

The same problems are also found in the modern Vigil Mass of Sts. Peter and Paul, which is neither clearly sombre and focused on the saints’ passions, nor clearly joyous and focused on their glorification. Its prayer over the offerings is clearly festal (“as we glory in the solemn feast of the blessed Apostles Peter and Paul…”), and yet its Gospel is as for the old penitential vigil: Our Lord’s prediction of St. Peter’s passion. Furthermore, whereas the collect of the following daytime Mass is joyous (“O God, who on the Solemnity of the Apostles Peter and Paul give us the noble and holy joy of this day…”), the collect of this vigil Mass is again more muted: “Grant, we pray, O Lord our God, that we may be sustained by the intercession of the blessed Apostles Peter and Paul, that, as through them you gave your Church the foundations of her heavenly office, so through them you may help her to eternal salvation.” This collect is neither clearly penitential and sombre like the collects of the old vigils, nor clearly joyous like the day-time festal Masses both old and new. It conveys no particular liturgical atmosphere.

The modern Vigil of Christmas constitutes an interesting case. Contrary to the Consilium’s declared policy of making the Vigil Masses festal, the compilers of the Christmas Vigil Mass seem to have intuited that Christmas Eve is rightly a time of eager anticipation, rather than of celebration. The Mass has the same anticipatory entrance antiphon, collect, readings and post-communion prayer as the old Vigil, and the prayer over the offerings is “As we look forward, O Lord, to the coming festivities, may we serve you all the more eagerly for knowing that in them you make manifest the beginnings of our redemption.” Nevertheless, here again an incoherence presents itself. The preface to the Mass is to be chosen from the three modern prefaces of the Nativity, all three of which explicitly present the birth of Christ as now accomplished. On the one hand, then, we the attending faithful are told, in the entrance antiphon, that we will see our Savior in the morning, and that we now “look forward to the coming festivities.” Yet in the preface we pray “in the mystery of the Word made flesh a new light of your glory has shone upon the eyes of our mind, so that, as we recognize in him God made visible, we may be caught up through him in love of things invisible” (preface I); or “though invisible in his own divine nature, he has appeared visibly in ours” (preface II); or “through him the holy exchange that restores our life has shone forth today in splendor” (preface III). Moreover, like all the modern Vigil Masses, the Nativity Vigil Mass has festal vestments, the Gloria, and the Creed. For all these reasons, it is confusing. Has Christ been born or has he not?

One final example will further illustrate these problems. The Vigil Mass of the Assumption clearly presents the Assumption as taking place on this day. The entrance antiphon is “Glorious things are spoken of you, O Mary, who today were exalted above the choirs of Angels into eternal life.” The collect (a newly devised one) includes the words “she was crowned this day with surpassing glory.” The preface begins “For today the Virgin Mother of God was assumed into heaven.” Yet despite this, the Gospel reading—clearly a particularly important and prominent part of any Mass—is the same stark and sobering reading used in the old Vigil Mass, namely Luke 11:27-28 (“blessed rather are they…”). This is an important reading, which helps one put natural relationships in their proper, eternal perspective; yet it is hardly joyous or festal. Many a Catholic over the years must have entered a Vigil Mass of the Assumption expecting a great festal celebration, and left it feeling a little confused.

Indeed, because of the disharmonies in these three vigil Masses, it may be hard for the faithful to enter into them emotionally. One does not know whether one is eagerly awaiting a birth or celebrating it, whether one is following a saint’s passion or rejoicing in his heavenly glory. One cannot enter into the spirit of Good Friday and of Easter, or of Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, at the same time; the feat is emotionally impossible. But today’s vigil Masses seem to ask us to perform just this feat.

One cannot enter into the spirit of Good Friday and of Easter, or of Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, at the same time; the feat is emotionally impossible. But today’s vigil Masses seem to ask us to perform just this feat.

Proposals for Reform

I have just made some severe—but, I believe, well-grounded—criticisms of an aspect of the modern Roman Rite. I believe that they show that the modern Vigil Masses were not well designed, at least when their traditional character is considered. Hence arises a contrast between these Vigil Masses and the pre-1969 ones, which had a clear function and a clear devotional value. Given this value, which I have explained in some detail in the first part of the essay, the Church would do well to regain the concept of the traditional, anticipatory vigil, which well suits the nature of man, his natural religious instincts, and Christian piety.

