Why, you ask, would the pope’s rite be shorter than the one in my parish? How could it be? Quite simple. Not surprisingly, the Bishop of Rome observed the Roman Missal’s instruction for the Veneration of the Cross: Paragraph 19 [the official ritual]: Only one Cross should be offered for adoration. If, because of the large number of people, it is not possible for all to approach individually, the Priest, after some of the clergy and faithful have adored, takes the Cross and, standing in the middle before the altar, invites the people in a few words to adore the Holy Cross and afterwards holds the Cross elevated higher for a brief time, for the faithful to adore it in silence [from their places in the pew.] In other words, the Universal Church directives call for a holy simplicity and does not elongate a particular part of a rite unnecessarily. Interestingly, the same principle applies to the distribution of communion at every Mass—there must be enough ministers so that the communion rite is not longer than the rest of the Mass.
I will grant that U.S. Conference of Bishops directives on its website may confuse the Good Friday cross veneration with its commentary on the Vatican’s Paragraph 19, the Veneration of the Cross. There seems to be sentiment in the USCCB office for the individual veneration of the cross by everyone in the congregation prior to the reception of Holy Communion, as occurred in my parish last Friday. Thus, from the USCCB website: “The personal adoration of the Cross is an important feature in this celebration and every effort should be made to achieve it…. It should also be kept in mind that when a sufficiently large Cross is used even a large community can reverence it in due time. The foot of the Cross as well as the right and left arm can be approached and venerated. Coordination with ushers and planning the flow of people beforehand can allow for this part of the liturgy to be celebrated with decorum and devotion.”
While the USCCB directive may be well intentioned, it is hard not to smile at the literal indicators— “the foot of the cross as well as the right and left arm can be approached and venerated.” This presents a spectacle far removed from anything inspiring reverence, i.e., multiple persons attaching themselves at the same time to the cross. It sounded for all the world like Twister. Fortunately, we did not have this kind of spectacle in my church, but we did have its opposite, twelve hundred individual acts of piety in succession—in many cases, inspiring to behold—but as my wife said to me as we began the third hour of the rite, “I think the mood has passed.” Or, as a veteran business executive said to me in the parking lot later, “Perfection is the enemy of outcome.” Or something to that effect. I knew exactly what he meant, though.
For the first hour of our Good Friday Rite, I was indeed engaged in its spirituality—particularly the Passion according to Saint John and the ancient Great Intercessions, that series of solemn prayers for all members of God’s family. Historians believe that these prayers are the forerunner to our “Prayers of the Faithful” at every Mass. This year’s Intercessions held our attention even more with a heartfelt plea for peace in Ukraine. If, at this point, we all had witnessed the unveiling of the cross and kneel for a moment at our places, and then received the Eucharist and departed for home, my soul would have been filled with the unique grace of the day.
However, at the juncture of the presentation of the Cross, it was announced that each member of the congregation would come forward and venerate the cross individually, making any devout gesture one felt moved to express. Except kissing the cross, though many people did that anyway, which would put our two attending deacons at the cross in unenviable positions as the heartless Covid cops. We sat down to wait our turns, all 1200 of us, and somewhere in the church an accountant instinctively started doing the math. I forget exactly what he told me later, but at ten seconds per person, I figured myself that the Veneration of the Cross might extend two hundred minutes. It did not miss by all that much.
My wife and I make retreats with the Trappist monks, and we know from experience [well, she does, because she attends the 3 AM Office of Readings and Meditation] that the longest communal meditation of a monk’s day is about 45 minutes. In our church the entire congregation found itself in the position of improvising something akin to meditation—at or least hold sacred thoughts—for at least twice the length of time as monks. The human mind just is not wired for that kind of unaided mysticism unless you are in a cult that stares into the sun on a river’s bank under the influence of a controlled substance.
