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Keeping the Vigils

Firmly grounded in Judaism, the Church adopted vigil celebrations, as she did in so many aspects of her liturgical life.

Saints Peter and Paul (c. 1620, Anonymous/Roman School) [Wikipedia]

This evening, we celebrate the Vigil of the Solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul.

The observance of a “vigil” has its roots in both Roman and Jewish practice. St. Jerome informs us of the Roman tradition in one of his epistles: “Nox in quattuor vigilias dividitur quae singulae trium horarum spatio supputantur” (“The night is divided into four watches of which a single one is reckoned to be a period of three hours”) [Epistles 140.8]. Living in New York City, you don’t need to be instructed on the Jewish reality: Shabbat begins on Friday evening at sunset; indeed, every Jewish feast begins on the preceding night.

Of course, the Gospels tell us that Our Lord Himself spend whole nights in prayer, especially before embarking on important decisions. He also asked His inner sanctum of Peter, James and John to “watch and pray” with Him during His agony in the Garden. Sadly, they were not up to the task – as our sorrowful Lord observed: “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Mt 26:41).

Firmly grounded in Judaism, the Church adopted vigil celebrations, as she did in so many aspects of her liturgical life: vestments, incense, candles, sacred vessels. Around 112 A.D., the Roman historian, Pliny the Younger, gives evidence of the Church’s “night watches,” when he writes to the Emperor Trajan that “on a stated day they [Christians] are accustomed to meet before daybreak and to recite a hymn among themselves to Christ, as though he were a god.”

We find numerous witnesses to the keeping of vigils from the early Christian writers. For example, Tertullian (c. 155 – c. 240) speaks of the “nocturnae convocationes” (“the nocturnal gatherings”) of believers, as well as their “sollemnibus Paschae abnoctantes” (“spending the whole night long at the paschal solemnities”). The peripatetic Egeria describes the solemn celebration of vigils in the churches of Jerusalem in the early 380s.

During the third and fourth centuries, it was customary to hold a vigil in three parts, as night-watches in preparation for Holy Mass in the morning of the feast proper; that anticipatory service consisted of readings from Sacred Scripture, the singing of psalms, and homilies, all of which developed into the monastic celebrations, called “vigils” in the Rule of Saint Benedict of that canonical hour later given the name of Matins and now generally called the Office of Readings.

With the passage of time, the vigil took on a penitential or quasi-penitential aspect. The notion was that true preparation for a great feast should entail at least some degree of self-denial. The psychology underlying the intuition is quite sound. When all we have is one big party, the grand party isn’t much at all. Just think of what has become of Advent, which is a kind of four-week vigil in anticipation of Christmas: A month of parties has destroyed any genuine sense of celebration for what should be the “main event.”

Pope Leo XIII inherited sixteen “vigils,” to which he added a seventeenth – the vigil of the Immaculate Conception. In 1955, Pope Pius XII took the scalpel to the list, reducing it to seven, the same we still have: Ascension, Pentecost, Nativity of John the Baptist, Saints Peter and Paul, Assumption of the Blessed Virgin, Nativity of Our Lord, and Epiphany. Needless to say, the “mother of all vigils” is that of Easter.

Our English word “wake” is likewise connected to a vigil; in not a few places, the wake or “viewing” is also called a “vigil” service. I refrain from commenting on traditional Irish wakes!

So much for the history lesson. What does all this have to do with us today?

First, we need to re-capture the connection between a vigil and a feast, especially the concept that real feasting needs some real fasting, the better to appreciate the event, both spiritually and psychologically. Incessant partying leads to a dead end – at every level of human existence, and likewise in a life of faith. St. John Henry Cardinal Newman, while still an Anglican, taught his congregation:

In the world feasting comes first and fasting afterwards; men first glut themselves, and then loathe their excesses; they take their fill of good, and then suffer; they are rich that they may be poor; they laugh that they may weep; they rise that they may fall. But in the Church of God it is reversed; the poor shall be rich, the lowly shall be exalted, those that sow in tears shall reap in joy, those that mourn shall be comforted, those that suffer with Christ shall reign with Him; , , , [let us] serve Him with steadfast eyes yet active hands; that we may be truly His in our hearts, as we were made His by Baptism,—as we are made His continually, by the recurring celebration of His purifying Fasts and holy Feasts.1

Second, the historical and theological link between a vigil and a feast, including the Jewish commencement on a feast the evening before, led to the post-Vatican II establishment of so-called “vigil” or “anticipated” Masses of obligation. Indeed, throughout our history, Sunday has always begun with the praying of First Vespers on Saturday night. Hence, there can be no legitimate liturgical objection to the concept of such Masses, however, there is a bit more here than meets the eye.

