Living well the holiest week of the year

It’s always a joy when I meet parishioners after Mass and they say, “See you next Sunday!” But there’s one exception: on Palm Sunday. 

When they say it leaving church with their blessed palms, part of me wants politely to stop them and say to them with a smile: “Do you really have no plans to RSVP for the Last Supper that Jesus ‘eagerly desires to eat with you’ (Lk 22:15) on Holy Thursday? Will you be there on Friday when, as the Negro spiritual croons, they crucify your Lord? Are you excited about Easter, such that you can’t wait to celebrate it at the earliest possible moment, which just happens to be during the most beautiful and Liturgically significant Mass of the year, the Easter Vigil?” 

The Church professes that in the Sacred Triduum — Holy Thursday, Good Friday and the Easter Vigil — the Church marks the most Sacred time of all time. We enter temporally into the eternal moments when Jesus gave us His Body and Blood in the Upper Room, sacrificed that Body and shed that Blood on Golgotha, and ultimately rose triumphant from the dead. 

And yet in my pastoral experience there are a shocking number of Catholics who faithfully come to church every Sunday who do not attend any of the moments of the Sacred Triduum. Many others come just to one of the three, normally the Good Friday Passion service. It’s very rare to find parishioners who attend all of them. 

This is, I think, one of the effects of the increasing secularizing of Catholic sensibilities. Secularism means living as if God doesn’t exist. It’s a type of practical atheism. Rather than living as 24/7 Catholics, we have our “times” for prayer, for Mass, for other religious duties, but the rest of the time, we basically live indistinguishably from those around us. 

The Church must recover a sense of full-time Catholic identity. One of the most important ways to do that is by recovering a Catholic sense of time through living well the Liturgical cycle. And one of the biggest litmus tests as to whether we have a Spiritually-calibrated watch is how we live what we proclaim to be the holiest week of the year. 

The phrase “Holy Week” refers, after all, only to one week each year. It’s supposed to be special. It’s meant to make us holy. But with the exception of the Good Friday abstinence and fasting, too many Catholics live it like any other week of the year. 

Sometimes people ask me whether priests shouldn’t be satisfied that people are coming to Mass at all on Sundays. Happy? Certainly! Satisfied? No, because we care too much about the people we serve not to challenge them to an upgrade in the way they live their faith. Holy Week is an opportunity for us to grow greatly in love of God, in appreciation of what He has done for us, and we hope and pray that those He died for will open themselves up in faith to receive all the gifts He seeks to give.

As a young boy growing up in a practicing Catholic family — not very long ago! — we always spent the Sacred Triduum of Holy Thursday, Good Friday and the Easter Vigil attending the Church’s most solemn Liturgies. It was, frankly, unimaginable that we wouldn’t. 

When I got to college, I kept up the practice and actually intensified it. On Holy Thursday, with friends, I would make the indulgenced practice of the “Seven Churches,” visiting seven altars of repose in various Boston parishes and spending time in adoration of Jesus until midnight. On Good Friday, I would head to Boston’s Cathedral of the Holy Cross for the Seven Last Words Meditations from noon to three followed by the Commemoration of the Lord’s Passion, with the beautifully chanted account of St. John. On Holy Saturday, I would return to the cathedral for the three-and-a-half hour celebration of the Easter Vigil. On Easter Sunday, I would head to Mass in my parish, celebrating Easter again with the joy of seeing the church packed. 

I never believed I was doing anything special. I thought that this was what basically every practicing Catholic did. For disciples of Jesus to miss any of these principal celebrations of our faith would have been as incomprehensible for me as a Red Sox fan’s skipping the fifth, sixth and seventh games of the World Series — when the Sox are competing in it as the American League champs. 

When, however, I returned from seminary to parish life, anticipating that the Holy Week Liturgies would be mob scenes, I discovered that they were, in contrast, rather sparse affairs, in some cases even less well-attended than Holy Days of Obligation. I didn’t know whether it was a case of insufficient catechesis on the part of priests, parents, and Religious Education instructors, or general lukewarmness on the part of parishioners, or the failure to just reflect adequately on the incredible invitations Jesus makes to us during those days. 

But I soon began to discover that Holy Thursday — pastorally — can be a little depressing. The day on which Jesus established the Holy Eucharist and founded the priesthood to make the Eucharist possible is one on which the vast majority of parishioners are doing something else than coming to celebrate these gifts and mysteries. Most Catholic faithful love the Lord but don’t come to celebrate the establishment of His extraordinary Eucharistic self-giving. Most faithful likewise love their priests, but don’t come to celebrate the “day of the priesthood” with them. 

Good Friday is a little better, when more people seem to try to come to something, whether the Passion Service, or the Seven Last Words, or the Divine Mercy Chaplet, or the Stations of the Cross. But I’ve always wondered how it’s possible for anyone to live the Catholic faith and not to seek to overcome every obstacle to come to say to the Crucified Lord “thank You for dying for me” and “have mercy on me and the whole world.” 

The Easter Vigil is more like Holy Thursday, when many priests must put on a massive recruitment effort to get people to come. Yes, it’s a Saturday night. The semifinals of the NCAA men’s basketball tourney are often on TV, as they will be again this year. It’s the longest Mass of the year by far, with many more readings and prayers than a typical Sunday, not to mention litanies and triple alleluias, fire and a lengthy clerical solo of the Exultet. But how seriously and eagerly do we approach Easter? Many just seem to pass, choosing to fulfill their Sunday “obligation” the following morning. Most have no idea of how much they’re missing. 

Occasionally someone asks, “If Holy Thursday, Good Friday and the Easter Vigil are so important, why aren’t they Holy Days of Obligation?” I think for the same reason why we don’t need laws or rules mandating the celebration of a loved one’s birthday: because it would be unfathomable that such a mandate should be needed. Obliging attendance at the principal events of Jesus’ life by which we enter into His Passover from death to life would be totally to miss the point of the interior motivation that should be bringing us there. 

Not to downplay at all the importance of any of the Holy Days, but is there any doubt that what the Church celebrates on Holy Thursday — Jesus’ self-giving in the Eucharist — is more important than what we mark on the Solemnities of All Saints Day, Mary Mother of God, the Immaculate Conception, and the Assumption? Is there any question that the celebration of the Lord’s death is more important than the Solemnity marking the Martyrdoms of SS. Peter and Paul? Is there any dispute that the Easter Vigil trumps everything, including the celebration of the Lord’s Nativity and His Ascension? 

Lent is a season of conversion and the way we live Holy Week should be the crown of that conversion process. May each of us respond to God’s help to dare to make it not only the holiest week of our year but, until now, the holiest week of our life. 

Anchor columnist Father Landry can be contacted at fatherlandry@catholicpreaching.com.


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