Pilgrims keep watch with Christ in venerable Holy Thursday tradition

The Altar of Repose at Immaculate Conception parish in Omaha Neb Credit crabby gabby via Flickr CC BY NC ND 20 CNA b The Altar of Repose at Immaculate Conception parish in Omaha, Neb. | crabby_gabby via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

On the night of Holy Thursday Christians in Rome and around the world will take part in a tradition from the early Church, obeying Christ's command to "keep watch" by making a pilgrimage to churches to adore Christ in the Eucharist together.

In Rome, this tradition takes the form of walking to seven churches, or more, to visit and pray before the Eucharist at what is called an "altar of repose," where the hosts consecrated at the Mass of the Lord's Supper are preserved for use on Good Friday.

"In each church, the altar of repose is decorated with beautiful, fragrant spring flowers and surrounded by flickering candlelight, that breaks the darkness in the rest of the church. Praying at these altars brings our hearts and minds right to the garden, as we pray there with Jesus," Ashley and John Noronha, Catholic tour guides, told CNA.
The Noronhas, a married couple, have led a group of people on the Holy Thursday church walk each of the 10 years they have lived in Rome. They have also led groups in the United States.

Each year they gather a group of friends of all ages, they said, made up of both locals and pilgrims, to take part in the church walk together, enjoying "the fellowship that comes from praying together."

They said that "the idea of visiting different churches on Holy Thursday provides an opportunity for local communities to encourage and strengthen each other in the faith."

John and Ashley noted that one particular blessing of being in Rome – a city with more than 900 churches – is that it is easy to visit the many beautiful and historic churches by foot since they are in such proximity to one another.

The tradition of the seven churches walk is believed to have begun in Rome during the first centuries of the Church. The idea was born out of trying to keep vigil in the same spirit as the disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane, John said, even though they failed to stay up and pray as Christ asked.

The pilgrimage emphasizes two things: One is the actual act of prayer, following Christ's plea to keep "vigil" with him, so that we do not "fall into temptation, since our spirit is willing, and flesh is weak."

The other is the building of community, since people throughout the city gather together to pray, Ashley said. "We are already united through our Catholic faith, but the fact that we all get to be in close proximity as well… is just really powerful."

"There's something special that happens when people pray together; friendships can really be born from that," she continued.

"The flowers of course bring us to the garden, that idea that we're there with Jesus, praying, trying to keep our eyes open, to fight our weaknesses," Ashley said.

"I certainly like the aesthetic part of it, in the sense that here we are getting to be with Christ in this incredible atmosphere: the fragrant flowers, the beautiful flickering candlelight. It's a feast for the senses."

The couple encouraged others to consider beginning the tradition in their own communities if they do not have a group to join. They advised to begin by reading about the tradition to really understand what it is first; both the spiritual significance and the historical symbolism.

The walk is "a beautiful opportunity to have not only a spiritual experience, but also one of fellowship with people," John said. He added that people should not worry about the size of the group at first, but just to invite their family, or three or four people, as a starting point.

Those few people "will have such an amazing experience they will bring others" the next year, and "it will just grow," he said.

From a logistical perspective, Ashley encouraged calling local parishes ahead of time to find out which will be open and what hours. Then to plan a route to share ahead of time so that people can join in at any point in the evening.

Traditionally, churches remain open until midnight, when they are closed to symbolize Christ's abandonment by his apostles the night of his imprisonment.

More in Europe

They also said that while the tradition in Rome is to visit seven churches (influenced by St. Philip Neri's pilgrimage to the seven major basilicas, which started in the 1500s), places around the world have their own tradition of what number to visit.

"According to tradition, the number of churches visited would vary depending on the location in the world and proximity of churches," John said. Therefore, the tradition can be adapted to fit what is possible in each community.

John said, for example, that in the Eastern Orthodox Church the tradition is to visit eight churches, and in some places in India, there are prayer groups who will keep vigil all night long on Holy Thursday.

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