When it comes to midnight Mass, times have changed
By R.A. Monti
Monday, Dec. 24, 2012, 12:46 a.m.

Every year around Christmas, Monsignor James Gaston, pastor at St. Margaret Mary Roman Catholic Church in Lower Burrell, puts an odd question to his parishioners.

“I always ask, ‘What time is midnight Mass?' ” Gaston said. “Of course, it's at 10:30.”

Because of changing demographics and parishioner preferences, St. Margaret Mary is just one of many Roman Catholic churches in the Alle-Kiski Valley and nationwide that hold the church service, normally reserved for the first minutes of Christmas, at an earlier time on Christmas Eve.

“It's the same Mass,” Gaston said. “The pre-Mass program is the same. The only difference is the time.”

According to the Diocese of Pittsburgh, midnight Mass doesn't have to be celebrated at midnight.

The actual name for midnight Mass is “Mass at night,” and it can be celebrated anytime between 9 p.m. Christmas Eve and 4 a.m. Christmas Day.

The origins of midnight Mass date back to the early days of the church, when services for Christmas and Easter couldn't be celebrated until the day the holiday began.

Now, the church allows for Masses called “vigils,” which can be celebrated after 4 p.m. the day before the actual holiday.

Even St. Paul Cathedral in the Diocese of Pittsburgh celebrates its midnight Mass at 10 p.m., Christmas Eve, presided over by Bishop David Zubik.

In contrast, the Greensburg Diocese's Bishop Lawrence Brandt will celebrate Mass at midnight in Blessed Sacrament Cathedral.

“There's nothing magical about the midnight hour,” Gaston said. “It's the texts of the Mass and Scripture that really matter — not the time.”

Gaston said his parish changed midnight Mass to 10:30 a few years ago because of attendance issues.

“In the old days, midnight Mass was the big Mass for Christmas,” he said. “It's different now. More and more families, especially those with young children, come to 4 o'clock Mass.

“Making our last Mass start at 10:30, it's not too late at night, so it's easier for people to get out.”

The Rev. William Lechnar, pastor at Mother of Sorrows Church in Murrysville and the director of planning for the Diocese of Greensburg, said Western Pennsylvania's demographics have a lot to do with many churches celebrating their “Mass at night” earlier.

“Western Pennsylvania has an aging population,” he said. “A lot of people who used to go to midnight Mass were younger when they went. They're older now, and it's hard to expect them to come out so late and stay up until 4 a.m.”

Not every church has an early midnight Mass.

“It's a tradition here at our church to have midnight Mass,” said Monsignor Michael Begolly, the pastor at Mount St. Peter Church in New Kensington. “Most of our parishioners have the traditional Italian fish dinner and then come to midnight Mass.”

Begolly said that Mount St. Peter's midnight Mass is a tradition that people in his parish look forward to.

“You see the same faces every year,” he said. “It's just a tradition they follow.

“Our choir does a program beforehand. Many people like the reason to stay up late.”

Begolly said tradition isn't the only reason Mount St. Peter keeps its midnight Mass.

“We have people who come to our midnight Mass from other parishes just because they want to go to at the traditional time,” he said. “I'm sure some of our parishioners go to other churches earlier.”

Would Begolly think of moving the time of Mount St. Peter's service?

“Never,” Begolly said.

About midnight Mass

The Rev. William Lechnar, pastor at Mother of Sorrows Church in Murrysville and the director of planning for the Diocese of Greensburg, said that holding Christmas Mass at midnight once served a practical purpose for Catholics.

“Before Vatican II (a conference in the 1960s that created new rules for the Church), Catholics had to fast from midnight until they received Communion,” he said. “Having Mass at midnight allowed those folks to receive Communion and then enjoy all the foods that go along with celebrating the holiday.”

Lechnar said there are four Masses that Catholics can celebrate for Christmas:

• Christmas Vigil, held anytime between 4 and 9 p.m. on Christmas Eve.

• Mass at night, held anytime between 9 p.m. on Christmas Eve and 4 a.m. Christmas.

• Mass at dawn, held anytime between 4 a.m. and 10 a.m. Christmas.

• Mass during the day, held anytime between 10 a.m. and midnight on Christmas.

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