In this post, which appeared at 5:30 PM on Friday, I made two errors I need to correct. I neglected the link to the hymn "Crown Him With Many Crowns" which I successfully completed at 8:15 PM. Second, I erred when I stated that the bells were not rung at my church during the Gloria. Indeed, I have it from an impeccable source that the outside bells were rung on Holy Thursday, my source being none other than the bell ringer. Apologies all around!
In her 2016 work, “Sin in the Sixties,” Maria Morrow laments that as American Catholics we have lost a sense of togetherness in our guilt over our sins and our practices of repentance, such as fasting during Lent and abstaining from meat on all Fridays. I had just posted a review of her book to its Amazon site in time last week to get to my church for the solemn Holy Thursday Mass opening the 2023 Triduum. I was later than usual, so I had the chance to size up the cars in the parking lot. It was a decent sized turnout, the equivalent of a good Saturday night gathering, though the irony was not lost on me that we were about to celebrate THE mysteries of our salvation with twenty percent of our active membership [we utilize our parking lot with similar turnout five times on an average weekend].
This is not a new phenomenon; my parish in the 1950’s only conducted one set of Holy Week services, too, and the present Roman Missal is adamant that the Triduum services cannot be celebrated more than once in a day except under extraordinary circumstances. In a sense the Church is either resigned to limited understanding and interest in these holy rites, or it is tamping down expectations to avoid public embarrassment. As a kid I asked in school why Good Friday was not a holy day of obligation, and I got one of those “next he’ll be asking where babies come from” looks. The year I entered First Grade  was the same year Pope Pius XII’s reforms of the Triduum went into effect, with the primary change being the clock: all three of the major feasts, which had been celebrated in the morning [!] were moved to later in the day, closer to the actual times of the events in the Gospels. I got into the ground floor of liturgical reform.
HOLY THURSDAY 2023: GRADE C
Consider, for a moment, living as a Catholic in a world where the Holy Thursday Mass, for example, was celebrated at 8 AM, as was Good Friday and Holy Saturday. I was too young to attend the Triduum Masses when they were morning events, but I vividly recall this arrangement because of the Holy Thursday custom of “visiting the seven churches,” where devout Catholics, during the day on Thursday, walked to seven different parishes in their neighborhoods to visit the ornately decorated “altars of repose” where a Communion host in a ciborium was revered at a decorated temporary site for veneration by the faithful until the Good Friday morning service, when only the celebrant received communion. [The Good Friday service was often referred to as the “Mass of the Presanctified” in which the celebrant alone received the communion host consecrated on the previous day, Holy Thursday. We faithful did not receive communion during the Triduum until Pius XII restored the rites in 1955, a change which in turn necessitated new laws about the communion fast, which in those days began at Midnight.]
My mother was very good at getting us kids in tune with the spirit of Holy Thursday, taking us to visit several churches during the day and praying before the Eucharist in each one. This was a fine example of Dr. Morrow’s thesis that such devotions of piety bonded the parochial and communal identity of Catholics. It is true, though, that I lived in a German enclave of East Buffalo, and unofficially the Polish churches won the “contest” for the most original and extravagantly decorated repository altars. When the Holy Thursday Mass was moved to the evening in 1954, devotion at the altar of repose extended from late Thursday evening to the Good Friday service the following night—and over the years the repository altars became more modestly prepared. Today’s 1970 Missal simply calls for veneration of the Eucharist at the repository site until around Midnight on Thursday.]
Unfortunately, we live in a time when most of our celebrants and liturgical planners are not familiar with the color, devotion, and pageantry of our recent history, nor are celebrants truly familiar with all the prescriptions of the present Roman liturgical law governing Holy Week. In fairness, the instructions of the Roman Missal for Holy Week—indeed for the liturgy in general—does not offer much help to priests and students of liturgy in conveying the importance of emotional experience in the sacred rites, given the Missal’s near obsessiveness with detail. Priests ordained in the last generation or two do not always have the feel for drama, nor for Aristotle’s [384-322 B.C.] principle of unity of action expressed so effectively in his Poetics. The Encyclopedia Britannica explains Aristotle’s principle of effective dramatic portrayal: a play must be a single action represented as occurring in a single place and within the course of a day. These principles were called, respectively, unity of action, unity of place, and unity of time. The Triduum is the world’s greatest drama.
