Thursday, April 27, 2017

O felix culpa! Keeping the Vigil of Easter, pre-1955 style

Chanting the prophecies for the Easter Vigil
The Modern Medievalist wishes all of you as happy an Easter season as I've had so far! You've seen how much fun I had visiting the new Museum of the American Revolution as I described in my last post; now it's time I tell you a bit about my experience at the Easter Vigil. This year, the rector of Mater Ecclesiae Chapel in Berlin, New Jersey, Fr Robert Pasley, invited me to assist the community by chanting several of the 12 Old Testament prophecies as used in the full Easter Vigil as it was known in the Roman Rite prior to the reforms of 1955--as some other communities such as the FSSP's parish of Ss. Trinità dei Pellegrini in Rome have lately done. Now, I've generally acknowledged my preference for the pre-1955 forms on paper, having read about the differences in well-written articles like those by Gregory DiPippo on the New Liturgical Movement here. But nothing could have really prepared me for the unbridled splendor of the old forms being played out before my eyes as I sat in choir at Mater Ecclesiae this past Holy Saturday.

Before I begin, I'd want to point out to anyone unfamiliar with Mater Ecclesiae that it's not a sedevacantist chapel or anything of the sort. On the contrary, ME is the only diocesan community in the entire United States that observes the pre-Vatican II rites exclusively. Fr Pasley, like my old pastor, Fr Phillips at Our Lady of the Atonement in San Antonio, is the sort of priest who knows how to build something otherworldly virtually ex nihilo. Not surprisingly, like my old pastor, Fr Pasley is also very musically oriented (he is also chaplain to the CMAA, the Church Music Association of America). Every year, they fill the entire Cathedral-Basilica in Philadelphia for their annual solemn orchestral Mass for the Assumption. Last year, their leading liturgist was instituted as an acolyte by the Bishop of Camden to allow them to have solemn high Mass more frequently. (This has reminded me to add his blog to my list on the right, which I haven't updated in years until now. Please check it out!) Since I had then shared the news with my own bishop afterward, Mr. Rotondi's institution was actually, in large part, the catalyst for Bishop Lopes to create an acolyte institution program throughout the entire Ordinariate, which I wrote about here. In short, Mater Ecclesiae treats the liturgy as paramount, and should serve as a model of  excellence for all of us, whatever rites we follow.

High-quality recording above--be sure to set it to 1080p

Blessing of the Fire

It took about an hour to get there, but I still miraculously arrived in time with the whole family to get situated at a comfortable pace. It was about 5:30pm, with a starting time of 6... the only thing not strictly pre-1955 about the ceremonies, which in the early 20th century would have been Holy Saturday morning (though, in my opinion, a correct choice). I briefly greeted my fellow instituted acolyte as he was giving out last-minute instructions to the altar servers, and then donned cassock, surplice, and biretta at the breast (as the custom at Mater is for acolytes to wear biretta when seated in the sanctuary). I sat beside and soon befriended a young man bound soon for the Carmel in Wyoming (of Mystic Monk coffee fame) who was also assigned to chant some lessons. He kindly retrieved for me a chapel copy of a pre-1955 Liber Usualis so I could follow along. I knew bringing my 1962 edition of the Liber would more likely cause mischief than help, so I left that at home.

The junior servers lined up in the hallway adjoining the sacristy while the ministers vested. They were understandably excited; that another acolyte other than Mr. Rotondi existed out there in the world was novel to them and probably contributed to the chatter; but a sense of reverent quiet assumed as soon as they all knelt to recite their preparatory prayers. I gladly joined in.

The procession to the porch outside the church wasn't planned out in advance, so Fr Pasley had to make an executive decision to ask the congregation to remain in their places for the blessing of the fire, lest chaos break out. So, for the initial rites, only clergy and servers formed up around the Easter fire outside. There's no need for me to get into lengthy descriptions of the differences between pre- and post-1955 ritual here when others have done so much more thoroughly, so I'll only make personal remarks on my strongest impressions. The most obvious is that the Paschal candle is nowhere to be seen here. It's already situated in the sanctuary. Instead, a triple candlestick called the arundo is lit outside and carried into the church by the deacon in procession. Like the Paschal candle, he stops at intervals and intones Lumen Christi ("the light of Christ") at successively higher pitches, the people genuflecting each time.

