Tuesday, April 9, 2024
How Fasting on Vigils Was Reduced Over Time

Click for a larger image. Holy Saturday is not included as it is covered separately by Lenten regulations.

What are Vigils?

Even though the Great Fast of Lent has ended, our fasting has not ended. There are many other days of fasting this year, such as Ember Days and Vigils, which are still coming this year. Understanding fasting on Vigils is something that has been forgotten by the average Catholic today. And rediscovering this practice will help us better celebrate the feastday following the vigil while allowing us more shared days of penance.

Some feasts have vigils associated with them. The term “vigil” is used in several ways. It most properly refers to an entire day before a major feast day (e.g., the Vigil of Christmas, which refers to the entire day of December 24). This kind of vigil is a liturgical day in itself and marks the following day as a day of greater liturgical significance. This is the proper meaning of a vigil. In a similar way, the Catechism of Perseverance, published in 1849, states: “The word vigil signifies watching. The vigils are the days of abstinence and fast which precede the great festivals of the year. There are five; those of Christmas, Easter, Pentecost, Assumption, and All Saints. In some dioceses, the feast of St. Peter and St. Paul is also preceded by a vigil.”

NB: A Mass using the Sunday propers that is anticipated (i.e., offered) on a Saturday evening is sometimes, though incorrectly, called a vigil. This practice, however, is a post-Vatican II novelty and not part of Catholic Tradition, so I counsel Catholics to never attend such “vigil Masses” on Saturday evenings.

Definition of Key Terms in the Vigils Table:

Fasting: Fasting refers to how much food we eat. It means taking only one meal during a calendar day. The meal should be an average-sized meal as overeating at the one meal is against the spirit of the fast. Fasting generally means that the meal is to be taken later in the day. Along with the one meal, up to two snacks (technically called either a collation or frustulum) are permitted. These are optional, not required. Added up together, they may not equal the size of the one meal. No other snacking throughout the day is permitted. Fasting does not affect liquids, aside from the Eucharistic Fast which is a separate matter.

Abstinence: Abstinence in this context refers to not eating meat. Meat refers to the flesh meat of mammals or fowl. Beef, poultry, lamb, etc. are all forbidden on days of abstinence. Abstinence does not currently prohibit animal byproducts like dairy (e.g., cheese, butter, milk) or eggs, but in times past, they were prohibited. Fish is permitted along with shellfish and other cold-blooded animals like alligators. In times past, days of fasting were always days of abstinence as well; however, not all days of abstinence were days of mandatory fasting.

Partial Abstinence: Partial Abstinence refers to eating meat only at the principal meal of the day. Days of partial abstinence do not permit meat to be eaten as part of the collation or the frustulum. Partial abstinence started only in 1741 under Pope Benedict XIV as a concession and as part of a gradual weakening of discipline. Beforehand, days of abstinence were days of complete abstinence.

NB: The table concerns only fasting and abstinence for Vigils and thus omits other possible days of fasting and/or abstinence: Lent, Ember Days, Rogation Days, etc.

Explanation of Key Changes to Vigils in the English-Speaking World:

1. On March 9, 1777, Pope Pius VI reduced for English Catholics days of fasting to consist of the Ember Days; the forty days Lent; Wednesdays and Fridays in Advent; and the vigils of Christmas, Whitsun Sunday (i.e. Pentecost), Ss. Peter and Paul, and All Saints.

2. As mentioned in the Irish Ecclesiastical Record from 1882, Pope Benedict XIV in 1755 removed 18 feasts from double precept and reduced them to single precept. Shortly thereafter in 1778, Pope Pius VI reduced the number of holy days to 13. And as the Record states, "On this occasion, the obligation of hearing Mass was removed, as well as the obligation of abstaining from servile works." The Record continues: "the number of those Vigils to which the obligation of fasting had been attached [as of 1778] was in fact but eight - these being the Vigils of the feast of St. Laurence the Martyr (August 9th), and of seven of the nine suppressed feasts of the Apostles." No fasting was observed beforehand on the Vigil of St. John on December 26 or the Vigil of Ss. Philip and James on account of them always falling in Christmas and Pascaltide respectively.

