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Bugnini’s ’51 Easter Vigil: “First Step” to the Novus Ordo

LAYMEN who frequent Masses offered under the auspices of Benedict XVI’s Motu Proprio Summorum Pontificum or organizations such as the Society of St. Pius X are under the impression that the rites they see performed there represent the apex of pre-Vatican II Catholic liturgical tradition vis-à-vis the New Mass of Paul VI. In the case of the Holy Week, however, this impression is false, because these groups use the 1962 Missal. This Missal incorporates a great number of liturgical changes that were introduced in the 1950s and that prepared the way for the Novus Ordo.

This connection between the 1950s changes in Holy Week and the Novus Ordo (the work of the same man, Annibale Bugnini) is particularly evident in the rites for the Easter Vigil, which underwent substantial experimental modifications in 1951. These were made permanent in the 1955 Renewed Order for Holy Week, which is incorporated into the 1962 Missal.

Holy Saturday, like Good Friday, was originally a day on which no Mass was offered. Instead, during the night from Holy Saturday to Easter Sunday, the Church kept a lengthy vigil. The faithful watched the whole night in the church, assisted at the solemn administration of baptism to the adult catechumens, and awaited the celebration of the first Mass of Easter, which concluded the vigil early Easter morning.

As Christianity triumphed throughout the world, there were fewer adult converts to be baptized, so interest in assisting at the great Vigil waned. This, coupled with various relaxations in the law of fasting, led in the eleventh century to gradually anticipating the Vigil ceremony on Saturday itself, until finally it started to be observed on Holy Saturday morning.

In the 1930s and 1940s, various “progressive” bishops in Europe repeatedly asked the Holy See for permission to celebrate the Easter Vigil at night on Holy Saturday. “Pastoral reasons” were adduced for the change in time (the Saturday morning services were not well attended) as well as “authenticity” (the prayers speak of “this night”) — again, justifications repeatedly offered for the Vatican II reforms.

In February 1951, Holy See issued a decree permitting, experimentally and for period of one year, the celebration of the Easter Vigil at night Holy Saturday. Once again, merely allowing a change of time would not have been particularly objectionable.

But Bugnini and company, who since 1948 controlled the Vatican commission for liturgical reform, seized the occasion to introduce changes into the rites themselves. So secret was the work of his commission on this project, Bugnini said, “that the publication of the Renewed Order for Holy Saturday at the beginning of March 1951 caught even the officials of the Congregation of Rites by surprise.” (Annibale Bugnini, La Riforma Liturgica: 1948–1975 [Rome: CLV 1983], 25)

The 1951 Easter Vigil was the first crack the modernists had at destroying the liturgy, and they made the most of it.

The surprise of Bugnini’s (theoretical) superiors seems be reflected in the content of decree by which the Congregation promulgated the Renewed Order; it is mainly devoted to discussing the change of time, and mentions, almost as an afterthought, “the rubrics that follow.” (See SC Rites Decree Dominicae Resurrectionis Vigiliam, 9 February 1951, AAS 43 [1951], 128–9.)

But these changes in the rites for the Vigil were in fact quite extensive. They were permanently incorporated into the Renewed Order for Holy Week promulgated in 1955 and then into the 1962 Missal of John XXIII. Here is a list of the principal changes.

(1) The blessing prayers for the Easter fire are reduced from three to one.

(2) A new ceremony for inscribing and blessing the Paschal candle was introduced.

(3) The “reed” or triple candle (richly symbolic of the Trinity and the Incarnation) used to bring the Easter fire into the church was abolished.

(4) The clergy and people are supposed to carry candles.

(5) The magnificent Old Testament prophecies telling the whole story of Redemption are reduced in number from twelve to four. (So much for giving Scripture back to the people…)

(6) The celebrant sits and listens to the readings. The rubrics imply that these may be proclaimed in the vernacular.

(7) The celebrant chants the collects at the sedilia, rather than at the altar. (Again, think Novus Ordo-style president’s chair.)

(8) A pause for prayer is introduced after Flectamus genua (Let us kneel) in the orations.

(9) The baptismal water is blessed in the sanctuary facing the people (rather than in the baptistery), and carried to the baptistery in a tub.

(10) The Litany of the Saints is divided into two and abbreviated.

(11) All those present recite a “Renewal of Baptismal Vows” in the vernacular — the first time the vernacular is explicitly permitted as an integral part of a liturgical rite.

(12) The Prayers at the Foot of the Altar are dropped in their entirety from the Mass, as is the Last Gospel.

Bugnini and company portrayed all this as a restoration of antiquity, just as they would for the Novus Ordo. But their claim in 1951 was equally phony.

For instance, in ancient times Christians spent all night in the church. So, the number of readings in the 1951 “restoration” should have been tripled to, say, thirty-six prophecies, rather than reduced to the mere four that Bugnini left.

And laymen holding burning candles? Wax in ancient times was a precious commodity, and laymen would contribute candles to the church for its support. In the early Church, handing out candles for laymen to burn would have been like me handing out twenty-dollar bills to my suburban parishioners and telling them to burn them during the service. Not likely.

In fact, however, in the 1951 Easter Vigil we see some principles and practices that, eighteen years later, will be imposed across the board in Paul VI’s Novus Ordo Missae:

(1) Abbreviating rites (three blessing prayers to one; twelve prophecies to four).

(2) Inventing new rites (inscribing the candle, people carrying candles, renewing baptismal vows).

(3) Facing the people for ceremonies (for blessing the baptismal water).

(4) Reducing actions of the priest (he sits and listens).

(5) Lopping off parts of the Order of Mass (Prayers at the Foot of the Altar, Last Gospel).

(6) Reciting liturgical prayers in the vernacular (the Vigil lessons and the baptismal vows).

It is therefore easy to understand why Bugnini would proclaim in 1955 that the 1951 Easter Vigil was “the first step to a general liturgical renewal.” (A. Bugnini and C. Braga, Ordo Hebdomadae Sanctae Instauratus Commentarium, [Rome Edizioni Liturgiche 1956], 5.)

So, whenever you assist at a Holy Saturday Easter Vigil conducted according the Bugnini rite of ’51/55/62, you are witnessing with your own eyes the first step to the Novus Ordo.

May God grant one day that the traditional Holy Week rites of the Church be everywhere restored!

Traditional Holy Week Ceremonies
St. Gertrude the Great Church, West Chester, Ohio

As always, a Bugnini-free zone!

8:00 AM Easter Vigil, Pontifical Mass