The National Catholic Review
Yesterday a Jesuit friend told me that the Easter Vigil at his parish was three hours and forty minutes. Upon hearing this, another friend remarked "That pretty much leaves out anyone with children, doesn’t it?" For me and for most Catholics, the Easter Vigil is the absolute summit of the liturgical year: not simply the celebration of Easter per se, that is, the celebration of the Risen Christ; but the liturgy itself, which includes the lighting of the Paschal candle, the singing of the ancient hymm called the Exsultet, the multiple readings that trace salvation history from the Old Testament to the New, the welcoming of the newly baptized, and so on. Pastors, pastoral teams, music ministers, RCIA staff, ministers of hospitality, eucharistic ministers, and even florists usually spend weeks planning for the big day. But lately I’ve been wondering if the sometimes extreme length of some of these liturgies might actually be keeping Catholics away. Typically, most Vigils that I’ve attended (or concelebrated) have run around three hours. But the Easter Vigil can easily be, and frequently is, made even longer with choirs that sing every single verse in the responsorial psalm, for example, as well as preachers who decide that this is in fact the time for a homily that is not abbreviated but longer than usual. Another friend told me that in his church, after the baptismal promises were pronounced, the choir asked the congregation to repeat a verse of song (after each promise), lengthening that relatively concise part of the Mass. Purely on a physical level, many people--young and old--find sitting on a hard pew for almost four hours a mortification. Sure, you could argue that part of being Christian is suffering, but is the Easter Vigil the time to ask for physical penance? After all, it’s the end of Lent, not the beginning. Does singing "Jesus Christ Is Risen Today" in the midst of physical discomfort add to, or detract from, a sense of Easter joy? Does a Mass that can turn into an endurance test make us joyful or just grateful when it’s finally over? Or is the extravagant length of the Vigil a perfect reflection of the extravagant joy of Easter? Last year I asked one of my relatives if she was going to the Vigil Mass. "Are you kidding?" she said. No matter how much I encouraged her to go, and no matter how much I touted the dramatic lighting of the Paschal Candle, the beautiful readings, the amazing spectacle of seeing adult baptisms, she was turned off by what she called (and I remember this word vividly) its "ridiculous" length. Is it time to start thinking about shortening the Easter Vigil? James Martin, SJ


Rowena Trapp | 4/7/2015 - 12:15am

I have been Catholic my whole life and either never attended or didn't remember attending the Easter Vigil Mass ever before. I attended it this last Saturday and was caught completely off guard. I expected the Blessing of the fire and the paschal candle but injected in the middle of the service were multiple baptisms, multiple confirmations and a wedding. Our parish priest seemed to make it as long and involved as possible. I, for one, would like the option to attend the baptisms, confirmations, etc. or not. I feel those detracted from the Mass, which I dearly love. I may opt to attend the Easter Sunday Mass in the future even though that, too, is challenging because of the serious crowding . It was a real endurance test.

Gib Delacruz | 4/22/2014 - 3:12pm

Perhaps it's because I'm lucky, but I've always loved to go to the Easter Vigil, even if it was three hours long. And this last Vigil, which was at the church where most Catholics go to at Rutgers University, was filled with teenagers and young adults who were there because they loved the Vigil. I feel that the more someone appreciates the liturgy, the less they care about its length.

Susie Andrews | 4/22/2014 - 8:06am

I have never been and am not interested in attending a service that starts at 8:30 p.m. at night for three or more hours. Such a thing was not celebrated until sometime after the 70s where I attended Mass. It is impossible for anyone with children or the elderly, it is difficult for anyone who is in charge of cooking Easter midday dinner for relatives or organizing any kind of gathering the next day. Good Friday services ran so long (two hours) one year that my teens have refused to ever go back. For several years I have attended the 5:30 p.m. Mass on Easter Sunday, less parking woes and a more meaningful celebration.

Bruce Snowden | 4/21/2014 - 6:35am

Bruce Snowden - I don't get it. Why all the anonymouses? I thought nameless posting was not acceptable. I love the Easter Vigil as is, but could accept shortened readings, but none deleted. The most beautiful music ever is the sound of that Stone "rolling back." Happy Easter!

