November 16, 1955 was the day Pope Pius XII issued his general decree restoring the Liturgy of Holy Week. This was seven years prior to Vatican II, a reform to address one of the strangest aberrations of liturgical history, the celebration of the Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday rites in the morning. For much of the Church’s history the memorials of the Lord’s Supper, Crucifixion and Resurrection were celebrated at the times they actually happened: Thursday evening, Friday afternoon, and a mid-night vigil between Saturday and Sunday. Possibly because of the Industrial Revolution the observance of these feasts crept forward into the morning hours. The most glaring irregularity of this format was the Holy Saturday liturgy, which prior to 1956 would have been conducted around 9 AM Saturday morning. In this older calendar, Lent ended at noon on Holy Saturday, and many of us of a certain age remember that at the stroke of 12 PM Saturday we could begin to eat our chocolates (and I suspect the saloons did pretty well that afternoon as well.)
I became an altar boy in 1958 and soon became the house master of ceremonies for my parish’s Holy Week events. The Latin liturgy was still the norm, of course, and the ceremonial of the Tridentine rites of Holy Week was a multi-sensual delight of colors, music, sounds (the wooden clapper, for example, replaced the hand bell at the altar), processions, the stripping of the altar on Thursday and the decorating during the Holy Saturday (now Easter Vigil) rites, the veneration at the altar of repose are but a few of the experiences a worshipper of 1960 would recall.
With the reform of the Missal in 1970, the rites of Holy Week were revised extensively. In fact, the term “Holy Week” itself was put to rest and the focus of the week was returned to the more ancient “Triduum” of Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter. I was living in a seminary/friary during the first years of transition, so I did not have a good feel for the liturgical experiences of local parishes at the time. What I saw in my own friary’s observances of the Triduum were rituals with solid historical and theological correctness—in my own language, of course—but milked of what the philosopher Aristotle termed catharsis, a healthy draining of the emotions which was key to the enduring power of the ancient Greek plays. Aristotle believed that catharsis was a key component to health. It began to nag at me that for all of its richness, the Triduum was lacking in one key component: we do not experience the rites, particularly the Vigil, as saving us, making us perpetually healthy.
The Easter Vigil is, according to its own text, the most sacred night of the year. Without the Resurrection we have no future, and indeed would return to the dust as the Ash Wednesday liturgy phrases our fate. It is the ultimate “come to Jesus” moment of the entire Catholic worship cycle. My question, I guess, is whether we are catechizing this event, and by extension the entire Triduum, in appropriate ways. Typically, when I hear mention of the Easter Vigil in any context or see it in popular Catholic print, the term is immediately linked to “catechumens.” This choice of language designates emphasis upon a particular population as opposed to the whole, something like “First Communion Mass” or “Wedding Mass.”
This is consistent with the ground experience as I have known it now for some decades. The ritual itself speaks of participants gathering in darkness, waiting for the Master’s return (Luke 12:35ff). When I walk into my church, I do feel like I am attending a wedding. People rushing back and forth, photos taken in the sanctuary, a lively buzz in the church itself among family and friends of the catechumens. And most curiously, it is the people I don’t see that surprises me: the “regulars,” my friends. The regulars, if you will, attend Mass on Easter Sunday morning. Attendance at my Vigil in general is good but hardly stellar, a strange state of affairs for the holiest night of the Church year.
No one, to my knowledge, is or has recently studied the Easter Vigil from a demographic/sociological vantage point. Nor, for that matter, are we looking at the effectiveness of the catechumenate process as currently practiced, with the great deal of time, money, and personal investment that goes into the year long process and which dominates the Easter Vigil experience.. Do converts through the catechetical process remain members of the Church longer than, say, those baptized at infancy?
This is said not to harp upon the catechumenate process, though its adaptation in different parishes deserves objective scrutiny. The bigger issue is the presently baptized, those who for whatever reason have come to believe that the Easter Vigil offers little for their affective faith life, the absence of healing catharsis. In subtle ways the parish rite can be seen as, if not exclusionary, tangential at best to my soul. If anything, the time and energy if the year-long catechumenate might best be shared with the baptized members—whose needs for such might be equally strong!
My parish baptizes about a dozen persons per year at the Vigil. Last Saturday night my parish announced the deaths of about ten church members, fairly typical in a given week. Those liturgists who look exclusively to the catechumenate as the life of the Church’s future may wish to do better math and start rewriting the theology to include the rank and file.