Time Capsule • April 6, 2020




The Saturday evening Mass, which fulfills the obligation to attend Mass on Sunday, is a staple of contemporary Catholic life in the United States. Yet this practice is only 50 years old. 

Technically called an “anticipated Mass” and colloquially a “vigil Mass,” it originated from two sacramental developments in response to modern circumstances: (1) the permission to celebrate Mass in the evening, and (2) the decision to allow a Mass on Saturday to count for Sunday. These principles were also applied to holy days of obligation.

Although Christ instituted the Eucharist — the Mass — within an evening meal on Holy Thursday, close to Passover, the earliest records indicate that Christians regularly celebrated the Eucharist on Sunday morning in commemoration of Jesus’ resurrection. (There is a fascinating description of the Sunday Eucharist ca. 155 AD recorded by St. Justin Martyr, which can be found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1345.) Weekday feasts came later, but Masses on those days were still celebrated in the morning.

It was not until the 1940s, when times for Masses had to accommodate the disruption caused by World War II (1939–1945), that the Church granted permission for evening Masses in Europe (on Sundays and weekdays) on a case-by-case basis. These evening Masses became popular, so bishops in Europe and elsewhere requested them after the war. 

Pope Pius XII (reigned 1939–1958) eventually granted general authorization for bishops to permit evening Masses, first on Sundays (Christus Dominus, 1953), and then on weekdays (Sacram communionem, 1957). 

Just as evening Masses became more common during the 1940s and 1950s, so during the 1960s bishops increasingly requested and received permission for the celebration of Saturday evening Masses that fulfilled the Sunday obligation. The rationale for this decision was similar to that used for evening Masses: the practice would facilitate worship for people who could not attend Mass on Sunday because of the relative shortage of priests, changing working conditions or even new patterns of recreation. 

The rationale for anticipated Masses did not include the concept of a vigil. The tradition of keeping vigil (literally, a “night watch”) was     understood to be a time of prayer in preparation for a feast rather than a sharing in the feast itself. 

However, the liturgical reform mandated by Vatican Council II (1962–1965) broadened the notion of vigil: “The liturgical day runs from midnight to midnight, but the observance of Sunday and solemnities [major feasts] begins with the evening of the preceding day” (Congregation for Divine Worship, General Norms for the Liturgical Year and the Calendar, 1969, no. 3). 

The shortening of the eucharistic fast contributed to the spread of anticipated Masses. Pius XII had reduced the fast from midnight to three hours for evening Masses (Christus Dominus, 1953), and then for all Masses (Sacram communionem, 1957). Pope St. Paul VI reduced the fast to one hour (announcement at Vatican Council II, 1964). 

On January 10, 1970, the bishops of the United States collectively received authorization to allow the fulfillment of Sunday and holy day obligations by attendance at Mass on the evenings prior. This authorization lasted five years and was renewed in 1974 and again in 1979. 

In 1983, it became universal law that attending Mass on Saturday evening, or on the evening before a holy day of obligation, fulfilled the precept of worship (Code of Canon Law, canon 1248 §1).

Interestingly, the Church has never specified the start of “evening” with respect to fulfilling a Mass attendance obligation. By custom, 4 p.m. is regarded as the earliest time based on Pius XII’s decree concerning evening Masses. 

A second question about time is whether two obligations can be met simultaneously by attending an evening Mass (for example, when Christmas Eve falls on a Sunday). Although the Church has not provided a definitive ruling on this matter, it is generally held that the two obligations must be fulfilled by attending separate Masses (in the example cited — one for the Sunday and one for Christmas).

Throughout the development of anticipated Masses, the Church has stressed that this practice should not obscure the significance of Sunday nor the obligatory feast. For this reason, the precept of refraining from unnecessary work on Sundays or holy days of obligation still applies to those who have participated in an anticipated Mass (canon 1247).

It is worth noting that while the readings and prayers used at an anticipated Mass are typically those of the Sunday or the next day’s feast, those of any Mass — for example, a wedding, the feast of the day itself or even the Divine Liturgy of an Eastern Catholic rite — also fulfill the obligation (canon 1248 §1).

On April 14, 1970, John J. Russell, the 10th bishop of Richmond (1958–1974), announced the start of anticipated Masses in this diocese. Excerpts from his letter appear below.

“I hereby grant permission for Catholics in the Diocese of Richmond to fulfill their Sunday Mass obligation by attending Mass on Saturday evening beginning the week of May 3rd.” 

“Each parish in the diocese may avail itself of this option. …The permission allows one or two evening Masses in each parish church after 5:00 P.M. on Saturdays and on evenings before Holy Days of Obligation. …”

“Parishes using the privilege should revise their Sunday Mass schedules to permit more time between Masses and thereby foster a more meaningful liturgical celebration.”

“Prior to implementation, our people should be well instructed on the significance of the Sunday observance. Anticipation on Saturday does not lessen the sacredness of Sunday. It is in keeping with the early traditions of the Church when the people celebrated the liturgy on the vigil of the Day of the Lord.

“The adoption of this practice should prove advantageous to those people who find it difficult or inconvenient to attend Mass on Sunday. At the same time, it should lessen the overcrowding at the late Sunday morning Masses. Priests in mission areas or those obliged to trinate [celebrate three Masses] on Sunday should find this permission helpful. …

“Father: Please read this letter at all Masses on Sunday, April 19th.”

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