Tradition gives way to vigil

ST. LOUIS (CNS) — Midnight Mass used to be one of the mainstays of a Catholic Christmas. But in recent years the tradition once celebrated at virtually every parish has given way to Masses at 11 p.m., 10 p.m. or even earlier.

“The midnight Mass is a tradition that goes back to the 11th century,” said Father William McCumber, director of the St. Louis archdiocesan Office of Worship. “It’s really fulfilling the command of Our Lord to stay awake — ‘You do not know the hour of your salvation.’ It is a vigil Mass, celebrating the beginning of our salvation through the Incarnation.”

Midnight Mass is not a requirement, however, Father McCumber added.

“Usually parishes that don’t have a midnight Mass have taken into consideration the needs of their parishioners,” he told the St. Louis Review, the archdiocesan newspaper. “Parishes with an older population, for instance, and parishes with young families. They still want the vigil Mass, but may celebrate it at 10 p.m. or 5 p.m. or both.”

Father McCumber said celebrating the vigil Mass earlier can be very helpful to families. “Going to an earlier Mass can be very positive, especially when there are several places families must go on the holiday,” he said.

“The only danger I see with having the earlier Masses is based on our culture,” he added. “We have a ‘wait’ problem — the sooner we celebrate the better, and it becomes just a matter of convenience. Our celebration must truly be an anticipation of our salvation.”

Several pastors in the St. Louis Archdiocese said their late afternoon Mass Dec. 24 is usually best attended, whether or not a midnight Mass is offered.

“This is my second Christmas here,” said Father Lawrence Herzog, pastor of Little Flower Parish in Richmond Heights. “I don’t think they’ve had midnight Mass here for some time. I would have no problem if they wanted to go back to it, but I was an organist at midnight Mass before I was a priest, and doing that and having to get up the next day takes a lot out of you. And I would see people come to the midnight Mass and fall asleep.”

Father Mark Dolan, also in his second year as pastor of Annunciation Parish in Webster Groves, said: “The parish had 10 p.m. Mass when I came here, so I kept it. I haven’t sought any comments about changing it, and no one has said anything to me about it.”

He said the 4:30 p.m. Mass was so popular that it was held in the gym because the church can’t accommodate all the people who want to attend. “My hunch is that, with the opening of presents and all, it makes Christmas morning less complicated for parents,” he said.

St. Paul Parish in Fenton and Most Sacred Heart Parish in Eureka both have midnight Mass, and both pastors called it a strong tradition.

“I think having midnight Mass continues a tradition in the Catholic Church that helps people realize what Christmas is all about,” said Father Alexander Anderson, pastor of Most Sacred Heart.

Father Michael Dieckmann of St. Paul Parish agreed. “We do it out of a sense of tradition. We are lucky enough to have enough manpower that we can offer it.”

Most Sacred Heart also has a 5 p.m. Mass Dec. 24 and 7, 9 and 11 a.m. Masses Dec. 25.

“The 5 p.m. Mass — we don’t call it a children’s Mass — is very well-attended, especially by families,” said Father Anderson. “We do have a lot of young people who have the midnight Mass as their tradition. I know we let the servers pick what Masses they are to serve on Christmas, and they prefer midnight Mass.”

Catholic Review

The Catholic Review is the official publication of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.