3. The Vigil of Ss. Peter and Paul ceased being a fast day in America by 1842. In Great Britain, Ireland, Australia, and Canada the Vigil of Ss. Peter and Paul remained a day of fasting and abstinence up until the 1917 Code of Canon law. In 1902, the Holy Father granted a special dispensation for Catholics in England from fasting on the Vigil of Ss. Peter and Paul in honor of the coronation of King Edward VII, illustrating historical proof of its observance in the early part of the 20th century.

4. "The Catholic's Pocket Prayer-Book" published by Henri Proost & Co in 1924 notes "in the United Kingdom (except during Lent), abstinence is not binding on Ember Saturdays or on any Vigil that immediately precedes or follows a Friday or other day of abstinence."

5. Effective with the 1917 Code, fasting and abstinence were no longer observed should a vigil fall on a Sunday as stated in the code: "If a vigil that is a fast day falls on a Sunday the fast is not to be anticipated on Saturday but is dropped altogether that year." Before 1917, the fast of a Vigil that fell on a Sunday was observed instead on the preceding Saturday.

6. On January 28, 1949, the United States bishops issued modified regulations on abstinence in America again after receiving a ruling from the Sacred Congregation of the Council. Partial abstinence replaced complete abstinence for Ember Wednesdays, Ember Saturdays, and the Vigil of Pentecost.

7. In March 1955, Pope Pius XII abolished the liturgical Vigil of All Saints. The US Bishops requested an official determination from Rome on whether the custom of fasting and abstinence on the suspended Vigil of All Saints had also been terminated. They received a pre-printed notice in a response dated March 15, 1957, stating: "The Decree of the Sacred Congregation of Rites...looks simply to the liturgical part of the day and does not touch the obligation of fast and abstinence that are a penitential preparation for the following feast day." The US Bishop thereafter dispensed both the fast and partial abstinence law for the Vigil of All Saints.

8. On July 25, 1957, Pope Pius XII commuted the fast in the Universal Church from the Vigil of the Assumption to the Vigil of the Immaculate Conception on December 7, even though he had previously abrogated the Mass for the Vigil of the Immaculate Conception. 

9. In 1959, Pope John XXIII permitted the Christmas Eve fast and abstinence to be transferred to 23rd. While the United States, Great Britain, and Ireland kept the penance on December 24, other nations, including Canada and the Philippines, transferred it to December 23.

10. As stated in a January 1960 issue of the Catholic Standard and Times, following an October 1959 meeting, the Bishops of Canada issued new regulations taking effect in 1960 that provided that the law of abstinence henceforth will apply only on all Fridays of the year, while the regulations for fast and abstinence will apply only on four days—Ash Wednesday; Good Friday; December 7, the vigil of the feast of the Immaculate Conception, and December 23, the anticipated vigil before Christmas.

How are Vigils Observed?

There are two characteristics of vigils: penance and prayer. 

As to penance, many liturgical vigils, if not all, were originally also days of fasting and abstinence. Over time, the fasting and abstinence was dropped from many. By the time of the Catechism of Perseverance, there were only a few such vigils. But the days of fasting and abstinence differed – including on vigils in various places. For instance, by 1893, the only fasting days kept in Rome were the forty days of Lent, the Ember Days, and the Vigils of the Purification, of Pentecost, of St. John the Baptist, of Ss. Peter and Paul, of the Assumption, of All Saints, and of Christmas. This is summarized from the Handbook to Christian and Ecclesiastical Rome. In just a few years, Rome would abrogate the fast on the Vigil of the Purification and on the Vigil of St. John the Baptist. By the 1917 Code of Canon Law, fasting vigils were dropped universally to only four days: Vigils of Pentecost, the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, All Saints, and Christmas. These are what Americans at that time were aware of, but previously, there were differing vigils.

By 1917, there were, however, still many other liturgical vigils on the calendar that were not obligatory days of abstinence at that time. For instance, before the changes to the Roman Rite liturgical calendar in 1955, nearly all feasts of the Apostles were preceded by a vigil. And the Church put those days in place to help us prepare for the importance of the feast of an Apostle, since all feasts of the Apostles were in former times Holy Days of Obligation. We have lost the importance of the feast days of the Apostles, I believe, in part due to losing the vigils. We can change that for ourselves by observing those feast days in our own prayer lives. And the same is true for the Vigil of All Saints (i.e., Halloween), a traditional day when we would fast and abstain from meat, but which is neither found in the Novus Ordo calendar nor even in the 1962 Missal.  Hence any of the older vigils (e.g., the Vigil of St. Lawrence, the Vigil of Epiphany, the Vigil of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist, etc.) can and arguably, should, be observed with fasting and abstinence even if they are not obliged under penalty of sin. 