Powerful and effective worship must have the compelling emotional impact of the best Greek tragedy. Aristotle referred to the impact of drama as catharsis, the healing release of powerful emotions. “Catharsis” comes from the Greek word for “washing,” i.e., washing out our emotions. Without this emotional component of liturgy, we end up with what one of my professors used to call “talking head liturgies.” Or, in my experience, the liturgy becomes a checklist of things [separate rites] to be gotten through, without that undefinable involvement of the emotions that quickens our hearts and unites the sacred actions into an experienced whole. Consider the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he spoke with us on the way and opened the Scriptures to us?” [Luke 24:32] The Protestant theologian Karl Barth put it this way in the twentieth century, that the sermon should rouse us to a point where, at its conclusion, we demand the opportunity to loudly recommit ourselves to our Baptism, i.e., the Creed.
I scored our Holy Thursday celebration a “C” primarily because there was very little unity that grabbed the heart. I do need to acknowledge that my parish’s choir did a yeoman’s job under difficult circumstances; the position of music director has been in flux since late last year. The choir sang very well. The problem is more along the lines of what we have been singing over the years on Holy Thursday. I am not opposed to annual repetition; ritual actions and local traditions are very healthy and ideally would foster community participation. However, our Holy Thursday custom over the years has been to open with Marty Haugen’s 1991 “We Remember How You Loved us.” There aren’t five men alive who can reach the soprano range of this melody line, nor its twin tranquillizer “And I Will Raise You Up” which also makes itself annually heard, if not sung, at our Holy Thursday Mass.
What does the Roman Missal say about opening hymns in general? “The purpose of the entrance music–whether an antiphon or a hymn–is to open the celebration, foster the unity of those who have been gathered, introduce their thoughts to the mystery of the liturgical season or festivity, and accompany the procession of the priest and ministers” (General Instruction of the Roman Missal, 47). Does a ballad, any ballad, really serve this purpose? The Missal, incidentally, assumes that ordinarily the opening music will be the prescribed Psalm or text from Sacred Scripture, sung in alternating form of cantor/choir and congregation. [You can easily find this assigned antiphon in your missalette or worship guide. So, the universal Church takes as its opening motif the introductory theme for Holy Thursday Galatians 6: 14: “We should glory in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, for he is our salvation, our life, and our resurrection; through him we are saved and made free.”
If a hymn is selected, and a feast like Holy Thursday certainly is worthy of one as a supplement to the introductory Biblical verse, a much better opening hymn might be the 1851 classic “Crown Him with Many Crowns,” a more powerful hymn with a long tradition of lusty congregational involvement that resonates with the Galatians theme of the Mass in the Missal. If you want to get goosebumps, here is a rendering of this hymn from England. Or skip it and just consider its text:
Crown Him with many crowns
The Lamb upon His throne
Hark, how the heav'nly anthem drowns
All music but its own
Awake, my soul and sing
Of Him who died for thee
And hail Him as thy matchless King
Through all eternity.
The upbeat nature of this hymn, when paired with the congregational singing of the Gloria—particularly if the bells in the church are rung during the Gloria, as the Missal allows—sets the table for a strong, emotionally compelling celebration of a very conflicted night of slavery, deliverance, Passover, brotherly farewell, washing of feet, betrayal. A strong musical entry stokes the emotions and allows us to enter the depth of the events narrated later in the sacred scripture and liturgical rites. Moreover, a rousing beginning captures the dramatic sweep of this Mass, from joy to sorrow. The Missal directs that after the Gloria the organ and bells are no longer used as we head deeper into the dark night of the New Passover.
Unfortunately, the liturgy I attended began listlessly with the Haugen piece, and its residue hung over the opening rites till the Proclamation of the Word. The ringing of the church bells during the Gloria, inside and outside the church as the Missal recommends—would have helped us—and probably enthralled the children in attendance--but that special effect was not employed last Thursday in my church. Another “downer” was the unimaginative use of lighting in the church: what if, after Gloria, the church lights had been darkened noticeably. This would set a magnificent backdrop for all three biblical readings—all of which describe nighttime events.
