Holy Week rekindles ancient church traditions

In the days just before Easter, Catholics will often engage in some ancient religious practices — some are so rare, they’re done only once a year during Holy Week.

Beginning Palm Sunday, which is March 28 this year, and running up to Easter, a week later, “we actually act out parts from Christ’s life,” Dominican Father Vincent Kelber of Holy Family Cathedral in Anchorage told the Catholic Anchor in an interview.

In a March 2008 address, then-Pope Benedict XVI explained that Christians “share in the mystery of Christ’s suffering, death and resurrection.”

Following are glimpses of what Catholics around the world will be doing — and why.


On Palm Sunday, a week before Easter, the Catholic Church recalls Jesus’ messianic entrance into Jerusalem before his crucifixion. As Jesus rode into the city on a small donkey, people gathered around him, laying cloaks and palm branches on the road and exclaiming praises as he passed by.

So at Palm Sunday Mass, there is a blessing of palms, which the faithful hold as they process into church. The blessed palms can be kept in the home as a witness to faith in Jesus Christ, the Messianic King, and in his Paschal victory. Palms are also burnt to make the ashes used in the following year on Ash Wednesday.

Some churches host an additional, longer procession outdoors. St. Michael Church in Palmer, for example, annually hosts a procession around the city block, with a live donkey at the front of the group.

During Palm Sunday Mass, the Gospel account of the Passion of Christ is announced, with the priest, deacon, readers and congregation reading aloud, respectively, the responses of Christ, the Apostles and the crowds who appear throughout the Passion.


The cross is veiled leading up to Easter and the resurrection of Christ, as seen in this file photo from the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist in Charleston.

Beginning Palm Sunday, some churches cover or veil — with purple cloth — the religious artwork in the church; except for stained glass windows and the Stations of the Cross. In some places, the images are removed altogether.

“The custom of veiling crosses and images … has much to commend it in terms of religious psychology, because it helps us to concentrate on the great essentials of Christ’s work of Redemption,” according to Msgr. Peter Elliott, author of “Celebrations of the Liturgical Year.”

Still, the somber custom is believed to come from a 9th-century German practice of extending a large cloth called the “Hungertuch” (hunger cloth) before the altar from the beginning of Lent. The cloth — which hid the altar — was not removed until the reading of the Passion in Holy Week, at the words, “the veil of the temple was rent in two.”

Crucifixes are unveiled after the Good Friday ceremonies and all other images just before the Easter Vigil Mass on Holy Saturday.


On Holy Thursday, the Catholic Church celebrates a special Mass that commemorates the institution of the Holy Eucharist at the Last Supper. On the night before Jesus Christ was crucified, he transformed bread and wine into his own Body and Blood, and he commanded the Apostles — and their successors through the centuries — to act in his stead and re-present this sacrifice.

Now, at every Mass, by way of transubstantiation, the bread and wine offered by the priest becomes Christ’s Body and Blood again.


“Christ washing Peter’s feet” by Ford Madox Brown, 1857-58. (Wikimedia)

Just as Christ did for his 12 Apostles at the Last Supper and as he commanded them to do likewise, during the Mass of the Lord’s Supper, the priest, who represents Christ, ceremoniously washes the feet of 12 people in the congregation.

At the Holy Thursday liturgy at the Vatican, even the pope performs the washing of feet. In fact, across the centuries, it has been practice for the pope to wash the feet of 12 priests after Mass and of 13 poor men after his dinner.


“Christ in Gethsemane” by Carl Heinrich Bloch, 1875, Wikimedia Commons

After the Last Supper and before he was arrested and condemned to death, Jesus went to pray in the Garden of Gethsemane, accompanied by two of His disciples. So after the Holy Thursday Mass, some churches carry the remaining sacred hosts out of the sanctuary to an “altar of repose,” and the people go with the Eucharistic Christ in a procession.

The transported sacred hosts are sometimes surrounded by decorations of greenery and flowers to suggest a garden. People stay for a time, adoring the wondrous sacrament that Jesus instituted over 2,000 years ago. Some make an adoration visit at their own parish and then visit others into the night.


Photo by Father Barry Braum/Unsplash

On Holy Thursday, when the Mass of the Lord’s Supper is complete, the church, now without the Eucharist, is truly empty. So the tabernacle light — which is always lit and signifying Christ’s presence — is extinguished, and the tabernacle door is left open, exposing the vacant space inside.

The altar is stripped bare of its linens and candles, holy water is removed from the church’s fonts and the sacraments are not celebrated again until the Easter Vigil.

Like the first Christians bereft of Jesus and mourning the two days after the crucifixion, the church stands unadorned until the Easter Vigil Mass on Saturday night. With the resurrection of Jesus, the church’s joy is restored.


Youth depicting Simon of Cyrene and Jesus carry a cross past the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Wichita, Kan. (CNS photo/Christopher Riggs, Catholic Advance)

The Stations of the Cross devotion is centered on the Passion of Christ. While many Catholics pray the meditative prayer on their own across the year, it can be an especially poignant experience during Holy Week, when the entire church recalls the way of Jesus’ suffering and death. In fact, on Good Friday, many churches host parish-wide Stations of the Cross.

By praying the Stations, a person makes a spiritual pilgrimage to the principal scenes of the salvific Passion of the Lord, aided by artistic representations of those scenes. For example, panels depict scenes from Pilate’s condemnation of Christ to death to the nailing of Christ to the Cross, His death, and placement in the tomb.

Usually, Stations of the Cross are found inside churches, spaced at intervals on the walls, but some parishes and in the cloisters of monasteries have outdoor stations.

In the Diocese of Charleston, S.C., outdoor stations can be found at Christ Our King Church in Mount Pleasant, Holy Family Church on Hilton Head Island, and at St. Joseph Church in Columbia.


Photo by Grant Whitty/Unsplash

On Good Friday, the church gathers for the Liturgy of the Lord’s Passion, which includes a reading of a Gospel account of the Passion, Holy Communion (consecrated at Mass on Thursday night) and veneration of the Cross.

In that tradition, a priest or deacon holds a wooden crucifix while the faithful process to him at the foot of the sanctuary, as if to receive communion. There each person reverences the crucifix with a kiss or bow. This year due to COVID precautions, many will venerate the cross with a bow or by genuflecting.

In some places, there are additional Good Friday devotions. Especially from noon to 3 p.m. — the hour at which Christ died on the cross — some silently meditate, pray the Stations of the Cross, or participate in a Good Friday procession.

By Patricia Coll Freeman, CatholicAnchor.org