The Exsultet

As the ministers enter the sanctuary, the deacon places himself before the Paschal candle as though he were about to sing an ode to it and carries out his single most important liturgical duty of the year: the Exsultet. As someone who has discerned a vocation to the diaconate for many years, this ceremony alone is enough to convince me of the superiority of the pre-1955 ritual over the Bugnini revisions. You see, in the pre-1955, there is no blessing of the Paschal candle outside by the priest, nor does he ritually inscribe and insert the grains of incense himself. This is because, traditionally, the act of singing the Exsultet is itself the blessing--indeed, the most solemn blessing the lowly deacon ever imparts.

About halfway through the Exsultet, right before the words:
"In thanksgiving, then, for this night, O holy Father, receive the evening sacrifice of this incense.."
the deacon pauses to insert the five grains of incense into the Paschal candle, just as the text alludes! Then, as the deacon sings:
"And now we know the glories of this column which the flickering fire doth kindle in God’s honor."
He, not the priest, takes light from the arundo and lights the Paschal candle. At last, when the deacon sings:
"Which fire, though it be divided into parts, yet knoweth no diminution of its light. For it is nourished by the fluid wax which the mother bee hath produced for the material of this precious torch."
The lights in the church multiply at this line as the fire is passed to the candles of the congregants.

It seems the architects of the 1955 Holy Week reform thought this ceremony too high an honor for a lowly deacon to bear, so they composed a new blessing for the priest to recite over the Paschal candle in the reformed edition. The ceremonies of inserting the grains and lighting the candle were now to be done by the priest. The deacon was now left only with singing the Exsultet straight through. And now, in our contemporary Church, most deacons probably pass the job of singing the Exsultet entirely on to the priest or a lay cantor, completely oblivious to how central this rite was to the order of deacons across the many centuries of the Roman Rite.

The Prophecies

As a lasting relic from the fervor of the early centuries in keeping all-night vigils, the unreformed Roman Rite has a staggering 12 lessons from the Old Testament, all of which are expected to be sung. One of the oddities of keeping Holy Week strictly according to 1962 is that even the Ordinary Form has concluded that the 1955 reform went too far. A strict 1962 Easter Vigil has only 4 lessons, while the Ordinary Form (and the Ordinariate Missal) allows as many as 7. To be fair, I believe the old Sarum Use of pre-Reformation England only had 4 lessons, so quantity wasn't universally prized throughout the west until 1955. I also suspect that the usual experience for the faithful was a single priest droning on the lessons world without end, without any sense of the spirit of the liturgy.

At Mater, on the other hand, four lectors were assigned to divide the chanting of the prophecies amongst each other. I sang the 1st, 5th, and final lessons. For the 1st, the account of Creation from Genesis 1, I used the hauntingly beautiful "Genesis tone" composed for the FSSP (may be downloaded and printed here, or listened to here). I particularly liked its conclusion for each of the six days: dies unus, dies secundus, and so on.

For the other two, I used the standard Prophecy tone used in the Liber Usualis for Old Testament lessons at the vigil, the ember days, and the like... though, since it was my first time actually using it, I didn't get the conclusion of each lesson quite right. It was nonetheless quite a joy to add my own emphases to the cadences of the account of King Nebuchadnezzar and the worship of the golden statue with the whole host of instruments: tubæ, et fístulæ, et cítharæ, sambúcæ, et psaltérii, et symphóniæ, et univérsi géneris musicórum ("the trumpet, and of the flute, and of the harp, of the sackbut, and of the psaltery, and of the symphony, and of all kind of music").

