Rorate Caeli

Lost Treasures of Holy Week - 1: Holy Saturday Ordinations

In recent years, interest in the Holy Week rites according to the pre-1955 liturgical books has become more evident in the Internet, with the publication of books and articles that favorably compare these to the Holy Week rites as reformed between 1955 and 1960. Examples include some of the writings of Laszlo Dobszay, Gregory Di Pippo, Fr. Stefano Carusi IBP, and an ongoing series by Henri Adam de Villiers. This interest has all too often been identified (and dismissed out of hand) with sedevacantism and "independent chapels", although it is no secret that some "indult" churches and chapels have quietly observed Holy Week according to the pre-1955 books, while elements of the "unreformed" Holy Week have crept into not a few "1962 Missal" Holy Week celebrations.

One of the reforms that have rarely been discussed is the termination in 1957 [see #22 in the decree "Ordinationes et Declarationes circa Ordinem Hebdomadae Sanctae Instauratum" issued by the Sacred Congregation of Rites on February 1, 1957 -- AAS 49 (1957) pp. 91-96] of the ancient custom of conferring tonsure and subdiaconal, diaconal and sacerdotal ordinations during the Easter Vigil on Holy Saturday morning. Among those who were ordained as priests on a Holy Saturday include St. John Baptist de la Salle, Bl. Pius IX, the Servant of God Augustine ("Augustus") Tolton, and the late Corrado Cardinal Bafile.

In conjunction with a subdiaconal ordination that will take place in this year's Easter Vigil at the well-known sedevacantist church Saint Gertrude the Great, Fr. Anthony Cekada has penned the following article on this ancient custom that brightened many a Holy Saturday in the past.

(The schedule of SGG can be seen here, and live broadcasts can be watched here)

This year, the Holy Saturday schedule notes that an ordination to the subdiaconate will be conferred during the Easter Vigil. A correspondent wrote to ask: (1) Was it a common practice to confer ordinations a vigil such as Holy Saturday? (2) Was episcopal consecration also conferred during a vigil? (3) Specifically, how do the ordination ceremonies for subdiaconate fit into the Easter Vigil proper?

1. A Common Practice? In the biography of a well-known priest, prelate or saint who studied in Rome, one frequently comes across the fact that his ordination took place on an Ember Day, the Saturday before Passion Sunday (Sitientes), or Holy Saturday. This strikes most Catholics as odd, because priestly ordination is now viewed as a festive occasion, hardly one that should take place on a day of penitence.

Nevertheless, these are in fact the traditional ordination days prescribed by 1917 Code (c. 1006.2). Why?

The roots of the law stretch back to Christian antiquity, and Cardinal Schuster (Sacramentary 4:14ff) connects the solemn fast of the faithful during the week preceding ordinations with apostolic tradition.

At first, during the third century, ordinations took place on the Ember Saturday in December. Here the custom may be linked to the vigil that the faithful once kept from Saturday night to Sunday morning, as well as to the number of readings prescribed for Ember Saturday — seven, which naturally enough one would associate with the seven orders the bishop conferred.

In Rome, moreover, the stational church assigned for the ordination day was St. Peter’s. Every act conferring sacred authority was regarded as an extension of the authority Christ conferred on St. Peter. So, not only did the rite have to take place at his tomb, but also those ordained had to receive the insignia of their sacred office there as well.

Eventually, five other penitential Saturdays were also established as ordination days: the Ember Saturdays in Lent, Pentecost and September, together with the Saturday before Passion Sunday (Sitientes) and Holy Saturday. Nabuco (Pontificalis Romani Expositio 1:217) observes that a time of prayer and fasting is particularly appropriate for ordaining clergy.

These were then prescribed by a law of Pope Gelasius (+496), confirmed in the Decree of Gratian, and solemnly imposed by the Council of Trent.

Though the 1917 Code allowed ordination to Major Orders on a Sunday or Holy Day for “a grave reason” (1006.3) and though U.S. bishops had an indult to confer priestly ordinations on Saturdays generally, the tradition of the Church dictated that, where possible, one confer major orders on one of the six Saturdays noted.

I have no hard statistics on how closely the law was followed before Vatican II. But since the practice was both well-established in law and observed in Rome, I suspect that exceptions would not have been common.

Indeed, Nabuco says that an indult like the one the U.S. bishops received was only “rarely conceded in our days.” (2:218)

2. Episcopal Consecration during the Vigil? None of the commentaries on the Roman Pontifical that I possess envision this. Nabuco (2:238) specifically warns against consecrating a bishop on Palm Sunday or Candlemas, due to the other ceremonies prescribed for the day.

Having formulated some fairly exhaustive rubrical guides for both the Rite of Episcopal Consecration and the pre-1955 Pontifical Easter Vigil, I can assure readers that combining both rites would be ritually impossible, given the twelve prophecies, consecration of the font, examination of the elect, Litany, consecration rite, solemn Alleluia, concelebration, enthronement, Vespers, and the rest that one would have to intermix.

(The process of writing these guides, by the way, gave me new respect for Archbishop of Milwaukee’s MC, whom we as young minor seminarians used to poke fun at. Never criticize a man unless you’ve walked a mile in his shoes — especially the buckled kind…)

But the law, in any case, prescribed that the rite be performed on a Sunday or the Feast of an Apostle. Nabuco observes that a Sunday in Advent or Lent would be less appropriate, since episcopal consecration is of its nature a festive rite. (2:238)

All the more so would it seem inappropriate to consecrate a bishop on a day of even partial fast, such as Holy Saturday.

3. How Does an Ordination Ceremony fit into the Vigil? In the case of subdiaconal ordination, this is relatively simple — if one can conceive of the word “simple” be used in connection with any pontifical ceremony, still less, the pre-1955 Easter Vigil.

The changes in the usual pontifical rites for the vigil are roughly as follows:

1.When the bishop comes back from blessing the baptismal font and arrives at the foot of the altar, the Litany of the Saints is interrupted, and the bishop sits at a faldstool in the middle of the sanctuary.

2.The assistant priest reads the prescribed call of ordinands and an admonition.

3.Afterwards, the Litany is resumed. The bishop’s violet cope is removed and he kneels at his faldstool. The ordinand prostrates on the floor.

4.Meanwhile, the altar is decorated, the deacon and subdeacon go to the sacristy to change to white vestments, and when they return, they vest the bishop in white vestments.

5.Near the end of the Litany, the bishop rises to sing the three petitions (bless, sanctify, consecrate) over the ordinand.

6.The Vigil Mass proceeds as usual until after the Collect, where it is interrupted for the ordination rite (the call of the candidate, admonition and step, exhortation, delivery of chalice and paten, blessing, investiture with amice, maniple and tunic, and finally, delivery of epistolarium).

7.Mass continues, with the new subdeacon singing the Epistle.

8.The subdeacon presents a candle to the bishop at the Offertory.

9.Before the Last Gospel, the bishop imposes the customary penance.

The subdiaconal ordination this year will be a proverbial piece of cake compared to 2006, when we ordained a priest, Fr. Thomas LeGal, during our Vigil here. All told, the ceremony took six (6) hours, due to the concelebration and the additional rites that take place after communion.

As the rite was unfolding, it occurred to me that the world had not seen this particular ceremony take place — priestly ordination conferred during the pre-1955 Holy Saturday Vigil — for more than fifty years!

Having actually participated in such lengthy and splendid rites, one looks back with longing and admiration to the days when such events were just normal fare in the Church before the “springtime” of Vatican II.

A blessed Holy Week to you all!