Permit me to offer some personal experience of Saturday Masses of anticipation.

I was a weekend assistant at a Jersey Shore parish, which had (and still has) eleven Masses; three of those Masses were on Saturday evening. Without those three Masses, we never could have accommodated the vast numbers of vacationers.

I was in residence at a city parish, which was a block away from a huge hospital. Without both the Saturday and Sunday evening Masses, many of the health care professionals would never have been able to assist at Holy Mass.

I was a weekend assistant at an almost-exclusively senior-citizen parish. We had three vigil Masses, with close to a thousand people at each – and three morning Masses on Sunday, with barely a thousand among them. I learned that more than 75% of the seniors frequenting the Saturday evening Masses hadn’t been to a Sunday morning Mass in over a decade.

I submit that the first two instances were completely “in sync” with the original intention of vigil Masses, while the third was a major deviation and, yes, an abuse of a generous gift of a truly maternal instinct of Mother Church.

The ancient Roman adage teaches us: “In medio stat virtus” (“virtue stands in the middle”); in other words, what is called for in all this is a sense of moderation. Once again, Cardinal Newman comes to the rescue with this very sage counsel:

Thus let us proceed in the use of all our privileges, and all will be benefits. Let us not keep festivals without keeping vigils; let us not keep Eastertide without observing Lent; let us not approach the Sunday feast without keeping the Friday abstinence, , , , And lastly, let us beware, on the other hand, of dishonouring and rudely rejecting God’s gifts, out of gloominess or sternness; let us beware of fearing without feasting. 2

So, perhaps forego the hamburger tonight, the better to enjoy the filet mignon tomorrow!

(Editor’s note: This homily preached on the Vigil of the Solemnity of Sts. Peter and Paul [June 28, 2022] at the Church of the Holy Innocents in New York City.)


1PPS 4, 23. “Keeping Fast and Festival” (15 April 1838).

2SSD 9. “Indulgence in Religious Privileges” (1 May 1842).

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About Peter M.J. Stravinskas 266 Articles
Reverend Peter M.J. Stravinskas founded The Catholic Answer in 1987 and The Catholic Response in 2004, as well as the Priestly Society of Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman, a clerical association of the faithful, committed to Catholic education, liturgical renewal and the new evangelization. Father Stravinskas is also the President of the Catholic Education Foundation, an organization, which serves as a resource for heightening the Catholic identity of Catholic schools.


  1. We must be vigilant in regards to our eternal souls. If we have a close partnership with the Holy Spirt and knowledge, together with appreciation for God’s word, we will be more effective in being an example of His love and influencing others in this journey upon the earth.

    When we love our fellow sojourner, we will pray for them and sometimes speak a word in season. A gentle rebuke is often the way. The Holy Spirit abides with us, urging us to stop or to go according to the situation.

    Isaiah 62:6 On your walls, O Jerusalem, I have set watchmen; all the day and all the night they shall never be silent. You who put the Lord in remembrance, take no rest,

    Amos 3:7 “For the Lord God does nothing without revealing his secret to his servants the prophets.

    Luke 21:36 But stay awake at all times, praying that you may have strength to escape all these things that are going to take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.”

    Romans 16:17 I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them.

    Blessed be the name of the Lord.

  2. I’ve done some ministry work in nursing homes where I learned that for many elderly people do not sleep well at night, so they may need to sleep late into the morning or nap during the day. Some elderly folk may have excusable reasons for attending Saturday vigil instead of Sunday morning Mass.

    Personally, I fell into the habit of skipping Sunday morning Mass, preferring to attend Saturday vigil or late Sunday evening ‘Teen’ Mass. I truly detested that all these acts were motivated by laziness, the desire to sleep late and then go for Sunday restaurant brunch, and the desire to dressing more casually for Mass. All these were lazy, stupid habits.

    Only after joining the TLM parish did I overcome my fault. The TLM parish does not typically celebrate public Saturday vigil Mass except at Easter and during the Advent/Immaculate Conception Rorate Caeli pre-dawn vigil…when the light does arrive/arise at dawn, the Mass contains that created additionally awesome delight. Truly beautiful. That it happens but rarely adds to its appreciation.

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