Friday, June 9, 2017

Making Whitsuntide great again

Illuminated initial from the Ranworth Antiphonal
The Modern Medievalist was busy as the bees sung of during the Exsultet last weekend! Saturday evening, I assisted Mater Ecclesiae Chapel once again as a singing lector for the prophecies of the vigil of Pentecost (as it was known prior to the reforms of Pius XII). Then the following morning, I hauled my schola of plainchanters out for a guest appearance at a Latin Mass community in Wilmington, Delaware for Pentecost Sunday. In my absence, my own parish celebrated the feast by confirming and receiving some new members into full communion with Rome. Everywhere in the region, churches have done their best to mark Pentecost (or, as I like to say, Whitsunday) as one of the greatest feasts of the liturgical cycle.

What is "Whitsunday?"

The more familiar name for the feast, Pentecost, is explained easily enough by references to Pentekostos: the Greek word for 50. It's the fiftieth day after Easter, celebrating the descent of the Holy Ghost over the Apostles and, some may say, the birthday of the Church. "Whitsunday" is an expression of the medieval English church, the origins of which are lost to time. Some say it's because of the white albs worn by those baptized on this day, or because the Sarum Missal called for the clergy in England to wear white vestments instead of the red we're now accustomed to. A rival theory is that the "whit" is not short for "white", but a reference to "wit", i.e. the gift of wisdom given to the Apostles.

Whitsun Eve

Today, the two greatest feasts of the liturgical cycle are widely reckoned to be Easter and Christmas. In the earliest ages of Christianity, though, the second place of honor was not Christmas, but Pentecost: a feast known even in the Old Covenant and observed as a Christian feast almost since apostolic times. Knowing its preeminence can help us understand why the Church saw it fit to prepare for Pentecost with its own Easter-like vigil all the way up to 1955.

The ancient Roman rite, as it was observed at Mater Ecclesiae last Saturday evening, begins with six prophecies from the Old Testament. All the readings, with their tracts, are "reruns" from the Easter Vigil--although the collects after each reading are unique to Pentecost. The baptismal font is blessed again with the chant Sicut cervus and all the same ceremonies as used at the Easter Vigil. Once that's done, the ministers return to the foot of the altar and lay prostrate while everyone kneels and sings the Litany of Saints (all petitions "doubled" by cantor and congregation, again like the Easter Vigil). After the Litany, the Mass begins. As at the Vigil, the Introit is omitted, and no candles are carried at the Gospel reading. The latter suggests that the Pentecost "event" is watched for, but not celebrated in advance.

To the average Catholic; and perhaps even the average priest; this would seem like the most redundant ceremony ever devised by the medieval Church. Why repeat all these solemn ceremonies involving baptism so soon after Easter? Other than restating the obvious (that Peter baptized three thousand souls at Pentecost), I would remark that in those early centuries of Christianization, there were always a few catechumens who weren't quite ready to accept baptism by the time the Easter Vigil rolled around. They perhaps needed special attention, which the ancient Church provided them, and prepared the stragglers for reception at the vigil of Pentecost.

By the High Middle Ages, though the catechumenate virtually ceased to exist in the west, the association of Whitsun Eve with baptism yet lingered on. The Sarum Use of England before the Reformation held that infants born in the normal course of the year were to be baptized shortly thereafter... but if they were born within eight days prior to Easter or Whitsunday, they were to be reserved for baptism during the vigils of either feast so long as they were deemed healthy.

The hierarchy seems to now be reaching the understanding that demolishing the vigil of Pentecost wasn't a good idea. The latest edition of the Ordinary Form Missal now includes the option of an extended Vigil in its appendix, which more and more churches are adopting.... including the Cathedral-Basilica in Philadelphia, where we also frequently celebrate the traditional Latin Mass. The Cathedral's rector, Father Dennis Gill, recently wrote a thorough article on the extended Pentecost Vigil here on Adoremus. In short, while the new rite still doesn't reclaim the baptismal character of the old, there's still an allowance for four Old Testament prophecies, each followed by a tract (or responsorial psalm, most likely) and a collect.

The Divine Worship Missal of the "Anglican" Ordinariates goes a bit further. It takes the OF's extended vigil with the four added prophecies as a starting point and then expands it further by adding the Litany of Saints. The baptismal character of the Vigil is restored insofar as that the rite envisions baptisms to take place here (or else, the renewal of baptismal promises) but there is no blessing of the font, as in the pre-1955 Latin rite. A fuller description was recently given by Mr. DiPippo in the New Liturgical Movement here.


Our schola circled up for the Mass of Whitsunday
Whitsunday was such a momentous feast even in the later Middle Ages that it marks the day when, according to Malory's L'Morte de Arthur, the Knights of the Round Table saw a vision of the Holy Grail, inspiring them to undergo their famous quest!