This prompts us to consider two questions. First: how can we today regain the spirituality of the old vigils by means of our current liturgies? Second: in light of the above, how might our current rites be enriched?

The first question is easily answered. Even if the modern Vigil Masses were not well designed, pastors could easily arrange ad hoc solemn prayer vigils on the days or nights before important feasts, especially the feasts of the apostles, of martyrs, and of the Assumption. Each such vigil could include reflections on the passion or death of the saint. There are many famous and superb paintings of the passions of the apostles, St. Lawrence, and other saints, and so where appropriate such a painting could also be displayed in the Church or on a service sheet. Such a vigil would also be a good time to keep confessionals open. It would be especially fitting to hold such vigils in the nighttime, in accordance with the ancient practice of the Church, since a nighttime setting conduces to an atmosphere of waiting and expectation. 

To answer the second question, we must begin with another. Why did the compilers of the modern Vigil Masses fail to make them coherent? The answer, I would suggest, is twofold. On the one hand, the compilers evidently had some feeling that Vigil Masses ought to convey a traditional note of eager waiting and anticipation. After all, why make Vigil Masses at all if they are not to have their own distinctive character?4 But on the other hand, the Consilium’s declared policy was to make the new Masses festal. The result of this tension was incoherent Masses. 

There is, however, a simple solution to this tension. As we have seen above, the modern Vigil Masses already incorporate many elements of the old vigils. If the Church were to make slight adjustments to their propers, remove their Glorias and Creeds, and (except in the vigil of Pentecost) change their prefaces from the festal ones to the common or seasonal ones, they would become modern, eventide versions of the traditional Vigil Masses. Attendance at these revised evening Vigil Masses would meet the faithful’s Mass obligations; for, according to canon law, attending any Catholic Mass on the evening before an obligatory feast meets the obligation (Can. 1248 §1). And, indeed—why not? To keep expectant watch before a great feast is, for the reasons discussed above, meritorious and valuable in its own right, just as participation in the rituals of Good Friday or Christmas Eve have their own distinctive value. It therefore seems reasonable for the Church to offer the faithful traditional Vigil Masses as obligation-meeting Masses. Restored “Sorrowful Vigils” in particular would remind us of an important and forgotten aspect of the sanctoral cycle: namely that it echoes Good Friday as well as Easter.

One minor difficulty with this proposal would be its effect on other anticipated Masses. For if the Vigil Masses were made anticipatory, then non-vigil, festal anticipated Masses of other great feasts may begin to seem anomalous. But—if readers will permit me to make a more radical suggestion—perhaps traditionally-themed vigils could be created for all the Church’s solemnities. After all, as we have seen, the Church used to keep a long night-vigil before every great feast and only abandoned the practice when her feasts became too many for the practice to remain viable. But there is much more room in the liturgical year for eventide Vigil Masses than there is for whole-night vigils.


The old vigil days heightened our expectation of coming feasts, preparing us to celebrate them with fitting joy. They also provided us with distinctive liturgical atmospheres which, like Good Friday and Christmas Eve, each had their own devotional values, complementary to the values of Christmas Day and of Easter. We should restore the practice of penitential vigil-keeping on the days or evenings before great feasts, and when the opportunity arises, we should restore traditional vigil days to our liturgical books, too.

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 and essays, and working on comprehensive new grammar of Latin. He also keeps a website of liturgical calendars, calendarialiturgica.co.uk.

Image Source: AB/publicdomainpictures.net

Peter Day-Milne

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 and essays, and working on comprehensive new grammar of Latin. He also keeps a website of liturgical calendars, calendarialiturgica.co.uk..


  1. Shawn P. Tunink, “Evening Masses and Days of Obligation: Historical Development and Modern Norms.” Thesis for the Licentiate in Canon Law, Catholic University of America. (2016).
  2. In 1971, for example, the Congregation for Divine Worship even posed the question (amongst others) of whether Christmas Day might be transferred to the nearest Sunday. See Bugnini, The Reform of the Liturgy, p. 324
  3. The Old Mass has a different beginning to the collect: “O God, who has made the present day honorable to us as the nativity of blessed John, grant…”.
  4. They are not needed to facilitate evening, “anticipated” Masses; anticipated Masses for feasts without Vigil Masses—such as the Immaculate Conception—are common, and are celebrated using the day-time texts.