Friday, October 18, 2019

Bible Vigils: Guest Article by Sharon Kabel

Last month, we published two items (here and here) about the paraliturgical “Bible vigils” which are mentioned in Sacrosanctum Concilium, and were fashionable to one degree or another during the fairly brief period when the letter of that document was still taken seriously. Writer Sharon Kabel has done some more extensive research on them, and we thank her very much for sharing the results with NLM. She has also an extensively bibliography on the subject available for consultation here.

“Include New Vigil in Family Weekend.” The Catholic Advocate, Sept. 27, 1962
Bible vigils were a Catholic phenomenon of the 1960s. They were called by a variety of names, “Bible vigil” being the most common but also “Bible” or “Biblical” “ritual, service, devotion”, “celebration of the Word”, and most confusingly, sometimes used synonymously with Vespers. The most generous timeline for their use spans 1959-1978, but their most active period was about 1963-1967 (see graphic below). While the service may have originated in Germany, they were popular around the world, popping up in Brazil, Hong Kong, Korea, and East Germany. Cardinals Bea and Döpfner celebrated one in 1964; Thomas Merton discussed them; Paulist Press and Liturgical Press both published books on them; Worship, The Bible Today, The Furrow, and Review for Religious all published numerous articles on them; at least half a dozen twentieth century archival search aids mention them; and Pope St Paul VI closed the Second Vatican Council with an interfaith Bible vigil, at perhaps the peak of their popularity.

Two men commonly associated with the development of Bible vigils were Fathers Clifford Howell and Lawrence Dannemiller. Fr Howell’s obituary notes his famous progressive positions, liturgical innovations during his World War II chaplaincy, and his relief at having four options for the Eucharistic Prayer. Most notably, he was a peritus for an Australian bishop at the Second Vatican Council, and had a significant hand in the writing of Sacrosanctum Concilium, the document that was the justification for Bible vigils. Fr Dannemiller wrote Reading the Word of God, a work frequently referenced by those who wished to construct Bible vigils. (In 1970, he married a woman without requesting formal laicization.)

Liturgy and Laity, a handbook for Bible vigils published by the Confraternity of the Precious Blood, said of Bible vigils:
Essentially, this is a prayer book for personal and liturgical use. The first part, a series of reflections followed by discussion questions, treats the fundamental truths that underlie the liturgical outlook and spirit… Personal prayer and discussion, however, are not enough. We must actually pray together if we are to be truly the family of God, His people on pilgrimage to Heaven united in His Perfect Son, Jesus. The Bible Vigils, which constitute the second part, were selected and designed to foster a continual renewal of the action of the Holy Spirit in our lives and in the Church. Prayed together in our homes, study groups, parishes, they will be a source of true Christian spirit. [emphases added]
Liturgy and Laity provided Bible vigils (and explanations, in a separate section) for 31 feasts or topics - including Septuagesima, a season which would be suppressed shortly afterward.

Sample Bible vigils

But what was a Bible vigil? Its exact structure and order varied, but it was explicitly modeled after the Liturgy of the Word, including Bible readings, a homily/sermon, prayer, silence, and music. They were usually celebrated on an important feast or liturgical season, and seem to have dovetailed neatly with the desire for Catholics to have greater exposure to Scripture, and for more use of the vernacular. They were frequently described as paraliturgical or quasi-liturgical, and the fluid format allowed for both instruction, commentary, and meditation on Scripture.

Two outlines of Bible vigils can be found here:
● Father Gerard Dubois, O.C.S.O., “Celebrations of the Word.“ Liturgy 2, no. 3 (October 1967): 1-8. This source is quite valuable, because it is open about the significant overlap between the Liturgy, the Divine Office, and Bible vigils.
● Hiley H. Ward, Documents of Dialogue. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1966. Book.

Two examples of complete Bible vigils can be found here:
● Kevin Nies O.C.S.O., “Holy Cross Abbey: A Short English Vigil.“ Liturgy 2, no. 3 (October 1967): 12-23.
● Carl J. Pfeifer S.J., “An Evening Service for Thanksgiving Day.” Review for Religious 20, no. 6 (1961): 397-407.

In all four of those resources, one can see a substantial degree of customization and flexibility allowed. Some parts are fixed, such as the reading of a specific psalm, but very often, several options for prayers, readings, and songs are provided.

Below is the Bible vigil for marriage from Liturgy and Laity: The vigil begins with an announcement from the leader, a silent prayer, a reading of Tobias 8, 1-10, a silent prayer, and an antiphon that borrows from the Nuptial Blessing. (The Introit for the Misso pro Sponso et Sponsa is Tobias 7, 15; 8, 19.)
After the antiphon, a reader reads Ephesians 5, 22-33, the Epistle for the Missa pro Sponso, followed by a silent prayer, and an antiphon from Psalm 70.
After the antiphon, all stand for the reading of John 2, 1-12, the Wedding at Cana, a pericope not used in the Missa pro Sponso, but thematically relevant.
The Gospel reading is followed by a homily or a silent prayer, a renewal of vows where appropriate, an antiphon, or prayers of the faithful, and the leader reading the Collect of the Missa pro sponso (the words “what is administered by our service” are changed to “what is performed by our ministry”), and closing with a prayer said by all.