The pastor of Saint Patrick's church in Wilmington, Delaware, following a wedding I assisted him for last month, kindly invited me to bring my schola of chanters out to his parish to add something special to the city's Sunday Latin Mass. The community only has sung Mass the first Sunday of each month, and are by no means accustomed to a Gregorian schola using full minor Propers out of the Liber Usualis, so our appearance was perhaps an out-of-this-world experience for them! I opted, as I usually do, to place the schola as near the sanctuary as possible rather than the organ loft to emphasize its role as a liturgical choir--the "choir of Levites". Since I was told the congregation isn't used to singing the Ordinary of the Mass, we did a mix of some of the lesser-used Ordinary chants from the Kyriale for the sake of variety (mostly in mode I, like the sequence of Pentecost). 

For me, the"high water mark" of the sacred chants for Whitsunday has long been the second Alleluia. In the old rite (and now the Ordinariate Use as well), all kneel while the verse is sung:
"Come, Holy Ghost, and fill the hearts of thy faithful people: and kindle in them the fire of thy love."

I cantored this verse, which ends with one of my favorite melismas in the whole cycle of chant.... a melody which I've always found strikingly beautiful, and not a little "eastern" in flavor. After the verse, the schola rose and continued not by repeating the Alleluia, but going straight into the golden sequence, Veni Sancte Spiritus. I think I might like this sequence even more than the Dies Irae, and start singing along whenever I re-watch the 1964 film Becket (the one with Richard Burton and Peter O'Toole) because of the sequence's integration into the opening overture.

We also added to the tour-de-force of chants with two of the melismatic verses from the Offertoriale Triplex for the Offertory. After Mass was over, quite a few people came up to thank us for for joining them. There was about double the usual size of the congregation, probably over 200, in attendance. While the acoustics were sub-optimal at best, this was undoubtedly the schola's best turnout since I established it last year. Fr Klein treated us to an excellent luncheon afterward. My own parish, meanwhile, confirmed and received a number of folks into the Church. It's easy to get demoralized by all the news emanating from the world and even from wayward prelates, so I describe all these glad tidings to remind my readers that the work of evangelization still continues apace.


One of the most infamous stories of the chaos following Vatican II is the one Father Z first told on his blog years ago:
You probably know that in the traditional Roman liturgical calendar the mighty feast of Pentecost had its own Octave.  Pentecost was/is a grand affair indeed, liturgically speaking.  It has a proper Communicantes and Hanc igitur, an Octave, a Sequence, etc. In some places in the world such as Germany and Austria Pentecost Monday, Whit Monday as the English call it, was a reason to have a civil holiday, as well as a religious observance. 
The Novus Ordo went into force with Advent in 1969. 
The Monday after Pentecost in 1970, His Holiness Pope Paul VI went to the chapel for Holy Mass. Instead of the red vestments, for the Octave everyone knows follows Pentecost, there were laid out for him vestments of green. 
Paul queried the MC assigned for that day, “What on earth are these for?  This is the Octave of Pentecost!  Where are the red vestments?” 
SantitĂ ,” quoth the MC, “this is now Tempus ‘per annum’.  It is green, now. The Octave of Pentecost was abolished.” 
“Green? That cannot be!”, said the Pope, “Who did that?” 
“Holiness, you did.” 
And Paul VI wept.
The "feast of the Lacrimation of Paul VI" is renewed annually when diocesan priests who celebrate the traditional Latin Mass on Sundays return to their regular parish duties the next day to don green vestments for "Ordinary Time" in the Ordinary Form. Until the great restoration takes place, the best advice I can give to priests celebrating the Ordinary Form is to trade those greens for red by offering a votive Mass of the Holy Ghost every weekday of Whitsun Week.

Thankfully, the Ordinariate's Missal has restored the octave of Pentecost, so every day at my parish this week has been red. The Ordinariate likewise observes the Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday of this week as "ember days": one of the four times of the year which the Church, since medieval times, reserved for fasting, prayer, and (on Saturday) the ordination of clergy. We then reckon the Sundays for the rest of the year as Sundays after Trinity, aka Trinitytide.

I hope all my readers are inspired to continue the celebration of Whitsun through the octave!


  1. I agree with you but I in favor of a full fledged quiet revolt.
    Clergy within the Diocesan structure should quietly start adopting the pre-55 (pre-51?) customs.

  2. You will be pleased to hear the Pugin's Shrine,Burial Place and masterpiece,St Augutine's Abbey,Ramsgate has been restored to full Puginian splendour,under the splendid Rector, Father Marcus Holden.It was re-opened and re-dedicated two weeks ago.It is now as Pugin built it, with the Rood back in place, the Altar at the East End and the Quire Stalls back in their proper place. The Traditional Mass is offered there frequently and regularly. I was at an Ordinariate Use Mass there last Saturday. Good wishes.