Timing/Taming the Vigil

A few comments on our parish’s Christmas schedule got me thinking.

Longtime CS readers will know I’m not a fan of Saturday night Masses. Like that vigorous promoter of conciliar liturgical reform, Cardinal Krol, I wish they would go away.

I’m not pleased that parishes offer a Christmas Eve-weighted liturgy schedule either. Christmas is important enough for a Vigil, yes. And I absolutely agree with my John, my long-time foil, that 3:30 is too darned early. Noon would be a catastrophe for preparation, though.

Here in Kansas City, like most of the US, the Mass attendance trend to the 24th is something too formidable to tackle in a single year. If we inched our early Mass to a later time, we would just have more people attend whatever time we chose on the afternoon or early evening of the 24th. The Catholics of southern Kansas City might like our liturgies enough to come at 5PM or even 6PM. But they would be joining with the people who normally come at those hours. I would need to rent a space with room for about 1500 people, minimum. But believe me, I have considered it.
If our liturgies were poor, SKC Catholics would just hop across the state line to the archdiocese where they can get early Masses every Saturday.

If we were serious about restoring some sensibility to Christmas Eve, it would take a bishop’s leadership. Any city or suburban parish that attempted to buck the trend on its own would need a considerably favorable word-of-mouth on the quality of its liturgy.

It’s been a few years since I stepped up on my Christmas Eve soapbox. But you’ve got me thinking …


About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in the Pacific Northwest, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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20 Responses to Timing/Taming the Vigil

  1. John Heavrin says:

    Vatican II sez…

    Saturday = Sunday.

    Maybe the Council Fathers were infallible after all, if they got away with that one.

  2. Gavin says:

    I really don’t like the Saturday Mass idea either. Is there actually some rule that every parish must have a Saturday Mass? Where did that come from?

  3. KiwiNomad06 says:

    I have not been much of a church-goer for many years. Last year I actually went to the Christmas Eve Mass and I realised it was the first time I had ever been since I moved to this town some 21 years ago. I enjoyed singing all the Christmas Carols with everyone before the Mass: I actually knew them all. And then they darkened the church and there was a procession in which baby Jesus was carried into the crib. I found it very special. I hope I decide to go again this year. But I haven’t been going to Mass for a few months so I am not sure I will.

  4. Todd says:


    The Newman Chapel at my alma mater no longer has a Saturday evening Mass. Except for rural parishes that only have one Sunday Mass, I know of none that avoid Saturday. In fact, Saturday Masses are what make rural circuit-riding more palatable for many clergy. Though I suppose a Sunday afternoon nap before an evening tour would accomplish the same thing.

    But no, nobody is “required” to offer Saturday Masses. But they tend to be the most-attended of the weekend, usually #1 or #2 wherever I’ve served.

  5. Neil says:

    Dear All,

    May I be permitted to speak up in favor of Saturday night Masses? From what I understand (e.g., Dies Domini 49), the “Vigil Mass,” like the somewhat less popular Sunday evening Mass, was simply meant to offer everyone the “real possibility of fulfilling the precept” of attending Mass.

    It has often served that purpose in my own life – since my wife is Protestant, I can attend Mass on Saturday night and go to a church service with her on Sunday morning (most Protestant churches, of course, only have one main service). Thus the Vigil has helped us become a better “practical laboratory of unity,” to borrow the language of the Pope. I don’t think that my situation is highly unusual.

    So, perhaps there should be some flexibility in scheduling Masses, particularly at non-traditional times, even though it might present some difficulties.



  6. Liam says:


    That idea would argue in favor of emphasizing Mass on Christmas Day in Catholic churches, as it is increasingly rare for Protestant churches to have any worship on Christmas Day.

    I do think your situation is unusual, but not rare. In my experience, the main value of vigil Masses address (1) public transportation in urban areas, which is often infrequent on Sunday mornings, (2) the issue for elderly people for whom it takes hours to get ready to go out (my mother, for example) and thus who have a better shot at attending Mass on Saturday evening than Sunday morning, (3) people whose work shifts are non-standard, et cet.

    That said, when the vigil regularly overshadows the day for a community, there is an imbalance that should be addressed rather than avoided. I was pleased when Cardinal Law came to Boston and he put strict limits on the number of Masses on Saturday evenings (generally, only one was allowed unless genuine pastoral need (such as non-English language communities) was demonstrated). 5pm, 6pm or 7pm strikes me as a better default time for such a Mass than 4pm, which cuts too close to medical shift changes. Mass is also less likely to be tacked onto Saturday errands and risk becoming yet another errand.