Choirs have limits, too. Our fine choir went through every pre-Easter arrangement in their folders, and then they just shut it down, like exhausted hikers at the top of Pike’s Peak. For the next hour or two there was absolute silence in the building, like I have never heard before. Add to that, an inspiring number of parents brought their children to the service. I am always grateful when parents bring their children to Mass anywhere and anytime, but the endurance that was called forth from them caused my most intense prayer of the day— “Please do not give up this sacred tradition of the Triduum. We can fix this.” I was directly in line of vision of a father of an infant who held his baby for the entire duration.
For a good part of the second hour of the service there was little to do but sit and reflect upon what was happening and what was not happening. During this second hour an older gentleman turned to me and said, “Didn’t you people used to use three crosses?” And quickly another voice, “Yea, what is the rule about this?” So, I huddled, discretely as possible, with a small cluster in two pews explaining the provisions of Paragraph 19 and suggesting that they talk to the pastor or write a kind letter regarding next year’s planning.
Thinking back, I officiated at about sixteen Good Friday services during my years in the active priestly ministry, and I recalled how we had managed the service, mostly by postponing the full veneration of the Cross till after the formal service had completed and those who wished to leave could do so. Even so, many did stay to venerate the cross individually, and the kids could move about and visit the potty and the water fountain while waiting. The church was darkened [we held services in the evening] and I entrusted the holding of the cross to a father and son team, in part so I could sit in the congregation after divesting and witness the veneration and connect with my parishioners. The cross veneration had a powerful salutary effect as far as I could see, and working within the Vatican guideline of Paragraph 19, there was no pressure or frustration.
I also had the time while waiting my turn on Friday to think back to my seminary training on worship, and specifically to a professor who required us to read Aristotle’s [386-324 B.C.] Poetics. Aristotle put down the principles for dramatic plays, including the experience of catharsis, “the washing out of the emotions.” My professor taught us to apply this principle to the liturgy, to celebrate it in such a way that we were drawn into the action both intellectually and particularly emotionally, even viscerally. Aristotle abhorred such things as “dead space and time” or actions extraneous to the plot.
It is interesting that the term “liturgy”—the name we give to the celebration of our sacraments—comes from the Greek leitourgia, translated roughly as “public works.” Consider this definition: “In ancient Greece, particularly at Athens, a form of personal service to the state which citizens possessing property to a certain amount were bound, when called upon, to perform at their own cost. These liturgies were ordinary, including the presentation of dramatic performances, musical and poetic contests, etc., the celebration of some festivals, and other public functions entailing expense upon the incumbent; or extraordinary, as the fitting out of a trireme in case of war.” The operative word here is “work,” and the term became associated with Christian worship because all of us who assemble for sacraments are supposed to be “working” with the rite. On Friday, we spent a lot of time leaning on our shovels.
I wondered how people were managing the dead time. We had begun at 3 PM and it was after 5 PM that my pew was called to enter the queue. My line extended from near the ambo in front, all the way back to the entrance and then looped back down the center aisle. I had a lot of time to study the faces of parishioners, and I wondered what they were pondering. There were gaps in the seats; some had departed, to be sure. The old pastor in me was hoping they were not giving up on Holy Week. One irreverent thought crossed my mind—boy, this is what voting in Georgia is going to look like with the state’s new laws. A more pressing thought was the reality that we were spending three hours in a confined space with a new variant of Covid now appearing. I had neglected to bring a mask, of course.
Finally, the ceremony ended, although by this time any sense of spiritual drama or catharsis was long lost, at least for me, and we stood about with our friends in the parking lot sharing recollections and reactions. It was not an optimum way to conclude the Good Friday mysteries; my immediate frustration focused on a local lack of planning; all those parents trying to do the right thing by their children and put up against formidable odds. Aristotle was right: more is not better. On a lighter note, I was tempted to text one of the clergy who had served at the altar: “We wanted to buy you a drink after the service, but all the bars were closed by then.”