This is basically the same format as the Liturgy of the Word, with both Old and New Testament readings, a homily, silence, communal prayer, and, in this instance, occasional mirroring of the actual nuptial liturgy. And indeed, the introduction of this book refers to Bible vigils as “liturgical events”.
Uses and Associations

The phenomenon of Bible vigils is interesting not only for its content, but also for what was commonly associated with it, especially ecumenism. Identical prayers and prayer books were used for Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, and Jewish services.
The Catholic Advocate, Volume 12, Number 5, Jan. 24, 1963
They were also associated more than once with mixed marriages, public confessions, political causes, Cursillo, and “agapes” or “love feasts.”
“(Nun) Says Farm Groups Should Federate.” Catholic News Service, Aug.17, 1965
“Mixed Marriages Permitted in Protestant Churches.” Catholic Transcript, Aug 23, 1968
Attempts were occasionally made to replace funeral services with Bible vigils, and in 1989, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops allowed the reading of the Office of the Dead to be replaced by Bible vigils.
Order of Christian Funerals; NCCB, Chicago, 1989.
Bible vigils also sometimes replaced novenas, sodality meetings, May processions, Vespers, and the Rosary - most of which are associated with Marian devotion, and all of which were regular features of mid-century parish life.
“Vespers Inaugurated At Ferndale Seminary.” Catholic Transcript, Sept. 27, 1962
Fr Gerard Dubois O.C.S.O., “Celebrations of the Word.” Liturgy 2, no. 3 (October 1967): 1-8
“ ‘Melting Pot’ an Illusion, Says Polish-American Scholar.” Catholic Transcript, Oct. 1, 1971.

“Priest, 3 Converts Demonstrate New Parish Bible Vigil Service.” Catholic News Service, Aug. 27, 1962.
While much has been written to deny the charge that the Second Vatican Council “downgraded” Mary, the reality on the parish level was sometimes felt to be quite different, and it may have been difficult to reconcile the goal of ecumenism with conflicting positions on Mary between Catholics and other Christians. A priest in 1965 denied a request for an interdenominational Bible vigil: “I will not consider ‘Ecumenism’ until some honor is given by them to our Blessed Mother.”

Hailed for their novelty (and possible future status as “liturgical rites”) in 1963, Bible vigils were upgraded to “traditional” in 1966 (right at the start of their decline), perhaps in response to growing complaints and suspicions.
National Catholic Reporter, Oct. 12, 1966
Less than 15 years later, in book “Everything You Wanted to Know About the Catholic Church but Were Too Pious to Ask”, Fr Andrew Greeley deemed Bible vigils “moribund.”

An even stranger association of Bible vigils was with a rapid and enormous decline in religious vocations. By 1971, priests leaving the priesthood was such a problem that the Vatican issued a special directive on the subject, instructing bishops on the pastoral care of ex-priests . This included stern reminders that ex-priests were absolutely not to run liturgical rites or services, but seems to have permitted them to run Bible vigils.
“Pastoral, Teaching Ban on Laicized Priests Emphasized.” Catholic News Service, March 15, 1971.

The powerful influence of Bible vigils was noted, as at least two bishops forbade them without previous permission, and one article asking for feedback on Bible vigils described them as “resembl[ing] the Liturgy of the Word in the Mass.”

What we find, then, is a prayer service designed to imitate the Liturgy of the Word while being endlessly customizable and flexible to any religious theme or political cause. Bible vigils were used as a vehicle to normalize women and girls taking active roles in the liturgy, non-sacred music, including folk hymns and jazz , parish councils, anti-Gothic architecture sentiment , increased use of the vernacular, lay people role-playing quasi-liturgical ceremonies with “Gospel enthronements”, and ex-religious using them to remain in some form of ministry.

Appendix 1: Data

Appendix 2: Selected Photos
“At East Catholic, Elective Courses Put Zip In Study Of Religion”: Catholic Transcript, June 9, 1967, Manchester, Connecticut. Caption: “At right, having decided on Bible Vigil, students practice setting up of vigil table.”
Bible Vigil, The Monitor, Dec. 27, 1963, San Francisco, California
Make Holy These Moments, The Catholic Advocate, Dec. 24, 1964, Park Ridge, New Jersey
The Catholic Standard and Times, Aug. 27, 1965, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
The Monitor, Dec. 20, 1963, San Francisco, California (?)
The Monitor, Nov. 15, 1963, Baltimore, Maryland. Caption: “Right ... group singing climaxed the discussion period following each Bible Vigil... Karen Bunda was guitarist; Father Durken is pictured in center background.”
“Mass, Bible Vigil Features of MSJA Liturgical Day”, Catholic Transcript, Oct. 10, 1963, West Hartford, Connecticut.

Crown - Regina High School Yearbook, 1965, Harper Woods, Michigan
Althoff Catholic High School Yearbook, 1966, Belleville, Illinois
Marquette - Bishop Noll High School Yearbook, 1966, Hammond, Indiana
“The Liturgy and Scripture.” Pittsburgh Catholic, Aug. 11, 1960
Paul Laverdure, “The Years of the Second Vatican Council, 1958-65.” In Redemption and Renewal: The Redemptorists of English Canada, p. 219, 1996.

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