The second key feature of vigils is prayer. 

The Catechism of Perseverance explains this aspect well: “How should we spend the vigils? Whatever be our age, we should spend those days in a more holy manner than other days, in order to prepare for the celebration of the festival and to receive the graces which God always gives more abundantly at that time.” Praying an extra rosary, making time for mental prayer, and even praying into the evening as the vigil becomes the feastday itself are all worthwhile practices to make vigils slightly more penitential and all the more prayerful.

While we know that Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation should be spent in prayer, attendance at Holy Mass, and in avoidance of servile work, we often pay little mind to vigils since the Church over the past several decades has virtually eliminated them. But we must honor our Lady of Fatima’s call for penance and can model our example after that of our forefathers who observed the vigils in preparation for the feast.

Works Cited:

1. Great Britain (1776): American Ecclesiastical Review (Hardy and Mahony, 1886), vol. 11, p. 469.https://www.google.com/books/edition/The_American_Catholic_Quarterly_Review/lz0QAAAAYAAJ 

2. USA (1789): American Ecclesiastical Review (Hardy and Mahony, 1886), vol. 11, p. 469.https://www.google.com/books/edition/The_American_Catholic_Quarterly_Review/lz0QAAAAYAAJ 

3. USA (1909): O'Neill, J.D. (1909). Fast. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/05789c.htm

4. Great Britain (1909): O'Neill, J.D. (1909). Fast. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/05789c.htm

5. Canada (1909): O'Neill, J.D. (1909). Fast. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/05789c.htm

6. CIC (1917): Peters, Edward N.  1917 Pio-Benedictine Code of Canon Law: in English translation, with extensive scholarly apparatus.  San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2001. https://www.jgray.org/codes/ 

7. Canada (1952): https://sspx.ca/en/rules-fast-abstinence 

8. USA (1962): Rev. Heribert Jone, “Moral Theology: Englished and Adapted to the Laws and Customs of the United States of America,” (Newman Press, 2009), p. 285.

9. Canada (1962): The Catholic Standard and Times, Volume 65, Number 19, Published January 29, 1960. https://thecatholicnewsarchive.org/?a=d&d=cst19600129-01.2.77&e=-------en-20--1--txt-txIN-------- 

10. Great Britain (1962): 1962 Roman Catholic Daily Missal, (Angelus Press, 2004). 

8 comment(s):

del_button April 9, 2024 at 12:52 PM
Anonymous said...

You might talk with the Orthodox about this.

del_button April 9, 2024 at 6:20 PM
Jovan-Marya Weismiller, T.O.Carm. said...

Anonymous ~ Why would any Catholic want to talk with heretics & schismatics when the Eastern Catholics have the same discipline?

del_button April 10, 2024 at 5:15 AM
The Masked Chicken said...


Correct if I am wrong, but I thought every solemnity has a vigil (with a proper Evening Prayer). Since every Sunday is a solemnity (with a proper Evening Prayer),
at least under current understanding, although a bit loose in semantics, there is nothing wrong with calling the evening Saturday Mass a “vigil” Mass. I agree that the term was unfortunately appropriated from the more traditional understanding. Anticipatory Mass might have been a better term.

The Chicken

del_button April 10, 2024 at 6:30 AM
Matthew said...

No that is not correct. And solemnity is a post Vatican II term. The changes made after Vatican II also affected how we refer to feast days. In 1969, the ranking of feast days was changed to solemnities, feasts, memorials, and optional memorials. In the 1962 Missal, we have First, Second, Third, and Fourth Class feast days. But for centuries before the 1962 Missal, up until the changes made by Pope Pius XII in 1955, the ranks of feast days were, from least to most important: Simple, Semi-double, Lesser Double (also known as Double), Greater Double, Double of the Second Class, and lastly Double of the First Class.

