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Dialogue Mass - LXXIII

Destroying the Octave of Pentecost

Dr. Carol Byrne, Great Britain
Although the extremely ancient Octave of Pentecost, dating back to the 4th century, survived the 1956 reforms, the decision to abolish it had already been made by Pius XII’s Commission in February 1950. (1) In fact, from 1948, when the Liturgical Commission put forward a proposal to “courageously abolish the Octave,” (2) its days were numbered, in more ways than one.

Paul VI in 1969

Paul VI in 1969, the year he erased the Pentecost Octave from the liturgy

It was, therefore, always a “racing certainty” that this would be accomplished, if not under Pius XII, then at the first available opportunity. The Octave was given a stay of execution until 1969, when Paul VI erased it completely in order to accommodate the Novus Ordo “Ordinary Time,” which starts immediately after Pentecost Sunday.

There was, thus, no time for fond farewells or lingering leave-taking of this mighty Feast that was pivotal for the whole Liturgical Year, no time to savour its message or meditate on the Third Person of the Holy Trinity in Whose honor the Octave was instituted.

Having been deprived both of its Vigil and Octave, the Feast of Pentecost was suddenly reduced to an ordinary Sunday. It was turned into a stand-alone Feast and made to look like a one-day wonder, after which the liturgy was unceremoniously hustled from Red to Green and disconnected from the theme of Pentecost.

Wheeling, dealing & stealing

The ethicality of this reform is brought into question when we consider how it was pushed through by Bugnini alone amidst a welter of confusion and without either the informed consent or clear agreement of anyone else. Regarding the suppression of the Octave of Pentecost, Bugnini later admitted that there was much disagreement and shilly-shallying among the Consilium members and that the matter was never fully resolved:

“Here again there was disagreement. The suppression was accepted with the expectation that the formularies of the Octave would be used during the nine days of preparation for Pentecost. On this point again there were changes of mind, but the decision of the Fathers finally prevailed… [However], it subsequently caused confusion and second thoughts.” (3)

No doubt the “second thoughts” came when they realized – too late – that Bugnini’s prevarications had made it difficult for them to figure out precisely how they had been deceived into accepting an unequal trade-off between one of the highest-ranking Octaves and a concocted Novena of preparation for Pentecost. (4)

The traditional Octave of Pentecost

Medieval illumination of Pentecost


As with the Vigil of Pentecost, the Octave had also been closely connected with that of Easter. Both shared the distinction – unique in the Tridentine Calendar – of being classified as Octaves of the first rank.

As Dom Guéranger observed: “The mystery of Pentecost holds so important a place in the Christian dispensation, that we cannot be surprised at the Church's ranking it, in her liturgy, on an equality with her Paschal solemnity.”

Great would have been his surprise had he lived to see the abolition of the Octave, not to mention the Vigil, of Pentecost whose liturgy had entitled it to parity of esteem with the Easter celebrations.

Let us consider the astounding artistry and aesthetic beauty of this part of our spiritual patrimony, which Bugnini had been planning to destroy from 1948.

Distinctive features of the Pentecost Octave

Each Mass of the Octave had its own special character, celebrating one of the Seven Gifts of the Holy Ghost in ascending order, to illustrate the successive steps of the soul towards increased likeness to Christ. (5) Why abolish the extension of Pentecost, a Feast in which, as Pope St Leo the Great taught, the Holy Ghost dispenses His Gifts “ditior largitate” (in more generous measure)? (6)

Painting of Pentecost

Closing the window of the "Golden Sequence"

At each Mass the Veni Sancte Spiritus with its Alleluia was sung or recited to reinforce the “outpouring of the Holy Ghost” at Pentecost. Formerly known as the “Golden Sequence,” it was widely appreciated as a masterpiece of liturgical poetry, yet its flowing rhythms, its clarity and simplicity made it appeal to the masses.

Another notable feature of the Octave was its three Ember Days (Wednesday, Friday and Saturday) with fasting and partial abstinence – an obvious no-no for Bugnini who had just abolished Septuagesima and tried, unsuccessfully, to do the same to Ash Wednesday. (7)

What distinguished these Ember Days from all the others in the Liturgical Year was their position within a season of jubilation, which made them a bitter-sweet time, partaking of both fasting and feasting.

A purely subjective reform

Even the progressivist theologian Fr. Louis Bouyer, a key player in the Liturgical Movement, expressed his shock and horror at this reform, which he considered both senseless and arbitrary. He delivered this broadside against his fellow progressivists:

“I prefer to say nothing, or virtually nothing, of the new Calendar, the handiwork of a trio of maniacs who suppressed, with no good reason, Septuagesima and the Octave of Pentecost and who scattered three quarters of the Saints who knows where, all based on notions of their own!” (8)

What exactly were these “notions of their own”? A brief examination of the rationale for the abolition of the Pentecost Octave will show that it was carried out in flagrant repudiation of the principles of liturgical development. For, as we shall see, Bugnini failed to apply any standards of rational evaluation of the existing tradition.

1. The rationale for the abolition of the Octave rests on Bugnini’s iron-clad theory that the 50 days between Easter and Pentecost should be a hermetically sealed unit, and that to extend the period by another few days is tantamount to destroying the unity of the Easter Season:

“The Easter season lasts 50 days, beginning with the Easter Vigil and ending with Pentecost Sunday. This is attested by the ancient and universal tradition of the Church, which has always celebrated the seven weeks of Easter as though they were a single day that ends with the feast of Pentecost. For this reason, the octave of Pentecost, which was added to the 50 days of Easter in the 6th century, has been abolished.” (9)

But, the premise is logically irrelevant to the conclusion, having no bearing whatsoever on whether the Octave should be abolished. Besides, there is simply not enough solid evidence about the liturgical practices of the first centuries to state with certainty that there were never any days of extended festivities after Pentecost. (10) And even if there were not, it would not entitle the reformers to wipe out over 1600 years of ancient and universal tradition and throw the Octave of Pentecost into the flames.