Anonymous | 3/28/2008 - 10:35pm
We got in under 3 hours this year. And the fire marshall didn't shut us down. You see, before 2000 we were 2000 English-speaking families. I can't say Anglo since that doesn't really fit Nigerians, Haitians, etc. Since then we have added 4000 Spanish-speaking families. In previous years we violated fire laws by having too many people in the building. So to cut the number of people, the 85 or so confirmations were moved to another day. That left 15 catechumens to be baptized/confirmed. We used 4 readings plus the Epistle and Gospel, alternating languages for both readings, Psalm responses, and attached prayers. All prayers surrounding the Baptisms and the homily was done in both languages. How did everybody feel at the end? Closing hymns were two verses "Jesus Christ is Risen today" at fortissimo followed by "Resucito" at fortissimo and with clapping. No one left early. May the Peace of the Risen Lord be with you!
Anonymous | 3/27/2008 - 2:12pm
Actually, we had one where we took a break in the middle of it because our pastor was about to go into a diabetic coma. It turned out to be one of the most popular vigils. Everyone had a few moments to visit and take a bathroom break. Hardly anyone left. He shortened it in later years by cutting out certain readings, etc. This year we have a conservative priest who felt it necessary to do every moment of the vigil. I think it depends on what the parish wants.
Anonymous | 3/27/2008 - 10:01am
The Easter Vigil is a no-go for the kids- but more because of the late time (and early Easter morning)than because of the length. This is one of my favorite nights of the year- I wouldn't change a thing. 3 hours isn't too much of a sacrifice- especially considering what the Lord gave up for me.
Anonymous | 3/27/2008 - 10:01am
Congratulations,fr.James! I agree completely with you. I hope the future will bring better solutions to the lenght of Easter Vigil.Many teenagers and families with children will be grateful.
Anonymous | 3/27/2008 - 7:48am
Orthodox Jewish Yom Kippur services can all day (eg, 12 hours) and plenty of families with children manage to do it just fine.
Anonymous | 3/28/2008 - 9:06am
Our Holy Saturday vigil clocked at just over 2 hrs this year. It was beautifully begun with the church in darkness for all the readings with only the ambo lit. (We had all lit candles from the Easter fire, but then were told to extinguish them and be seated.) This focused our attention on salvation history, and was as peaceful as being told a bedtime story, until the bells rang and the flowers were brought in and the party atmosphere started. I did note that the singing between readings was minimal. I think probably the short versions of the readings were used, also. The new members of the church received their sacraments and much individual attention - even two marriages were blessed, and these couples kissed before the congregation as though they were newlyweds. The homily was quite short. The long form of the Eucharistic prayer was used. I'm actually not sure where the service was cut to be 2 hours not four. I have been to some terrible and some great 4 hour services, one memorable one years ago at a university church with a huuuge Easter bonfire outside and oriental kites flying indoors and massive drums banged and a handout that advised participants to feel free to take breaks as the service was so long. The crummiest long Holy Saturday I remember most included everything possible from the service but was unremarkable liturgy anyway and we were especially irked that the pastor took those joining the church out for individual confessions at one point during the service, while the rest of us were left sitting and waiting. There was much humorous whispered commentary in our pew that night though, including one of my clan suggesting we have t shirts made "I SURVIVED HOLY SATURDAY AT _____ CHURCH." If Easter is to be kept as the greatest feast of the year, it should be a celebration people want to attend.
Anonymous | 3/26/2008 - 8:55pm
I participated in all the Holy Week activities BUT the Easter Vigil. Sadly I have never been, and I would love to go...but I just can't stomach being there from 8:30 p.m. to midnight.
Anonymous | 3/26/2008 - 5:03pm
I'm a Protestant who enjoys James Martin's writing. We have something called an Easter Vigil at my church (United Church of Christ), but it's quite different from what's described here. We each can sign up for an hour (or more) between the end of the Good Friday service and sunrise on Easter morning during which we come to the otherwise empty church and pray, sing, sit in the silence, journal, etc., keeping vigil for our hour, so that over the whole period there is always someone there, vigiling. We keep a vigil journal from year to year that people can read while they vigil. It's a solemn time, especially if you sign up for a 2 a.m. slot :-) Children are welcome to vigil with parents; teens can vigil alone.