However, the Scriptures were proclaimed very well—a selection of three unusually powerful texts detailing the First Passover, the Last Supper Rite of Institution, and John’s majestic description of Jesus’ washing of the feet of the Twelve. The homily was another matter. In various forms of poker, you better play your best hand when there is a lot of money on the table, and the same is true for homilists when preaching on such a rich array of readings as those of Holy Thursday. I officiated at 16 Triduum’s, and preaching on Holy Thursday and doing justice to this sequence of Sacred Scripture is a daunting challenge. The Roman Missal, never a font of artistic sense, is not helpful or particularly imaginative for preachers: “The homily should explain the principal mysteries which are commemorated in this Mass: the institution of the Eucharist, the institution of the priesthood, and Christ’s commandment of brotherly love.” This is a peculiar instruction because it does not gel precisely with the permanent Scriptural template of the Holy Thursday Mass, which focuses upon the Last Supper as the redemptive new Passover celebrated in a fraternity of love.”
Holy Thursday demands of homilists their most creative and affective juices, a true feel for the drama that this liturgy embodies, and I think that it catches a lot of priests off guard. We all come to know the styles and idiosyncrasies of our priests—my congregations could mimic mine and mercifully they tolerated me over the years. When our new pastor arrived a few years ago, he remarked—or was reported to have remarked—that when he mounts the pulpit, he awaits the Holy Spirit to tell him what to say. If that is the case, then the Holy Spirit was still recovering from the opening hymn on Thursday evening, because the homily opened with a reflection on the standard opening rite of the Mass, the invocation of the Trinity. A good opening—for Trinity Sunday. For the life of me, I couldn’t get where he was going---it was nowhere near the Mass readings--and it was some time into the sermon before he himself seemed to hit a thematic stride, the importance of the priesthood.
It is true that the Missal cites the institution of the priesthood as a suitable topic for the Holy Thursday homily, but when the subject is presented in a sermon or elsewhere, the discussion always seems to turn to a collective failure of the laity—i.e., we do not pray hard enough for vocations, we are not answering God’s call, we are not encouraging the young. The second half of the sermon was a mildly apocalyptic prediction of what the future would look like without priests: who will offer the sacrifice of the Mass and bring Christ upon our altars? Who will hear our confessions? Who will anoint us when we are sick and dying? Who will marry us? It reached a point where I half expected someone in the back to stand up and say, “Uh, women?” That did not happen, of course, but neither did a straight up reflection upon the heart of the magnificent Scriptures of Thursday night. Again, an opportunity of thematic unity in the evening’s liturgy was lost. We were left in that land of liturgy as the list of things to be gotten through. And, as a side thought, it strikes me as a bit unfair to blame the laity for a problem it does not control.
We proceeded to the evening’s most distinctive rite, the washing of the feet. [I was surprised to see that in the Missal the foot washing is optional.] In my parish—and certainly not just in my parish we are stuck with our architecture, which in American churches continues to be one of our biggest enemies. Most churches today are long rectangles with the sanctuary at the far front end—actually, they are blueprints for Eucharistic Reservation chapels, not the celebration of sacraments. By their definition, sacraments are outward signs that must be seen to be effective. In a flat rectangle like my church, no one past the third pew gets a glimpse of very much—and think of the parents whom we are always hectoring to bring their children to Mass. Why? So the kids can stare at the backsides of adults? I ask that question all the time and no one ever has an answer except with something like “well, it’s good for the kids and God will give them graces.” Sorry, no cigar. We can and should do better—we are a sacramental church of bread and wine realities; we receive our truth in concrete visuals, not Vulcan mind melds.
On Holy Thursday my parish—and others I have visited over the years—cobbled together an attempt at a visual solution of sorts for this feast’s most distinctive rite, the washing of the feet. In our situation this year a dozen or so candidates for foot washing were selected and sat scattered throughout the expanse of the Church at the end of their pews. The pastor then proceeded to leave the presidential chair and enters the congregation to wash the feet of those chosen. For those of us in the pews, the celebrant disappeared for 10-15 minutes, leaving a liturgical dead space for the congregation, though this year a camera operator attempted to follow him through the church and stream the washing of feet on the walls next to the altar in jumbotron fashion.