  7. John Heavrin says:

    Actually, Neil, I suspect your situation and your conscientious reason is unusual. I’d wager
    that for every person with a reason such as yours, there are a thousand whose “reason” is that they’d prefer to stay in the sack on Sunday morning.

    None of my business, of course, but I wonder if you and your wife couldn’t find and attend a Mass on Sunday morning at 6 am, 7 am, etc.

    And regardless of one’s view of “vigil masses,” it’s frankly dishonest to consider 3:30 Saturday afternoon to be “Saturday night,” or an observance of a vigil in any real sense. This is a cynical abuse. Again, I ask, why not noon?

  8. Todd says:

    A parish of any size would need to offer Sunday evening Mass, which addresses Neil’s and Liam’s concerns about the elderly and ecumenical laboratories.

    That said, breathe easy I’m not in my twenties, and I’m not inclined to get involved in a pitched battle of this sort over the Saturday Mass.

  9. John Heavrin says:

    God only knows what you mean by a “parish of any size,” but my parish has 1400 families, four Masses on Sunday morning, and no Saturday evening or Sunday evening Mass.

    People can get to Mass on Sunday morning if it means enough to them to do so; if anything means more, your priorities as a Roman Catholic are sadly skewed.

    But even if you buy the “vigil” deal, doesn’t it begin at SUNDOWN? It ain’t dark at 3:30; perhaps this is considered to be “liturgical sundown.” On what basis is Saturday afternoon considered to be Sunday? Why not Saturday morning? The priority changes from “keep holy the Sabbath” to “keep free the Sabbath for other, more important activities, by getting the Sabbath out of the way on another day which is not the Sabbath.” To paraphrase the scripture, I say let your light be light, your dark be dark; your Saturday be Saturday, your Sunday be Sunday.

    I’ll bet there was a grinning cheshire cat in the room when the excellencies and eminences came up with Saturday = Sunday.

  10. Todd says:

    John, in the pre-conciliar calendar, Easter Vigil was celebrated Holy Saturday morning, so the Sat=Sun schtick was of tradi origin.

    I’m not disagreeing with you on the non-sensibility of a 3:30 Mass, even above the 60th parallel, where it would be dark. I’m just saying I don’t have the facility to handle 1500-plus worshippers who would come at 6PM.

    The notion is found in the Divine Office, in which there are no Saturday Vespers, only I and II for the weekend days, respectively.

  11. John Heavrin says:

    “…so the Sat=Sun schtick was of tradi origin…”

    One weekend a year does not a “schtick” make, of course.

    The vigil was observed on Saturday morning (if in fact it was; I’ve heard that dispensations were granted to have an evening Mass, just like now) because Masses in the evening ON ANY DAY OF THE YEAR WERE NOT ALLOWED and you know it, or should. I wonder if one was considered to have fulfilled the Sunday obligation by attending a Mass on Saturday morning; seems odd to be required to attend Mass every Sunday, except for the most important Sunday of the year.

    In any case, even if this was an exception to the rule, it was just that, an exception. Even you can’t pretend that in the old days, one could routinely satisfy the obligation to attend Mass on Sunday by attending Mass on Saturday, or that with a straight face one could pretend that Saturday night is actually Sunday. Not a chance.

    By contrast, in the brave new through-the-looking-glass church of V2, one can “keep holy the Sabbath” without ever setting foot in church on the Sabbath, or now, without being out past dark on Saturday. Before long I suppose we’ll be able to satisfy our obligation by attending on Friday and calling every weekend a “triduum.”

    I’m glad that you and I agree that 3:30 isn’t “Saturday evening,” and that Saturday evening Masses are a stupid idea. Unfortunately, I doubt if it will ever change…laziness and comfort must be served, and I suppose most parishes would revolt if this revolting concession were to be reconsidered and done away with, as it should be.

    Besides, if you can convince people that Saturday = Sunday and that afternoon = evening = the next morning, what can’t you convince them of?

  12. Todd says:

    John, I think a concerted effort at leadership would need to be made to wean a parish community off Saturday evening Mass. I have to say if my pastor or bishop decided to try, I could get behind it. But I also know the fultility of swimming against “laziness and comfort” when it might include the clergy.

    That said, we do have a tradition of keeping vigil on holy days. I know that my colleagues in liturgy offices around the globe promote starting the Easter Vigil at nightfall, but a certain pragmatism (I wouldn’t assume laziness) from both the clergy and the catechetical set seem to inch it earlier.

    I seriously doubt that Sunday Masses will creep to Saturday morning or Friday night. But I would applaud the restoration of authentic vigils on important feasts–not every weekend, certainly, but for a select half-dozen. That has potential for excellence … again, if I could only get the clergy on board with it.