Incredibly, this 50-day-and-no-more argument (11) was enshrined in the 1969 Calendar by the Congregation of Rites and signed by its Secretary, the future Cardinal Antonelli.

Illustration of the Old liturgical year

The old liturgical calendar
was completely unraveled by the reform

But, the reason given in that document for the abolition was spurious, being based on words purportedly written by St. Athanasius that the 50 days were celebrated “as one feast day, indeed as one ‘great Sunday.’” (12) But it can be easily verified that St. Athanasius did not write the words attributed to him in the quote. (13) Absurdly, the Bishop of Alexandria is now regarded as the champion of an Octave-less Pentecost, even though he never opposed the concept of an extended Feast.

Not only was the Pentecost Octave not a diminution of Easter, but it was eminently fitting as a vehicle of greater honor to the Holy Spirit, which was the entire purpose of the Pentecost celebrations. How could the same Spirit be pleased with the abolition of a liturgy that owed its inspiration to Himself ad majorem Gloria Dei?

2. The reformers complained that the Octave was defective because its last day was missing, overlapping with Trinity Sunday. (14)

But, this is demonstrably untrue. For, according to the Roman Missal, the Octave of Pentecost, like that of Easter, starts on the Vigil and ends the following Saturday. (15)

3. They claimed that the Octave contained a self-contradictory feature: fasting and feasting in a week of joyous celebration.

But, the purpose of fasting during the Pentecost Ember Days was not penitential. That is why the liturgical vestments were red rather than purple, while the folded chasubles – the quintessential garment of priestly penitence – were not used. Here, fasting was meant as a spiritual limbering up exercise to imitate the Apostles who, as Pope Leo the Great explained, having been sent by the Spirit, prepared themselves with “holy fasts” for their missionary service in the world. (16)

The whole basis of this reform was fundamentally flawed.


  1. Memoria, Supplement II, 1950, p. 23, n. 76. Of the 3 “experts” consulted by the Commission, Dom Capelle stated that the Octave should be retained, but he was outnumbered by Frs. Jungmann and Righetti who voted to abolish it.
    The same source reveals that this was exactly the same 2:1 outcome for the proposal to abolish the Octave of the Ascension and replace it with a pre-Pentecost Novena. Interestingly, Capelle stated that “no sufficient reason” was given for this change, and that it was “unheard of in any liturgical rites.” (“Sufficiens ratio non datur cur traditionalis octava mutetur in Novenam, quod inauditum est in usibus liturgicis”).
  2. Rinunciare corragiosamente all’octava”, Memoria, 1948, §79, p. 79.
  3. A. Bugnini, The Reform of the Liturgy, p. 307, n. 9; p. 319, n. 38.
  4. Bugnini had already planned this strategy in 1950. See Note 1.
  5. Sunday: Fear of the Lord; Monday: Godliness (Piety); Tuesday: Knowledge; Wednesday: Fortitude; Thursday: Counsel; Friday: Understanding; Saturday: Wisdom. Dom Guéranger explains the logic of the order: the first five gifts are the graces needed for the active life of the faithful in the world; the rest relate to the contemplative life and our mystical union with Christ.
  6. Leo I, Sermo LXXVII, Chapter 1, ‘De Pentecoste III.’
  7. Mgr. Pierre Jounel, whom Bugnini appointed to the Consilium, stated that they wanted to scrap Ash Wednesday and have Lent begin on its first Sunday. See ‘L'Organisation de l'année liturgique,La Maison-Dieu, 100 (1969), pp. 147-148.
  8. L. Bouyer, Mémoires, Paris, Editions du Cerf, 2014, pp.199-200. Fr. Bouyer did not mention any names, but the Editor of the Mémoires (Note 29, pp. 303-304) conjectured that at least one of them was Mgr. Pierre Jounel who was in charge of the Temporal Cycle of the Calendar.
  9. A. Bugnini, The Reform of the Liturgy, p. 319.
  10. At least in the Eastern liturgical heritage there was always a post-Pentecost week dating back to the early Fathers. This was called an “Afterfeast” instead of an Octave. And a document relating to the 3rd and 4th centuries speaks of a post-Pentecost week of festivities: “Therefore, after you have kept the festival of Pentecost, keep one week more festival.” (Apostolic Constitutions, Book V, Chapter XX)
  11. This, incidentally, was the same type of specious argument Bugnini used to justify the abolition of the Septuagesima Season, which allegedly overstepped the 40 days of Lent: “there should be a simplification. It was not possible to restore Lent to its full importance without sacrificing Septuagesima, which is an extension of Lent”. Ibid., p. 307, n. 6)
  12. General Norms of the Liturgical Calendar, 1969, (§ 22, n. 12, Athanasius, Epistula festalis 1).
  13. See here.
  14. Memoria, 1948, §79, p. 79.
  15. This is confirmed by Dom Guéranger in The Liturgical Year: “the Pentecost solemnity began on the Vigil, for the neophytes at once put on their white garments: on the eighth day, the Saturday, they laid them aside.”
  16. Pope Leo I, Sermon 78, On the Whitsuntide Fast, I.


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Posted July 13, 2018

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