Monks Restore Ancient Liturgy With the Extended Pentecost Vigil

Call it a coincidence or a happy accident — but it has all the markings of the work of the Holy Spirit.

The monks at St. Benedict’s Abbey on the campus of Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas, will celebrate the Extended Pentecost Vigil Mass on May 27 because a junior monk got a new missal 11 years ago.

The Abbey celebration begins at 5:00 pm Saturday in the Abbey church. The liturgy will follow option A in the Roman Missal, beginning with the chanting of Vespers, transitioning to the extended Liturgy of the Word, and then following the normal order of Mass for the Liturgy of the Eucharist. A community meal follows. (See details here.)

“I discovered the extended form of the Pentecost Vigil Mass when I had asked the abbot permission to use a gift card to a Catholic bookstore to purchase a Daily Roman Missal after the new translation in 2011,” he said. “Little did I know that praying with the missal for my own prayer would become one of the great graces of my adult faith life!”

The vigil was first included in the revised Third Edition of the Roman Missal in 2000 — but it wasn’t translated into English from Latin until 2011, just in time for Brother Leven’s purchase.

After first using the missal for the responses, he began to focus on the antiphons, Collect and other prayers. “The daily missal that I bought was educating me about the Mass, and the Mass, in turn, was educating me about prayer. It was very beautiful — a deep gift.”

That’s when he discovered the extended Pentecost Vigil. “I immediately saw that it was echoing the Easter Vigil which I had grown to love. With a little bit of further research I realized this form of the Mass as an option for communities and wanted to experience it.”

So he consulted with his abbot, who consulted with his counsel of elders, and with a few interruptions — the COVID-19 pandemic, for one — the community decided to give the Vigil a try for Pentecost 2022.

The Readings

The U.S. bishops have made it easier to celebrate the liturgy by publishing a supplement to the Lectionary in 2017, putting all the readings in one place. Those readings are a tour de force.

“At the Pentecost vigil, we are invited to trace the involvement of the Holy Spirit in the scriptural history,” said Brother Leven.

In addition to the Epistle and Gospel, the Pentecost Vigil includes four Old Testament readings — three fewer than the Easter Vigil. Together, the readings readings trace the history of Holy Spirit’s action from the Tower of Babel — where the people tried to “make a name for themselves” and God had to confuse their languages, to the day foreseen by the prophet Joel when the Spirit will be poured out “all flesh” at “the coming of the day of the Lord, the great and terrible day.”

In between come dramatic flashpoints in the history of the Holy Spirit on earth. In Exodus, thunder and lightning fill a heavy cloud over Mount Sinai as Moses is summoned by a mighty trumpet blast. In Ezekiel, the prophet is shown a vast field of dried bones that the Spirit of the Lord re-animates at the sound of his voice.

The familiar Pentecost reading from Acts is not included; nor is the Gospel of Jesus breathing the Holy Spirit on the apostles.

Instead, the Epistle and Gospel focus on our longing for the Holy Spirit. St. Paul describes it as “groaning.” In the brief Gospel, from John, Jesus repeats the same longing, crying out, “Let anyone who thirsts come to me and drink!”

“The vast spread of readings in this liturgy, Psalms, Old Testament, Epistle, and Gospel, was powerful,” said Josh Heidenry, who served the Mass. “This was a fitting way to end the Easter Season — a complementary bookend to the epic celebration of the Resurrection 50 days ago with Easter.”

Heidenry is a junior at Benedictine College, which the Abbey serves. Christopher Shingledecker, an astronomer at the college also found the readings powerful.

He said the extended vigil highlighted the cosmic dimension of the Mass for him. “In it, we get a glimpse of time outside of time in which not only heaven and Earth, but past, present, and future are united.”

Shingledecker, an inaugural researcher on NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, is used to gazing far from earth. He said the Mass showed him even more, revealing, “God’s dealings with humans throughout history … all culminating in the events in the upper room and thereafter. In an age when we’re bombarded with 15-second videos and 140-character messages, this timeless encounter with God in the extended liturgy becomes more important, and it’s certainly something I personally long for.”

The Mass refreshed Jen O’Malley, a home-schooling mother of seven, as well.

“I am regularly humbled by the Church’s ability to give me exactly what I need when I’m feeling a little depleted,” she said. Ezekiel re-animating the dry bones hit the spot for a mom “trying to get nine sets of bones and sinew out the door on time. And the shoes are missing — again.”

Even the children appreciated it, she said: “Amazingly, they were enchanted and did really well with the longer Llturgy.”

Restoring Pentecost’s Importance

Being enchanted — or, better, divinized — is in fact the point.

Abbot James said adding the liturgy “allowed us to look at the Church’s vision of the Vigil Mass for the ‘high’ solemnities — Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost.  The U.S. bishops, as is my understanding, have been promoting the extended Vigil Mass of Pentecost as the third major vigil of the liturgical year.”

The monks join the congregation at a “common table” after two Masses each year: The Christmas Vigil is followed by cookies, eggnog and “Silent Night,” in the refectory and the Easter Vigil is followed by cake and punch. The Pentecost Vigil was followed by a pot-luck dinner, punch and beer on the lawn.

Abbot James said “we wanted to offer our monastic community and the local Church this immersion once again into that Mystery of God and his love for us through his Word and Eucharist … which spills over onto the table of our common lives.”

Author and Benedictine College theologian Mark Zia said, “Speaking as a theologian but not a liturgist, the Church lost something when it reduced the number of liturgical octaves according to the Novus Ordo to two, namely, Christmas and Easter.”

He said the three ancient octaves of Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost “can be seen as the fulfillment and perfection of the three great Jewish pilgrimage feasts of Passover, Weeks, and Tabernacles.” These were days-long affairs in Judaism. Adding the fulfillment of Christ only sharpens their importance. “These feasts are so important that one day is insufficient to contain the joy and meaning of them, hence they are prolonged to a full octave of celebration,” he said.

He cited Father Jean Corbon, the principal author of the prayer section of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, who said “the liturgy is celebrated at certain moments but lived at every moment.”

“I would suggest that the Church never gains anything through liturgical minimalism, and that any liturgical celebration seeking to recapture, nurture, and prolong our awareness and lived experience of the mysteries of salvation will help us better understand that liturgy is life.”

“Perhaps we can hope for the restoration of the Pentecost octave in the future,” he said. “With all of the ills plaguing both the Church and society today, we need more – not less – of an awareness of God and his transformative power offered to us through the celebration of the sacred liturgy.”

A version of this appeared in the National Catholic Register.

Tom Hoopes

Tom Hoopes

Tom Hoopes, author of The Rosary of Saint John Paul II and The Fatima Family Handbook, is writer in residence at Benedictine College in Kansas and hosts The Extraordinary Story podcast about the life of Christ. A former reporter in the Washington, D.C., area, he served as press secretary of the U.S. House Ways & Means Committee Chairman and spent 10 years as executive editor of the National Catholic Register newspaper and Faith & Family magazine. His work frequently appears in Catholic publications such as Aleteia.org and the Register. He and his wife, April, have nine children and live in Atchison, Kansas.