  13. John Heavrin says:

    “John, I think a concerted effort at leadership would need to be made to wean a parish community off Saturday evening Mass.”

    Forget “weaning;” there’s too much coddling of bad habits as it is. Just cancel it. The only people affected would be the ones attending the Saturday evening Mass, who would then have to either 1) attend one of the Sunday Masses, or 2) continue to stay home on Sunday. Up to them. It’s not rocket science. I believe you have 3 priests at your parish; each should offer two Masses on Sunday; that would be six Masses. Start at 6 am and go every hour and half; the sixth would be at 1:30. That should accomodate all who wish to attend Sunday Mass.

    That would be leadership. But as long as our pastors and their staffers are afraid of their infantilized flock, they are incapable of leadership. Or of fostering vocations, which is why the priesthood is disappearing before our eyes. Which is another topic.

  14. Gavin says:

    John, to butt in for a moment, I’m on your side with this, but you forgot another option for those who lose their Saturday Mass: 3) go to another parish. At least at my church, if Saturday Mass were eliminated, I’m convinced the membership of the parish would decrease by the number of people who had attended that Mass. In fact, prior to my arrival there was a “rebellion” when people left en masse (no pun intended) because the 11:00 Mass got moved to 11:30! When my church is 2/3 empty on Sunday Mass, I think we can deal with shutting down Saturday Mass. It’s kind of like the Ghandi “non-violence” stuff: sure, we can shut down our Saturday Masses, but if everyone else doesn’t, we just lost 1/3 of our congregation. NOT that churches should be measured in numbers, of course, but with attendance down and church closings all the rage, it’s hard to be bold about things which can drive away members. As you say, that’s why we need good leaders :D

  15. KiwiNomad06 says:

    When I was younger I worked in Israel for several months. I became very used to everything slowing down on Friday afternoon in time for the beginning of the Sabbath on Friday evening. Then after dark on Saturday some things ‘woke up’ again. I actually came to quite enjoy this kind of ‘vigil’ as the beginning of the Sabbath (so long as I didn’t miss the last bus on Friday afternoon – in which case I was in for a long, hot walk back to where I was working!)

  16. F. C. Bauerschmidt says:

    People can get to Mass on Sunday morning if it means enough to them to do so; if anything means more, your priorities as a Roman Catholic are sadly skewed.

    There are people who work on Sunday mornings, and usually not by choice. I’m not sure that the “tough love” approach of canceling all Saturday evening Masses is really going to address their genuine needs.

    And, as I think Todd pointed out, the idea that Saturday evening=Sunday is not a Vatican II innovation. It has been a principle in the Liturgy of the Hours from the start and, of course, has roots in the Jewish reckoning of time.

    That said, we all seem to be in agreement that 4:00 is hardly Saturday evening. I suspect that the early hour for Saturday Masses might have arisen from the practice of having Mass immediately after Saturday Confession, back before people stopped going to confession. That is really the only reason I can think of why such an early hour would have become enshrined in so many places.

  17. John Heavrin says:

    “I’m not sure that the “tough love” approach of canceling all Saturday evening Masses is really going to address their genuine needs.”

    Sure it will. In fact, it’s the only thing that will.

    People attend Saturday “evening” Mass so that they can sleep in on Sunday morning and still consider themselves to be “keeping holy the Sabbath.” The sooner this delusional behavior is disenabled, the better. But, for reasons noted above, I don’t expect it to change.

    Except perhaps by virtue of the disappearing priesthood, which means increasing numbers of parishes will be lucky a) to avoid being closed, and b) to have one Sunday Mass a week, presumably (perhaps I shouldn’t presume) held actually on Sunday.

  18. John Heavrin says:

    I mean, come now, F.C.B. Your typical Saturday evening Mass is packed with hundreds of people, often better attended than the Sunday Masses. Are they all “working” at say, the next morning at 8 am?

    Gimme a basilica-sized break.

  19. Todd says:

    In my experience, it is elderly people who take advantage of evening Masses in disproportionate numbers. In my parish Sunday evening is populated by a significant fraction of folks over sixty, and the Saturday Mass, naturally has been so for years.

    I find some resistance on the few occasions I’ve attempted “tough love” on my elders.

    Leadership is much more than making a controversial decision. If nobody follows, the decider is no leader; by definition one must be convincing. And in America today, nobody is listening to the priest on a big call like that without a lot of persuasion. I daresay my parish could switch Saturday night’s Mass to Sunday evening and get away with it. But I know my pastor well enough to know he’s not quite ready for the move. An important aspect of leadership is knowing when not to make a move.

  20. John Heavrin says:

    But Todd, Sunday night is actually Monday, right?

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