All readings pre-1955 are done facing the altar, while in the post-55, they're done toward the Paschal candle. At Mater, there was an impressive sequence of commands for each collect after the lessons: Oremus ("let us pray") from the priest at the top step, Flectamus genua ("let us bow the knee") from the deacon at the middle step, and Levate ("arise") from the subdeacon at the foot of the altar. The reform takes the subdeacon's command to the congregation to Levate away from him and gives it to the deacon; perhaps a prefigurement of the subdiaconate's total abolition years later.

The Blessing of Baptismal Water and Litany of Saints

This rite was performed at the baptismal font, well outside the sanctuary (in the post-1955, it's done in the sanctuary with a basin of water that's then carried to the font). Since I remained at my place in choir, I didn't get to observe this part, though it must have been a treat for those in the congregation who happened to be standing nearby. 

The ministers returned to the sanctuary for the Litany of Saints and, instead of kneeling, did a full prostration before the altar as on Good Friday. (Mr. Rotondi remarked to me afterward that whereas the prostration on Good Friday was appropriately rather painful due to the carpet being absent, this time the carpet was in place and the prostration was almost relaxing by contrast.) Every petition was doubled: that is, the schola precentor sang each petition completely by himself, and the whole congregation repeated it. What a delight it was to hear them all (or quite many, at least) sing each in response, rather than stand mute as many other TLM congregations do. Even petitions as long and tongue-twisting as Ut domnum apostólicum et omnes ecclesiásticos órdines in sancta religióne conserváre dignéris, te rogámus, audi nos didn't deter them from responding in full.

The Vesperal Mass

The ministers put away their penitential, violet folded chasubles one last time and donned the golden vestments of jubilation. The Kyrie gave way to the most spectacular Gloria in excelsis (from the Missa Breve by Domenico Scarlatti) I've heard in years. After the priest intoned, the first words, a thunderous organ medley paved the way for the choir to resume with a polyphonic rendition accompanied by.... a harpsichord, perhaps? I sat and followed the cues of the ministers as to when to doff the biretta during the customary words (adoramus te, Jesu Christe, etc.), but my headgear could scarcely keep the contents of my brain from exploding out as I struggled to contain the fullness of the beauty of worship.

The rest of the Mass proceeded more-or-less the same as a post-1955 Vigil. As a sign that this Mass was still an anticipation of the Resurrection rather than the fulfillment, the Agnus Dei and some of the minor Proper chants were omitted. Of course, where the reformed order has Lauds follow the end of Mass, we had an abbreviated form of Vespers instead.. though not so truncated as to possibly contemplate omitting a polyphonic Magnificat, of course.

Over 3 hours later, we recessed into the sacristy, knelt for a final blessing from the celebrant, and adjourned to the social hall for a well-earned reception with the community. I raised my glass to Mr. Rotondi in celebration, port in his hand (if I recall correctly) and Pepsi in mine; I excuse my troglodytism on account that I was breaking my Lenten fast from soft drinks. Madame, meanwhile, caught up with an old classmate from college who now sings in the choir.

By the end, the girls' patience had long since expired. We began the long journey home, but to play a part, however small, in the restoration of ancient liturgical tradition is well worth the trip in my book! I hope to return soon enough to assist with the solemn vigil of Pentecost.


  1. I was very curious when you mentioned a harpsichord. There's definitely harpsichord continuo accompaniment during the Gloria, but there's also a soft organ continuo as well - meaning that there probably two instrumentalists up in the loft (at first I thought the organist was switching back and forth between harpsichord/organ but later on I'm pretty sure they are playing at the same time). Such a small detail, but it shows how serious these people take music.

  2. Thanks so much for sharing! Very enjoyable read!

  3. What is the legal status of the pre-1955 forms?

    1. "Don't ask. Don't tell."

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. What's wrong with Sedevacantist's pre-1950 Holy Week?
    Not being rude rather just curious why you say
    "They aren't sedevacantist" at the beginning of this entry.

  5. best information raising this in a thought provoking erudite way Thank you for sharing !

    goldenslot slot games
    gclub casino