This is not how the Roman missal recommends the rite be celebrated. The older 1970 missal states that “the men who have been chosen are led by the ministers to chairs prepared in a suitable place.” The 2016 update from Pope Francis—which officially allowed women to have their feet washed as well as men—puts it this way: “Those who are chosen from amongst the people of God are led by the ministers…» (and consequently in the Caeremoniali Episcoporum n. 301 and n. 299b: «seats for those chosen»), so that pastors may select a small group of the faithful to represent the variety and the unity of each part of the people of God. Such small groups can be made up of men and women, and it is appropriate that they consist of people young and old, healthy, and sick, clerics, consecrated men and women and laity.” [And you thought IRS forms were complicated.] It seems that the 2016 revision envisions more than twelve people gathered in one place, a collective experience, following St. John’s description of the apostles having their feet washed together.
In the past, in my parish the washing of the feet did take place together in the sanctuary of the church. But “I kind of get it” as to why a pastor might go into the congregation, if he believes that more people will be exposed visually to at least one set of feet being washed as opposed to much of the congregation trying to view it with periscopes from pew 26 when the washing is done in the sanctuary. Unfortunately, we are stuck with the architectural structure we have, certainly till long after I’m gone. The Roman Missal seems mindful of the “dead space” issue and does recommend several antiphons for congregational singing during the washing rite, based upon John 13, the evening’s Gospel, which might be helpful in addressing this “dead space” problem. It would be a helpful addition to a parish’s congregational repertoire that it can sing from memory. Our congregation does respond well to “Ubi Caritas,” which is also specifically recommended in the Missal.
Progressing to the Eucharistic Prayer, it is interesting that the Missal does not demand Eucharistic Prayer I, the “Roman Canon,” be used, though it is used everywhere I have attended Holy Thursday Mass over the years, probably because it does contain a “Holy Thursday insertion.” This is the lengthiest of the Eucharistic Prayer options, and truthfully it can be ponderous, with its multiple listings of saints’ names, particularly in a Triduum Mass which is already longer than usual. In reviewing the options, I would suggest that liturgical planners might consider Eucharistic Prayer IV, a very rich text, though if there were many children and families present, it is legal to use Eucharistic Prayer II to accommodate human needs, so to speak.
Another consideration in using a shorter Eucharistic Prayer is the length of time required to kneel. Except for a few breaks at the Our Father and Communion, the congregation at Holy Thursday Mass is kneeling from the Sanctus to the end of the procession which ends the full Mass. By the time my wife and I returned from communion, we decided to sit to make our communion thanksgivings; having turned 75 recently, I can pray much better when not distracted by arthritis. And I was not the eldest person in the church, not even close. Not even in my marriage, LOL. While the Lenten season is dedicated to sacrifice and suffering with the Lord, it does not necessarily follow that those long periods of physical discomfort during the Triduum need be part and parcel of the liturgical experience, a principle that should be applied to Good Friday and the Easter Vigil as well.
The final rites of the Holy Thursday Mass include what the Missal calls “The Transfer of the Holy Eucharist.” This is another event that needs careful study and execution. The Missal speaks of carrying the Eucharist “in procession,” but the rite is not “a procession” in and of itself, in the way that we process on Corpus Christi, for example, with the consecrated host in the gold monstrance. The function of the Holy Thursday rite is the relocation of the sacrament from the altar of sacrifice to a second site for temporary storage and veneration. The Eucharist is carried in ciboria, the everyday containers used for storage and distribution of communion, and not in the more festive monstrance which might be used at other Eucharistic festivities during the year. The Missal assumes that the transfer is just that, from point A to point B, the latter a temporary and decorated site away from the body of the church. The Missal goes on to spell out what the celebrant is to do upon arrival at the temporary site—incense the Eucharist with the singing of Tantum Ergo, and then place the ciboria in the temporary tabernacle and close the door.
As I noted earlier in the piece, there is a certain drama in venerating the Eucharist in a foreign site, so to speak, and many of us have developed a devotional tradition built around the memory of Jesus being seized in the garden and taken away. Holy Thursday has a lengthy history of observance of the arrest and abandonment of Jesus; the Eucharistic relocation at the end of this Mass is “Jesus taken away.” The Missal states that Eucharistic adoration may continue at this site until Midnight Thursday, keeping vigil with Jesus in his capture and suffering.
