By Samuel Ng, University of Texas at Austin
According to Fr. John Zuhlsdorf of the Diocese of Velletri-Segni, a former papal Master of Ceremonies (MC) witnessed Pope St. Paul VI go to a chapel to prepare for Holy Mass on the Monday after Pentecost Sunday of 1970. Upon seeing the green vestments laid out for Mass, he asked “What on earth are these for? This is the Octave of Pentecost! Where are the red vestments”. The MC responded that it is green now for the octave of pentecost had been abolished. “Who did that?” Paul VI asked. “You did”, responded the MC. And Paul VI wept.
The octave day (the eighth day) holds a special significance for Catholics. It was the eighth day after his birth that our Lord was circumcised and the eighth day after the feast of the Tabernacles was also the day a solemnity which can be called an octave was celebrated. While there is no strong evidence that the tradition of the octave dated back to the time of the apostles, it has been a part of the practice of the Church in greater or lesser ways from the fourth century. In the reformed liturgical calendar, there are only two octaves: for Easter and Christmas.
Many critics and commentators on the Roman liturgy have lamented the loss of the Pentecost octave which, according to theologian Dr. Peter Kwasniewski, “is extremely ancient, […] and was always seen as ranking beside Christmas and Easter as one of the three great octaves of the liturgical year”. The importance of the feast of Pentecost is also emphasized by the existence of a Pentecost vigil (both in the Ordinary and Extraordinary Forms). Before the significant reforms of the Roman liturgy immediately following the Second Vatican Council, Pentecost would be celebrated until the Saturday following Pentecost Sunday. This allowed the faithful many days to contemplate the mystery of Pentecost and to savor the joy of the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles.
Fr. Guy Nicholls of the Oratory in an article on New Liturgical Movement outlines the impacts he has observed of dropping the Pentecost Octave. Among these he names the abrupt transition from Paschaltide to Ordinary Time, the opening of a vacuum for charismatic pentecostalists to fill with non-liturgical devotions, and the loss of the “resonance” of Pentecost which is only allowed one day instead of eight days to resonate with the faithful at a leisurely pace. Additionally, he mentions the liturgies of Dorchester-on-Thames, a Church in Oxfordshire, England, which were celebrated largely in the Ordinary Form (which does not have the Pentecost Octave) but incorporated the celebration of Votive Masses of the Holy Spirit during the weekdays following Pentecost Sunday. This option allows Churches who may only be familiar with the Ordinary Form of the Mass to celebrate in a more substantial way the solemnity of Pentecost. However, an inherent limitation with this approach is that votive Masses are not permitted to be celebrated on days of obligatory memorials and this is the case every Monday following Pentecost Sunday which is the obligatory Memorial of Mary, the Mother of the Church. Of course, the fullness of the Pentecost Octave is still celebrated in the Extraordinary Form (the liturgy celebrated in the Roman Church prior to the Second Vatican Council) and also in the Anglican Use liturgy.
May the Holy Solemnity of Pentecost and its corresponding liturgies be for us a reminder to be docile to the Holy Spirit and His gifts.