The Ceremonies of Holy Saturday in the Papal Chapel and St. John Lateran as Described in 1839

The following is an excerpt taken from C.M. Baggs work, "The Ceremonies of Holy Week at the Vatican and St. John Lateran's Described" which was published in Rome in 1839. Those interested in this work can find it online. This particular excerpt describes the ceremonies of the Sistine chapel which traditionally took place on this day,

The ceremonies of Holy Saturday morning may be arranged under three headings: 1. The blessing of the fire and of the paschal candle; 2. The preparation for, and ceremonies of, baptism: 3. The litany and Mass. All three allude, as we shall see, to the resurrection of Christ, which is the great object of our devotion on this day. In Rome two sanctuaries are the great centres of attraction in the morning, viz. S. John Lateran's on account of the baptism of adults, and the Sistine chapel, where the service is always beautiful, and particularly so on this day. We shall first give an account of the ceremonies observed in the latter, and shall then describe the additional interesting rites of S. John Lateran's.

1. As the missal prescribes, the altar is covered at a convenient hour, and the candles of the altar, are not lighted til the beginning of the Mass. A light, from which the charcoal for the incense is enkindled, is struck from a flint in the sacristy; where also M. Sagrista privately blesses water. The cardinals enter the Sistine chapel vested in their purple cappae: the maces are reversed, as on [Good] Friday. Meantime in the sacristy the Cardinal Celebrant wearing a purple cope and mitre, and assisted by the sacred ministers, blesses (as usual with holy water and incense) the fire and the five grains of incense, which are to be fixed in the paschal candle. The Cardinal afterwards changes his cope for a chasuble, which is purple, as well as that of the subdeacon; hut the deacon, as he is going to bless the Paschal candle, wears white dalmatic. They then enter the Sixtine chapel; where, having put incense into the thurible, the Cardinal remains: but the deacon, the subdeacon who carries the cross, and the other ministers go to the Pauline chapel, whence a procession returns in the following order. After two mace-bearers comes an acolyte with the five grains of incense, and another with the thurible; then the subdeacon carrying the cross; and the deacon with a reed, at the top of which are 3 candles united together. At his left hand is a Master of ceremonies with a small candle lighted from the blessed fire, and he is followed by two other acolytes. When the deacon arrives at the door of the cancellata one of the three candles is lighted, and all genuflect, except the subdeacon: the deacon then sing^s, Lumen Christi the Light of Christ, and the choir answers, Thanks he to God, Amen. The other two candies are lighted in turn, as the Deacon approaches nearer to the altar, singing tho same words each time, but gradually in a higher tone, he then gives the reed to an acolyte and before he sings the exultet or blessing of the Paschal candle, he receives the benediction of the Cardinal Celebrant, who once more puts incense into the thurible.

The deacon goes to the book, and has the subdeacon and the thurifer on his right hand, and on his left two aeolytes, one of whom holds the reed, and the other the plate containing the five grains of incense. All stand, as at the gospel: he incenses the book, and then sings the Exultet. After the words curvat imperia, he fixes in the candle the five grains of incense in the form of a cross. At the words ignis accendit he lights the paschal candle with one of the three lights (With regard to the triple candle, we may observe that on an ancient marble column preserved in the piazza before the cathedral of Capua is a bas-relief representing the lighting of the paschal candle by means of a reed surmounted by 3 small candles... The triple candle is mentioned in the Ordo Romanus of Cardinal Gaetano, in that of Amelias, and in a MS. Pontifical of the church of Apamea , ap. Martene. As Thomassin observes, "we light a candle divided into three in honour of the Trinity, considering that enlightened by Christ we know that recondite mystery." In the Greek service the bishop gives his blessing, as often as he sings [the divine liturgy], with a triple candle. In the Latin church it is used only on Holy Saturday). When the blessing, as it is called, is ended, the paschal candle is left lighted near the pulpit and the triple candle is placed near the altar on the gospel side. The deacon then takes off his white vestments, puts on others of a purple colour, and joins the Cardinal celebrant, who accompanied by the Ministers takes his seat on a faldstool near the altar on the epistle-side, to hear the prophecies recited.

2. The administration of the Sacrament of Baptism forms an important feature in the ceremonies of this day: indeed anciently it was customary to confer it only on Holy Saturday, and the eve of Whit Sunday, except in case of necessity. On these two days those catechumens who were sufficiently instructed, and also children, used to be baptized by the bishop, and by the bishop of Rome as well as others and after they had been baptized, they all received Confirmation and the Holy Eucharist.

The twelve lessons or prophecies read on this day were intended for the instruction of the catechumens; and they are well selected for that purpose, as they contain an account of the creation, the flood, the obedience of Abraham, the deliverance of God's people from their enemies at the Red Sea, the precept concerning the paschal lamb, the conversion of Nineveh, the refusal of the three children to adore Nebuchadneezer's statue, etc. they are twelve in the ancient Gelasian Ordo. They are sung in the Sistine chapel by members of the papal choir, and are read by the Cardinal celebrant. After each prophecy the Cardinal standing up sings a prayer: the deacon chants Flectamus genua before each, except the last, when the knee is not bent, in order to shew abhorrence of the idolatry exacted by Nabuchadneezer for his statue. After the 4th, 8th, and 11th prophecies an appropriate Tract is sung by the choir. Formerly some or all of these prephecies were said in Greek as well as in Latin. These lessons are recited even where there is no baptismal font, as at the Sistine chapel. After them follow in S. John Lateran's and other churches the blessing of the font, and in sonic of them the administration of baptism.

