'Opportunities for conversion' - the liturgies of Holy Week

Pope Francis lighting the Easter candle before the entrance procession of the Easter Vigil Mass in St Peters Basilica on April 4 2015 Credit LOsservatore Romano CNA Pope Francis lighting the Easter candle, Easter Vigil 2015. | Vatican Media

Any priest will tell you that Easter Sunday Mass is one of the most highly attended of the year, alongside Christmas Mass and, at least in the United States, Mass on Ash Wednesday. But Easter Sunday Mass, while popular, is not the only important or beautiful liturgy celebrated during the days of Holy Week and the Easter Triduum.

In fact, the liturgies of Holy Week are designed to foster in Catholics an intimate and historical connection to the Church, and to death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Timothy O'Malley, director of the Notre Dame Center for Liturgy, gave CNA insight into the symbolism and foundations to the Chrism Mass, Mass of the Lord's Supper, Tenebrae, Good Friday of the Lord's Passion, and Easter Vigil.

Chrism Mass:

The Chrism Mass is one of the largest annual gatherings of the priests in each diocese. During the Mass, clergy are encouraged to renew the promises made at ordination, and laity are invited to renew their baptismal promises.

Traditionally celebrated on the morning of Holy Thursday, the diocesan bishop blesses three sacred oils: the Oil of the Sick, the Oil of Catechumens, and the Chrism Oil. The oils are distributed to the parishes in the diocese and are used for the sacraments of anointing of the sick, ordination, confirmation, and baptism.
The Oil of Catechumens "will be used for anointing before baptism, as well as anointing catechumens throughout the process in which they enter the Church" O'Malley explained.

Chrism "is the traditionally fragrant oil which is used for the ordination of priests, used for post-baptismal anointing for infant baptism, and is used for the sacrament of confirmation," he added.

Oil of the Sick is used in the sacrament of the anointing of the sick.

O'Malley emphasized the importance of the symbolism of oil in the Old Testament for royalty and healing and the importance of Jesus's identity as the "anointed one."

The blessed oil is "evidence of Christ being there as the anointed one who comes to anoint in the threefold vocation as priest, prophet, and king, but also anoint in healing, to anoint those who are suffering so that the oil becomes an image of Christ."

Mass of the Lord's Supper:

The Mass of the Lord's Supper celebrates the institution of the Eucharist and includes a physical reenactment of Christ washing his apostles' feet.

O'Malley said the Mass focuses on three aspects of Christ's life: the gift of the Eucharist, the Passion, and the foot washing.

"For the Mass of the Lord's Supper there is the gift of Christ in the Eucharist, this gift which is an image of his own gift upon the Cross. The liturgy itself, it concludes with this kind of Eucharistic procession and then we wait with Christ in the midst of his Passion."

The foot washing, O'Malley said, "is actually very interesting, it was often done in monasteries, where the guests would have their feet washed. It entered into the liturgy itself, where there would be the washing of the feet of the 12, as the sort of image of washing of the 12 apostles."


Latin for 'darkness,' Tenebrae is a form of the Liturgy of the Hours on the eve of Holy Thursday, which prepares the participants for the coming darkness of Christ's death and his descent into hell.

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With roots in the ninth century, Tenebrae vigils were once celebrated at most parishes throughout Holy Week, and included Psalms and Lamentation readings and the extinction of candles.

"It involved the reading of Lamentations, the gradual extinction of candles, and then the sort of beating of the pews that you would hear to represent the noise of Christ descending into darkness to transform it," said O'Malley.

Tenebrae liturgies are still celebrated in many parishes.

Good Friday of the Lord's Passion:

The Good Friday liturgy is not a Mass, but a service reflecting on the Passion of Christ and the power of the cross.

Participants listen to the scripture of Christ's passion and venerate the cross. Worshipers kiss the cross, a practice recorded by the fourth-century pilgrim Egeria. While the cross is kissed, O'Malley said, two ancient hymns are sung: the Reproaches and the Pange Lingua.

The Reproaches, or the Improperia, are a series of chants and responses, which reflect on Christ's lamentations during his Passion. One of the lines is "I led you out of Egypt, from slavery to freedom, but you led your Savior to the cross."

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Written by the St. Fortunatus, the Pange Lingua celebrates the life-giving power of Christ's Passion. O'Malley said the hymn "describes the cross as this flowering of new life, the tree of life rather than the tree of death."

Good Friday's liturgy does not include the Eucharistic consecration, O'Malley said, but the Holy Eucharist is already sanctified and distributed to the worshipers.

Easter Vigil:

At the Easter Vigil, the Paschal candle is blessed and lit outside the Church, and worshippers assemble with unlit candles. As the priests process to the altar, the fire of Christ's light is passed from candle to candle within the Church.

The Easter Vigil is the pinnacle of the Triduum, said O'Malley, drawing attention to Christ's light, which abolishes darkness, and to his salvation, which is now opened to the catechumens.

"All candles have been extinguished, all darkness has descended, now new light is lit in this Easter fire."

Worshipers hear the story of salvation through seven Old Testament readings, Psalms, and then a Gospel passage recounting Christ's resurrection. Converts to Catholicism are baptized and confirmed, welcomed into the communion of the Church.

Participants "listen to the fullness of salvation that is revealed finally in Christ, culminating in a reading of the Gospel of the resurrection," said O'Malley. "Then of course there is the celebration of the Eucharist, this sort of concluding sort of moment in which the Church is illuminated and sings in praise."

A Triduum of Conversion

A new Marist poll sponsored by the Knight Columbus found that 73 percent of all Americans who identify as Catholic plan to attend Church services on Easter. Among those who identify as "practicing Catholics," 95 percent plan to attend Easter services.

Younger Catholics, those under 45 years of age, report themselves just as likely to attend Easter Sunday Mass as Catholics older than 45.

Fifty-four percent of American Catholics intend to attend services on Good Friday, and 78 percent of practicing Catholics say they will attend a Good Friday liturgy.

In a press release announcing the results of that poll, Knights of Columbus CEO Carl Anderson emphasized the importance of attending Good Friday liturgies.

"There is no Easter Sunday without Good Friday," Anderson said. "Those who take the time to attend the solemn afternoon liturgy will benefit from a rich source of meditation and reflection, and it will better prepare them for Easter and make it an even more joyous day."

Father Andrew Menke, executive director of the Secretariat for Divine Worship at the US bishop's conference, told CNA that the liturgies of the Triduum are an opportunity for conversion.

"I suggest trying to have a strong sense of what it would have been like in Jerusalem during those days, what it would have been like to have been one of the apostles and one of the Lord's friends or would have been someone in the crowd to have seen these things," Menke said.

Menke said that during the Holy Week liturgies, "people have had a deeper experience of how much sin costs and why it's so horrible – why I want to live a better life for example. That's the sort of thing contemplating on Good Friday would move a person towards. Or how much my Lord loves me, [as we] relive him washing the apostles' feet, for example. I think a lot of people have had a conversions to a deeper sense of the Eucharist through what our Lord did at the Last Supper."

He also said that life experience can deepen the experience of worship during the Triduum. "Some people, especially people who have suffered a lot, the resurrection takes on a whole new meaning. You learn these things when you were a kid, but sometimes having life experiences as an adult, having lost people you love, Easter can have a big impact on a person. Enkindle a deeper kind of hope and trust in the Lord's Providence, [as we] see how he conquers death."

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