Coupled with this transfer of the Eucharist is another rite of significant emotional power, “the stripping of the altar.” In Pius XII’s 1951 and 1955 reforms of Holy Week, the stripping was a powerful rite with its own specific sung psalms, as everything that was not bolted to the floor in the sanctuary was removed in a darkened church. The celebrant returned to the body of the church, changed the color of his vestment from white to purple, and personally engaged in the dismantling rite. As a first grader I was tremendously impressed by this rite, and even in my 70’s it remains a backbone of my affective Holy Week spirituality.
The official church documents after Vatican II demonstrate what seems to be a bit of embarrassment about the stripping, no pun intended. The 1970 Missal barely mentions it: After the Eucharist is carried to the temporary altar of repose “the priest and ministers genuflect and return to the sacristy. Then the [high] altar is stripped and, if possible, the crosses are removed from the church.” Later supplements state that the altar can be stripped at a convenient time after the service. Possibly the theologians who cobbled together the new Holy Thursday rite were more influenced by doctrinal concerns—the unity of the Mass rite, possibly--than affective spiritual ones. The stripping rite, ironically, has endured, even thrived, in many places for a half century though our trusty missalettes barely mention it at all. It has been a staple of my parish’s Triduum for all my 27 years as a member. The congregation was given a choice to join the procession with the Eucharist to its temporary repository, or to remain in the darkened church for the stripping, to the music of “Stay with me, remain with me, watch and pray.” Our congregation has developed an affinity for that antiphon. This year, the stripping rite disappeared.
Last Thursday our transfer procession with the Eucharist was not a true transfer. It was a circular route through the church and the Eucharist was returned to the main altar, where it would remain for the duration of the evening for adoration. If I had to guess, the pastor may have intended to enhance attendance at the evening’s adoration by reserving it on the altar in the main church, particularly given the U.S. Bishops’ push for greater appreciation of the Real Presence of Christ. I respect that, but I think that for children—and the little child inside all of us—the dual rites of a Eucharistic transfer to a special altar, and the solemn dismantling of Christ’s permanent home in the dark bring home Real Presence in a cathartic, poetic sense that even the pagan Aristotle would have appreciated.
GOOD FRIDAY: -A
The service was much improved over last year, as the individual veneration of the cross was replaced with the general congregational veneration silence/prayer during the rite, with the option for individual veneration after the rite’s conclusion. This took nearly two hours off the clock from last year. A very large number of folks took the option to venerate the cross after the rite, and some thought will need to go into an orderly fashion to do that next year.
The choir and lectors were excellent. The “General Intercessions” ritual— “let us pray, let us kneel, let us stand”—seems hokier to me each year, but that is the fault of the Missal itself. Can you honestly make a meaningful prayer for each detailed intention in five seconds on your knees, much of it taken up by flipping the kneeler up and down? An official change in that ritual would need to originate with the USCCB but I don’t see that happening, to be honest. Locally, we can probably enrich that rite with a longer period of quiet prayer after each intention, but without the “up and down.” I’ll never report this local innovation if attempted to the bishop’s office.
There were very few young people. Later we realized that our county’s public schools are open on Good Friday, so a 3 P.M. start eliminates an important constituency of the parish, as well as those adults who work. To my knowledge, there is no law against conducting Good Friday liturgy at, say, 7 PM.
THE EASTER VIGIL: N/A
In 2021 I convinced Margaret that the Vigil was too long and too late for us, and we have been attending the sunrise Easter Mass since then. This year, on Holy Saturday evening, we watched “Father Stu” on Amazon Prime. It was a very moving, redemptive experience, and it left us in a good place for Easter morn.
THE SUNRISE MASS: A
Sunrise Mass is truly a different experience of Eucharist that makes Easter something special. It must be a bear to set up, logistically and liturgically, so my hats off to those who labor behind the scenes. I was taken with how many old friends we encountered, those who attend other Masses than ours, or those who come only occasionally.
A funny thing happened: as the pastor was wishing us a Happy Easter before the final blessing, a little kid behind us blurted out, “Can we go home now?” Reminded me of my years in the pulpit, except that in my parishes it was the adults calling out.