3. In the papal chapel, immediately after the prophecies, the Celebrant takes off his chasuble, and prostrates himself with the sacred ministers on their faces before the altar; all the others kneel, and two soprano voices from the choir chant in the middle of the chapel the greater litanies, called those of the saints, each petition of which is repeated in the same words by the choir. At the verse "Peccatores te rogamus audi nos" the assistant priest and ministers go to the sacristy, and put on white vestments. Then returning to the chapel they assist the Cardinal Celebrant to put on his white vestments at his faldstool. The candles are now lighted (at the Agnus Dei of the litany, as the Sacramentary of S. Gregory prescribes); the purple veil which covered the throne and the purple paliotto [antependium] or facing of the altar are removed; and both appear decked in white. The Cardinals assisted by their caudatarii take off their purple cappae, and put on others of scarlet brought in by their respective camerieri. The reason of this sudden change from mourning to rejoicing we have already seen: the celebration of Christ's resurrection from the dead is celebrated by anticipation.

At the end of the litanies, the Pope (if His Holiness were not present at the preceding ceremonies) enters the chapel, wearing a white cope and a mitre; at the foot of the altar he repeats as usual the beginning of the Mass with the Cardinal Celebrant at His left hand: in the meantime the choir sings solemnly the Kyrie eleison etc. (as there is no Introit of the Mass, because the people were assembled in the church previously): the Pope goes to His throne, and receives the usual obedience; and the other customary ceremonies of High Mass in the papal chapel take place with such exceptions as we shall now mention. As soon as the Celebrant commences the Gloria in excelsis the veil is removed from the tapestry over the altar, which represents Christ rising from the dead, the canons of S. Angelo are discharged, and the bells of the city are tolled, to announce to its faithful inhabitants the resurrection of their Divine Lord.

After the epistle, sung as usual by the subdeacon, another subdeacon (Auditore di Hota) wearing a white tonicella or tunic announces at the foot of the throne the joyful tidings to His Holiness by chanting aloud; "Pater sancte, annuntio vohis gandium magnum, quod est, alleluia" having then kisses the Pope's foot he returns into the sacristy, This word of joy, alleluia,(praise God) which had not been once uttered during the long season of mourning which preceded this solemnity, is now sung 3 times by the celebrant, gradually raising his voice to a higher tone. The choir reechoes it each time singing it in contrappunto, and then chants the verse Confitemini and the tract, which is ordinarily recited in penitential times. Throughout the Mass the joy of the church is incomplete, for though Christ has risen from the dead, He has not yet appeared to His disciples, and the light of faith is still overclouded, as Alcuin remarks: hence lights are not carried at the gospel; the Creed; the Offertory, motet and Agnus Dei are omitted, and the kiss of peace is not given...

After the Celebrant has communicated, Vespers are sung by the choir, in place of the communion and postcommunion. They consist of the anthem Alleluia repeated 3 times before and after the short psalm Laudate Dominum omnes gentes etc; of the anthem Vespere autem sabbati, which the Celebrant commences and the choir continues; of the Magnificat, and in fine of the prayer which is chanted by the Cardinal Celebrant. While the anthem before the Magnificat is sung, the Pope puts incense into the thurible; the celebrant incenses the crucifix and altar, and is incensed by the deacon, and the incensing continues as after the offertory at High Mass. At the Gloria Patri the deacon, having incensed the Cardinal priests, bows his head in the middle of the chapel, and then proceeds to incense the Cardinal deacons. After the prayer, Ite Missa est, Alleluia, Alleluia, is sung; and the choir answers Deo gratias, Alleluia, Alleluia; the Pope gives the usual blessing, the Celebrant publishes the indulgence of thirty years, and this beautiful service terminates.

In the sacristy His Holiness puts on a Mozzetta of white (instead of red) damask, and wears it during the whole of Easter week. The Cardinals put on red mantellettae and mozzettae over their purple cassocks; these they afterwards change for others of scarlet.

The Mass sung on this day is that of Palestrina's "Missa Papae Marcelli"...

The ceremonies of Holy Week are performed at S. John Lateran's by the chapter of that proto-basilica, and resemble for the most part those which we have already described. On Holy Saturday however, in addition to the rites before-mentioned, the font of the baptistery is blessed by the Cardinal Vicar, baptism is solemnly administered there to adults, the baptized are confirmed in the church, and ordination is conferred during Mass upon candidates for the priesthood...

Note: The photo at the beginning of this article does not actually show the Paschal Vigil, however it is presented to give our readers at least some visual sense of the occasion.

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