As churches reopen for the public celebration of parish Masses, some of us find ourselves celebrating the Sacraments of Initiation - delayed from Easter - on this Vigil of Pentecost. So one - utterly unintended - consequence our current crisis may be a rediscovery of the ancient baptismal character of Pentecost and particularly its long-lost Vigil.
That Pentecost paralleled Easter as a baptismal festival has long been a well known fact of liturgical history. Tertullian, for example, called Pentecost "another solemn day of Baptism" (De Baptismo, 8, 1). In the ancient Roman liturgy, the stational church for the night-long Vigils of both Easter and Pentecost was the Lateran Basilica. By the Middle Ages, in the absence of adult catechumens, those ceremonies were routinely celebrated in the afternoon - after the canonical hour of None. Like the Masses on other penitential days, by the end of the Middles Ages they too continued to be celebrated after None, but None itself and the rites that followed had by then been anticipated to early morning.
Such was the strange state of affairs until the 1955 Holy Week Reform, which moved the Easter Vigil to Saturday evening but saw no point in trying to preserve the Pentecost Vigil, which it simply abolished, leaving only the festive Vigil Mass in red vestments on the Saturday morning before Pentecost. Then even this vestige of liturgical antiquity was eliminated in the 1969 Missal. (Of course, at that time, hardly anyone was thinking about, let alone expecting, a restoration of the practice of baptizing adult catechumens at either Easter or Pentecost. The Vigil had become an occasion to bless baptismal water for the coming year - much as Holy Thursday blessed oils for the coming year - but not about actually baptizing anyone, although that possibility remained on the rubrics.)
Admittedly, those who lament the losses the 20th-century inflicted on the Roman Rite are probably few and far between. Outside of monasteries, seminaries, and similar such settings, who even attended or otherwise paid much attention to such ceremonies, especially the Easter and Pentecost Vigils, probably the most poorly attended major ceremonies of the year? As one of my aunts once said of sung Masses in general, who needs them? (I didn't agree with her then and don't now, but I am sure lots of others did and do.)
And, obviously, such critics do have some point. There are undoubtedly far more pressing problems to worry about than our hopeless contemporary disconnection from our ritual heritage (however much that disconnection remains a real impoverishment in our present experience and limits our abilities to imagine alternative futures). Yet, here we are, baptizing and confirming catechumens once again on Pentecost eve, but without the ancient ritual resources from our tradition to contextualize that celebration.
Restoring the pre-1955 Holy Week and Vigil of Pentecost is a pointless pipe-dream, except perhaps in enclosed and semi-enclosed communities that can celebrate such ceremonies properly and that want to make such rituals a badge of their communal identity. That said, however, a more pastorally sensitive and relevant future Order of Christian Initiation of Adults, if and when we get one, would do well to reconsider our ancient rites and how to retrieve elements from them to re-contextualize the Church's experience of Initiation for our re-paganized, post-Christian age.