But not every single day has a vigil before it. Even if we say 1st Vespers for a day, that doesn't mean the day before the holy day is a vigil day.

del_button April 10, 2024 at 5:02 PM
The Masked Chicken said...

Dear Matthew

I understand your point and I often suffer from having to deal with this issue in other linguistic areas. General Norms for the Liturgical Year and the Calendar, article 11 says:

11. Solemnities are counted as the principal days in the calendar and their observance begins with evening prayer I of the preceding day. Some also have their own vigil Mass for use when Mass is celebrated in the evening of the preceding day.

This re-iterates what you said: Solemnity does not alway entail a vigil Mass. Unfortunately for you and I, cultural lethargy is working against us. There is a concept called linguistic broadening, wherein the scope of a reserved word is expanded beyond its original boundaries. This can happen due to historical events, general erosion of precision in language, faulty attribution, etc. In this case, the term vigil has become associated with any liturgy that has an Evening Prayer before it, since the Evening Prayer is considered part of the liturgy of the following day, a watching or vigil, if you will. The use is, strictly speaking, not true, but the association is strong enough because of the impression people have of the revised General Norms to broaden the use, at least colloquially.

Sadly, once a term has been broadened, it is almost impossible to restore it to its original pristine meaning. Sometimes, the original meaning can be lost, forever. Take, for example, the musical motet. The term in 1250 A. D. meant something completely different than in 1560 A. D. In this case, the word meaning wasn’t just broadened, it was obliterated. One of my areas of study is humor theory and we see this effect quite a lot. There are some jokes not even 100 years old, I would bet, that are completely incomprehensible, today.

This trend of language mutation is particularly troubling in the liturgy because the liturgy depends on theology and theology, as a science, must have clarity of expression and stability. Vatican II, in their quest for an approachable liturgy, sacrificed precision for participation.

Unfortunately, restoring the correct usage of the term vigil will be as hard as restoring the use of the modal scales in modern Church music. The sound has become unfamiliar to modern ears. Modern youth in 2024 are among the most badly educated with regards to history of any generation I know. I can only speak about music, but the last time youth showed as little regard for the past as today was in the early 1800’s at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. Tradition is often sacrificed during times of rapid technological growth. The Church has always been a guardian of Tradition and even in the upheaval in cultural norms after WWI did not yield. Vatican II has no historical analogue of which I can think, but it is a strange Council in that it tried to have it both ways - modernizing the Church while insisting on maintaining Tradition. The end result was and is confusion, which allows for the imprecision in language we are seeing, today.

Sorry, for the rant, but I see the decay of language before my eyes and it is very concerning of a confluence of societal forces that just can’t be healthy.

The Chicken

del_button April 10, 2024 at 5:28 PM
The Masked Chicken said...

My last comment, really :) The weird history of regarding Saturday Masses as fulfilling the Sunday obligation can be found here:


The Chicken

del_button April 10, 2024 at 6:53 PM
Matthew said...

Saturday Masses are not part of Tradition.


del_button April 11, 2024 at 6:44 AM
Anonymous said...

The sad thing is that relaxing penitential praxis, like so many other innovations for pastoral reasons, has not increased Mass attendance or born any good fruits.

Changing the fast from midnight was disastrous. The Eucharist was received as the first food of the day. One was either prepared to recieve or broke the fast and had break-fast. I think too much is made of the difference between the Pian and Pauline discipline as the principle of the Eucharistic Fast is broken regardless if the period of abstention from food is an hour or three. The consequence is now, everyone, or almost everyone receives at every Mass, even traditionalists. If anyone does not receive they are noticeable. One could also look at the collapse of the sacrament of penance and the loss of the sense of sin with the majority of Catholics today.

A return to fasting from midnight would cure many ills and solve the problem of the novelty of evening Masses.

Post a Comment

Copyright Notice: Unless otherwise stated, all items are copyrighted under a Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. If you quote from this blog, cite a link to the post on this blog in your article.

Disclosure of Material Connection: Some of the links on this blog are “affiliate links.” This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive an affiliate commission. As an Amazon Associate, for instance, I earn a small commission from qualifying purchases made by those who click on the Amazon affiliate links included on this website. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”