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!


  1. Anonymous1:30 PM

    " 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."

    The combox of the NLM post on the EF Palm Sunday in Saint Eugene has this revealing comment by Henri Adam de Villiers:

    "As Benouville said, I think that nowhere in France the 1955 Reforms are strictly applied !!! :-)

    At Saint-Eugène this Palm Sunday, here are some elements that have been done which refer to the traditional rite and not to the 1955 one :
    1. The palms have been blessed on the major altar of the Church.
    2. The 2 Pueri Hebræorum have been repeated several times (without any psalm nor Gloria Patri) during the distribution of palms.
    3. The antiphons sung for the procession were those of the books before 1955.
    4. The Gloria laus was sung by cantors inside the church, the procession was responding outside.
    5. The opening of the doors was made by the cross, in fact according the old Parisian use (still observed in Notre-Dame de Paris by our Archbishop in the modern rite). In this Parisian use, it is the celebrant and not the sub-deacon who hit by three time the door with the cross, singing special verses of psalms with responses by the choir inside the church.
    6. The last part of the passion (suppressed in 1955) was sung, with its special tune.

    Note also that the new final prayer of the procession was sung facing East and not facing people.
    Last year, the processional cross was veiled in violet but wasn't this year (?!?).

    Yes, the vestments were violet, but, please note that the blue colour was in use in the old Parisian rite as a substitute of violet. In Medieval French uses, blue has nothing to do with the Blessed Virgin Mary, but is a color of penance."

  2. rodrigo2:34 PM

    Dear RORATE,

    It would be wonderful if you could issue an "action alert" of sorts for this cause:

    Theatre uses image of Blessed Virgin Mary for "Whore" play

  3. Anonymous4:53 PM

    Great news about the pre-1955 Holy Week, Bugnini free broadcast!

    Thanks for posting!

  4. Anonymous4:55 PM

    rodrigo said...
    Dear RORATE,

    It would be wonderful if you could issue an "action alert" of sorts for this cause:

    Theatre uses image of Blessed Virgin Mary for "Whore" play

    A little off topic don't you think?

  5. quote:

    "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 ll."

    If we could leave aside, for a moment, the issue of Holy Saturday ordinations, and instead focus on the changes which were made in 1955, which sought to restore the sacred liturgy of Holy Week. An extract the 1962 missel published by Baronius Press (Summorum Pontificum edition) describes the changes in Holy Week which is mainly based on the General Decree of November, 1955, which restored the liturgy of Holy Week:

    ".....In the days of faith these three days, the Sacred Triduum, were days of obligation, and the faithful, freed from servile work, were able to take their part in the morning celebrations in great numbers. By the seventeenth century social and religious conditions had altered so greatly that in 1642 the Sacred Triduum was removed from the days of obligation and the three days became officially what they had been long in practice: ordinary workdays. The beautiful solemn liturgy of Holy Week had by this time become unknown to and unappreciated by all save the clergy and a handful of the faithful. A partial remedy was sought by introducing extra-liturgical devotions each evening (Holy Hour, Three Hours, Mater Dolorosa sermon, stations of the Cross): but these lack much of the great dignity and sacramental power and efficacy of liturgical celebrations.

    To bring an end to this serious loss, liturgists, parish clergy, and bishops in every part of the world have long begged the Holy See to restore the liturgical actions of the Sacred Triduum to their proper hours in the evenings. This was a serious undertaking, calling for much thought and consultation. In 1951, the Easter Vigil liturgy was restored to late evening by way of experiment, and in 1953 the Apostolic constitution "Christus Dominus" permitted Mass to be said and Communion to be received in the evening on certain days in the year. From every country the Holy See received reports of greatly increased attendance and fervour. A commission was appointed to investigate further and propose definite action, and the Sacred Congregation of Rites concurred with the action proposed. The restored Ordo for Holy Week was published in November 1955.

    ... For the most part, these changes are not innovations. They are mainly a return to an older form, more in line with what was known in the days of St. Wilfrid and St. Bede.

    The desire of the Holy See in all this is that the Holy Week liturgy should be celebrated everywhere with the greatest solemnity possible, and that the people should in some way take an active share.

    Extract from the General Decree (1955) restoring the liturgy of Holy Week:

    "Let the faithful be invited to take part in the Procession of Palms in greater numbers, thus rendering Christ the King public witness of their love and gratitude." /unquote.

    What's interesting is that not only, after 1955, where the faithful then encouraged to take part in the Processions of Palms, but the missel also says that the Decree sought to restore Stations of the Cross, Holy Hour, Three Hours, etc. So, these were not widely in practice prior to 1955, evidently. Interesting, no?

  6. Correction: it wasn't actually the General Decree of 1955, as I mistakenly wrote above, which sought to specifically restore the Stations of the Cross, or Holy Hour, or the Three Hours, as these devotions were instituted a few years previous to the Decree, as a way to try to encourage more active participation by the faithful.

  7. As regards Enoch's comments:

    The supposed "pastoral difficulties" adduced as a justification for the new Holy Week was an argument I never found convincing.

    These could have been resolved merely by adjusting the times for the ceremonies.

    Instead, the rites themselves had to be tinkered with as part of what Bugnini himself in 1955 told us was an ongoing program to turn the liturgy into "a new city."

    Implementing the whole old Holy Week program here at St. Gertrude's has caused no "pastoral problems" whatsoever. Despite our small numbers compared to, say, the diocesan parish down the road that looks like a steakhouse, and despite the distance many of our parishioners must travel to get here, the percentage of our people who assist at Holy Week services is disproportionately high.

    I think this is so because over the years we have made a point of involving the children in the ceremonies and educating the adults.