Anonymous | 3/26/2008 - 4:40pm
I think when the liturgy is done according to the book--it is a beautiful liturgy that is worth the extra time. Some of these modifications you mention (a song between each renewed promise?) are additions upon an additional part of this liturgy and really shouldn't in there. The Vigil, if done as the Church asks, is beautiful in its own right. There isn't a need to extend it to the maximum length possible. We did all of the readings, baptized 10, received a number into full communion and made it out under 3 hours. So, no, we shouldn't shorten the Vigil, but we shouldn't try to add fluff to it either. Another issue is people dismissing something on the basis of time alone. How many people sat through the 'Lord of the Rings' movies in theaters? How many people watch hours of pre-game followed by a day's worth of football? The time is worth it, but we should find a way to help people realize that their watches isn't the focal point of life, much less the Easter Vigil.
Anonymous | 3/26/2008 - 2:57pm
I have the luxury of having a teenager who enjoys lectoring and likes the Easter Vigil. But, even at three hours (we had 10 baptisms/15 elect = 25 total) it is just too long. There are ways to streamline - don't sing a responsorial after every reading (use silence), the homily needs to be short and reflect what is happening in the church, etc. My disappointment is that most Catholics have never experienced the Easter Vigil because of the time and length of the service. Now, that is sad!!
Anonymous | 3/26/2008 - 10:40am
Three hours and forty minutes does seem a bit much - but ours clocked in at just under three hours this year (the celebrant said he 'insisted' on all 9 readings and psalms because we were getting 'our whole history') and frankly my husband and I came away feeling like it was 'the best' Vigil liturgy we'd participated in, in years. It was joyful, reflective, audible (when the baptisms are inaudible or sung-over it's rather pointless - the assembly is disconnected from the event) and actually quite well-attended by families with small children who for the most part behaved well. A well-done liturgy speeds not only God's glory, but time itself. A poorly done liturgy is exactly the opposite. This year's Vigil did not 'feel' like three hours. Last year's - truly - came in at 2:15 and felt like it would never end. I don't think the problem is the liturgy - the liturgy is perfectly sound. As with computers, it's the human element that screws it all up.
Anonymous | 3/26/2008 - 10:35am
Um. I'm really not a good one to weigh in, considering I agreed to pack popcorn for my four-year-old to hush her during a 45-minute Easter mass, where we sat in the office next to the church (because the church was filled and we got there on time, not 45 minutes earlier, which would have meant twice as much popcorn).
Anonymous | 3/26/2008 - 9:41pm
Frankly, this is a fascinating discussion to hear, or at least read. I suppose one could say without any fear of contradiction: those who enjoy it go, and those who don't do not, and attend the morning Masses the next day. And as a friend said after he read this post (and, by the way, these are not apocryphal friends), 'Well, at our church this year it was very long and very full!' So I think that the 'Lord of the Rings' comment is especially on point: people will sit for hours if they feel it is beautiful and prayerful. Still, one wonders which parts of the liturgy are mishandled (like those extra songs I mentioned) that make people feel that it's not a joyful experience, and bow out, as Liz mentions in her post. But as Mr. Kraft said, when it is done well it is beautiful and worth the time. Still, how can the church attract people like Liz to its greatest celebration?
Anonymous | 3/26/2008 - 8:15pm
Peace! The last thing I think that the culture of the Church needs in American, currently, is the shortening of anything, especially the most solemn feast of the Easter Vigil. If people with kids are cut out... that can be ok. We ought to realize that maybe it would be good to have the kids grow up with the Easter Sunday Holy Mass their earlier and formative years. Easter Sunday is a great Mass unto itself! As for the inability for Catholics to experience it because of their aversion to it: If we shorten it and remove elements, they really aren't experiencing the same thing if they come anyway. Of all the "elephants in the nave" as "the Deacon's Bench" blog- by whom I was linked to this article- called it, this is certainly not one of reality, just pink and imaginative. There are many other elephants that really are in the nave that too many are trying to paint pink and convince us that they are not there: Where is a catechetical series through Sunday homilies? Where are numerous wax candles flanked by flowers and relics? Where is the patrimony of Chant and Sacred Polyphony that the Holy Second Vatican Council called for? Where is the Latin that it and Blessed Pope John XXIII called for in 'Sacrosanctum Concilium' and 'Veterum Sapientia,' respectively? We need to prioritize, but this issue is one to be preserved not changed. May God bless you. Holy Mary protect you. In ICXC, Happy Easter, -Christopher