It is true, though, that the Triduum, in its present universal form, presents difficulties and contradictions that need to be revisited. The list is long, but I will stay with Good Friday. One of the most curious contradictions of the Catholic calendar is the fact that we regard Good Friday as the day Christ conquered sin forever. In St. John’s Good Friday Passion, Jesus handed over his Holy Spirit while on the cross, and the blood and water from his side splashed upon Mary and John and birthed the Church. Is there any day in our calendar besides Easter itself that embodies the meaning of Christianity? Given that, why is Good Friday of all days not a holy day of obligation?
That is an exceptionally good catechetical question, something of a chicken or the egg dilemma. Do we have just one major crowded Good Friday Service because we fear that few Catholics come out on Good Friday? Would we be better served by multiple observances of the Lord’s death on Good Friday so there were more opportunities to attend? It is little known that local bishops have the authority to allow multiple observances of the Good Friday rite. There is nothing to stop a parish from scheduling the liturgies at Noon, 3 PM, and 8 PM. The 3 PM service might be celebrated in a more family friendly style—with brevity, a simple homily, and the Paragraph 19 format of cross veneration, with the children coming forward at the close of the liturgy to venerate the cross. In all services, Paragraph 19’s guidance demands strict adherence. The musical/choir agenda in the Roman Missal for Good Friday is quite minimal and multiple services would not unduly strain the music ministers; several cantors would serve nicely.
Holy Week is an excellent time to think about our children and their experience of sacred worship. Twenty years ago, we built a church that is flat, and no child can see a thing from beyond the third row of pews, and that is a stretch. What children made of Friday’s Cross veneration is anyone’s guess. I hope someone asks them. [We are supposed to be listening to our young people in the Synodal process anyway.] I was deeply troubled—though not entirely surprised—at the findings of the 2018 St. Mary’s Press/CARA study, “Going, Going, Gone: The Dynamics of Disaffiliation of Young Catholics.” The results of this study are required reading for anyone in ministry. The biggest surprise to me was the study’s findings that the median age when a minor disaffiliates from the Church is thirteen, and commonly as young as ten. So, we must ask ourselves, is the way we worship having a positive or negative impact on children who are sizing up their future attachment?
Holy Week/Triduum was very influential in my life, but I had a tremendous advantage: in elementary school I asked the priest in charge to teach me how to be the master of ceremonies, and by the time I was in the seventh grade I was the MC for the entire Triduum of the Latin Tridentine Missal, all with deacons and subdeacons. My hubris knew no bounds. This was shortly after the rites were moved to nighttime [late 1950’s], and the priests themselves were not always sure what came next. My pastor at the time refused to be the celebrant for any services, and he passed it off to the senior associate. It was a wonderful experience to be involved in, but over the years I reflect that such an opportunity was rare for any Catholic kid.
When do you stop being a child at heart? Jesus did say, “Let the children come unto me,” and regardless of our ages we all need the engagement of a compelling liturgical experience. The liturgy of the Vatican II era, while not perfect, is an exercise in engagement when it is celebrated by the book—and that book has a great deal to say about architecture, music, and dynamic along the lines of Aristotle’s wisdom four centuries before Christ. Much of this responsibility rests with the pastor. I can tell you from experience that leading the eucharist—or any sacrament--is a divide between personal prayer [what went on inside me] and my accountability to my people to always draw them together in many tangible and intangible ways.
I hope my parish learned something from this year’s Good Friday liturgy. Will I return for next year’s Good Friday rite at my parish? It is hard to say. I will pray and reflect. I do have an alternative, as there is a Catholic Church here in my zip code—the very church where I pastored for a decade. It would be nice to “come home,” after 35 years, if just for the Triduum. I will keep you posted.
On a humorous note, my wife and I had planned to stop at Best Buy on the way home from Church. My Fitbit had a cracked face, and I was going to replace it. I used my old Fitbit to time the Good Friday service. When I was finally able to track down a Fitbit Versa 3 that evening [Best Buy was sold out], I was going to throw away my old one. But then I decided to keep it…and wear it every year at the Triduum as a memorial of sorts.