    So, they don't need rites "facing the people," amplified vernacular readings, curtailed ceremonies and barked out responses to lure them to church. They've got "pastoral liturgy" already.

  8. Lautensack9:05 PM

    It was clearly problematic that in some countries, as in Germany, hardly any of the faithful took part in the liturgy of the Triduum.

    However, there would have been probably ways of remedying the situation without introducing all the quite illogical and arbitrary reforms of Pius XII which were partially reversed by the introduction of the Novus Ordo (e.g. the cut of readings in the Easter Vigil down to four).

    It is really high time that those who know and care about the liturgy present the case to the competent authorities in order to ask for the possibility of using the older forms - not for any ideological reasons or hostility to Abp Bugnini, but merely because they are simply better and more logical liturgies.

  9. Anonymous9:05 PM

    So we are actually giving airtime to sedevacanist-protestants and their copy-cat liturgies now? Why not give methodists the floor with their supposesly "ancient" epikleses? I am sure the great flower of Benedictine Monasticism would be saddened that her name would adorn a building full of rebellion, and her devotees offended by the simulation of sacraments done in her name by schismactics, if not heretics.


  10. Anonymous9:54 PM

    Very, very interesting and enlightening info about Holy Week. Thank you Father Cekada.

  11. DefensorFidei10:49 PM


    Your anger would have some justification if Fr. Cekada's article were promoting sedevacantism, but it doesn't. It has not one word of sedevacantism in it. It is about the liturgy, plain and simple.

  12. Fr. Cekada wrote:

    "These could have been resolved by merely adjusting the times for the ceremonies."

    The 1955 General Decree did spell out adjustments in time for the ceremonies. I can post the list of times changes that were recommended, if you like. If you have some official documentation which shows that Bugnini had something to do with the promotion of the 1955 decree, I'd like to be made aware of it.

    I can believe the that number of persons attending your Holy Week services is disproportionally high, as compared to the diocesan church down the road; and I'm sure that your Holy Week services are very nice, and reverent. As St. Gertrude is not affiliated with the Catholic Church, you have complete freedom to do whatever you like. The diocesan church down the road, of course, does not have that option, as it must follow the dictates of the Catholic Church - and use the prescribed missel.

    Yeah, there are a lot of Catholic churches that, as you say, look like steakhouses...or worse. The TLM that I attend (FSSP) is housed in a very ugly 1962 church. But on the inside it is quite nice. The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is still valid, even if celebrated in a some-what-less-than-beautiful church.

    I wish you a joyous and fruitful Holy Week.

  13. Wolverine11:57 PM

    So we are actually giving airtime to sedevacanist-protestants and their copy-cat liturgies now? Why not give methodists the floor with their supposesly "ancient" epikleses? I am sure the great flower of Benedictine Monasticism would be saddened that her name would adorn a building full of rebellion, and her devotees offended by the simulation of sacraments done in her name by schismactics, if not heretics.


    Dear Okie:

    No one is promoting sedevacantism. Perhaps if you returned to Miskogee you might feel better!

  14. André8:19 AM


    Read the memoires of Bugnini. Have you read the 900 page book? He writes that he started the liturgical reform in 1951 and would finish in 1969 with the New Mass.

    It starts with little things: no prayers at the foot of the altar, putting in a table versus populum(which the priest kisses!) removing prayers and blessings, removing age old ceremonies, in short preparing the people by constant change during the years 55-69.

    Your exuse that putting Mass in the evening for these days will attract more people holds little weight. First of all the Paschal Vigil is a Saturday, a day which most people do not work. Also, the Vigil is so late that many families do not go.

    Good Friday the Liturgy is scheduled to be at 3 p.m. a time when most people are still at work!

    The only day you could argue would be Holy Thursday. Given my experience in many parishes, the attendance during the evening Mass is not that considerable. A Mass in the morning would not have that many less attendees.

  15. Where in the gospel or fathers does it instruct the Church to make everything easy?

    Naturally, Catholics should take the day off on Holy Thursday and Good Friday, and their priests should encourage them to do so.

    This week, I attended a pre-1955 Palm Sunday service for the first time. It was beautiful and it was hard work to remain attentive for the two-hour service. I was tired.

    Perhaps if Jesus would have moved the agony in the garden to a more convenient time, it would have been easier for the apostles to stay awake.

  16. Anonymous12:15 PM

    Good Friday the Liturgy is scheduled to be at 3 p.m. a time when most people are still at work!

    Good Friday is usually a holiday, and most people don't work.

  17. Andre7:26 AM


    In most Catholic countriest, Good Friday was a holyday. Sadly, in these days we live in it is no longer.

    Then why change the times to make it easier for the faithful to attend?

  18. Anonymous12:00 PM

    Don't get me wrong. I am no pro any change at all :-)
    But in all South America and in all North America (USA and Canada) it is mostly a holiday. Maybe in Europe is different? I have no idea about that.

  19. Gregory DiPippo7:29 AM

    Vis-a-vis the adjustment of the times of the Holy Week services, to their "correct" hours:

    1. The Ordo Romanus Primus, which is our oldest account of Holy Week in Rome, (mid. 7th century), explicitly states that the Mass of the Lord's Supper and the Mass of the Presanctified were said after Terce, which is to say, in the morning.

    2. Likewise, the traditional hour for Holy Saturday is after None; the ritual of the Paschal fire is clearly a rite for the period before sunset, not several hours after, and it makes no more sense to sing Lauds at 1 o'clock in the morning than it does to say Vespers at 11.

    3. Several characteristic features of the 1955 Holy Week were abandoned when the post-Conciliar Missal was published.


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