Anonymous | 3/29/2008 - 10:08am
This is a topic worth pondering, but I'm inclined to think it is best not to move to shorten the Vigil. Childless, I still tend to take a pass at my own parish's 4 hour, quadrilingual Vigil. But I do worship at the three-hour Vigil at a nearby parish. While living at home with my parents, the Vigil was not part our practice (save my very early years when parts were anticipated on Saturday morning – let us not go back to that!). But in college, a wise Newman Club chaplain strongly encouraged the students to attend the Vigil and I was spiritually overwhelmed when first exposed to it. Truly this was the 'mother of all vigils' and a moving expression of the paschal mystery. From this experience, I think it might be pastorally best to draw in young adult Catholics who are at the time of their life when they can best appreciate the Great Vigil. Should the duties of parenthood later in life result in the practice of Easter morning Mass, so be it. I've known some parents who have returned to the Vigil with their families once the kids reach the age when 'staying up late' becomes an interest. Lastly, I can't imagine the Vigil being reduced below two hours and I wonder even if minimized to that point, would parents with young children attend?
Anonymous | 3/28/2008 - 4:38pm
To answer the blogger's question: No. To answer this one: "That pretty much leaves out anyone with children, doesn't it?" Maybe. But it doesn't leave out the children. My daughter has been attending since age 5. She slept for about 30% of the first one. No problem by me. Ask any kids old enough to understand if they would want to go to a Mass that took place completely after dusk, had a big fire, lots of sprinkling and splashing, the drama of colorful stories, plus music and a reception with yummy food. What do you think they would say? In one parish, I had members of the children's choir lobby to join the Vigil schola. They were all ready to return the next year. And they did. I'm not sure about the criticism of singing every single verse in the psalm. Singing for three minutes, give or take, in between each reading and prayer is better liturgy than one minute or none.
Anonymous | 3/27/2008 - 2:55pm
I hope it isn't shortened. I'm one of those who did not go because it was "too long". I went three years ago for the first time in twenty years and discovered the most beautiful and meaningful mass of the whole year. We have a good crowd at ours - familiar faces each year who I'm assuming agree with me. Some have said as much. I'm not into majority vote on church matters, hope the priests reading don't cave.
Anonymous | 3/27/2008 - 5:17pm
DaveP wrote: 'I'd lean for a two hour limit except for that occasional parish that can really pull it off with beauty.' Seems to imply that your run-of-the-mill parish is not up to doing the liturgy well; only the 'occasional' parish can bring it off. He may be right. If so, it's a sad thing.
Anonymous | 3/27/2008 - 9:29am
I left our beautiful vigil after baptisms at 1:45 mark to get home to color Easter eggs and have some special time with family. I've been to wonderful three hour celebrations and deadful ones. I've used different media and different drama for readings and music. I mc'd ones at a Cathedral for four years and tried to get the bishop to know the right steps. I have mixed feelings therefore about its length and beauty. It attracts me, but I can't convince my kids from 13 on down. Maybe it's just not for them these days, but what is that saying also? In general, if all readings are done (or even a few) with a lot of baptisms, it gets long. I'd lean for a two hour limit except for that occasional parish that can really pull it off with beauty.
Anonymous | 3/26/2008 - 7:33pm
It is the high point of the liturgical year for me, too - but it can be too long (or too late) for small ones. So for years - we've done Easter twice, the whole Triduum for me (and my non-Catholic spouse) and Easter morning for the whole family. My strongest memories of the Easter Vigil are two: Twenty-five years ago, we lit the fire on a windswept hill in California, and where later that night my first husband became Catholic. A joyous vigil that lasted until the small hours of the morning (the rising of the sun very nearly found our "flame still burning" - we got home about 4 am) and where the time flew. Three years later, another Easter vigil, this one soaked in grief, waiting to bury my husband on Easter Monday - yet buoyed up by the words of the Exsultet: This is the night when Jesus Christ broke the chains of death and rose triumphant from the grave. Neither time would I have wished it were shorter...