Saturday, April 16, 2011

Remembrance of Holy Weeks Past

Pardon the Proust-ism; but, for someone born and raised in the post-World War II Catholic "sub-culture," Holy Week inevitably triggers a host of memories. Undoubtedly Christmas made more of an overall impact on my childhood world, but Christmas permeated practically all aspects of life - secular as much as religious. Holy Week's larger-than-life impact was comparably powerful, but, with a few exceptions, was almost entirely religious, almost exclusively "churchy." The exceptions included the stress-inducing last-minute shopping for Easter clothes - an altogether obnoxious social ritual which added a certain note of personal anxiety to my Easter - and the distracting domestic atmosphere of house-cleaing and food-shopping for Easter, although the latter largely concerned my parents and affected me only minimally. (I can remember when my father started getting off early on Good Friday, how my mother would be waiting for him to, so that they could go shopping at the Italian market on Arthur Avenue).

But. for a nerdy kid quite confused about himself ,who found some solace in reading and in religion, Holy Week was wonderful. The Parochial School setting cooperated, of course, by focusing our attention on what went on in church - and then by shutting down completely at mid-day on Wednesday.

I have only the most minimal memories of Holy Week as it was celebrated prior to Pius XII's reform. I can remember attending the Holy Thursday procession one year when it was still in the morning - probably when I was in 1st grade, which would have made it 1955, the last Holy Week before the reform. I remember visiting a neighbor in an upstairs apartment with my mother on Good Friday one year (perhaps the same year), when my grandmother came home and admonished us to go to church and kiss the cross exposed for veneration at the steps of the altar rail. Best of all, I can remember our domestic Holy Saturday ritual. In those days, of course, the Easter Vigil service was celebrated in the early hours of Saturday morning. So hardly anyone (besides my grandmother) was in church to hear the indoor bell-ringing at the Gloria. (I do remember one year being brought to church later that morning to be shown that the statues had been uncovered). But then, promptly at noon on Saturday, when Lent ended and Easter at that time officially began, my grandmother would sit us all down at the kitchen table and tune the radio to the Italian station, where we could hear the bells of Rome’s several hundred churches (recorded earlier at noon Italian time) all peeling gloriously, while we cracked open our Easter eggs (which we had colored together as a family the night before).

I remember my mother weaving palm crosses on Palm Sunday and our placing them in all the rooms of the apartment (and later taking some to the cemetery). After 1955, however, my memories are more focused on the official ceremonies of the Reformed Holy Week Liturgy in our big, beautiful parish church (some of which I also eventually particpated in as an altar server). While perhaps not perfect in all respects, the popular 1955 reform of Holy Week still stands out in my mind as a good example of a well done liturgical reform.

On Holy Thursday, we were required to attend a school Mass in the morning. At some point, however, I eventually started attending the evening Mass of the Lord's Supper - a liturgy I came to love. I still do, and am grateful that Thursday's is the Holy Week ritual that was least mangled by the post-conciliar reform. Visiting the Repository on Good Friday was very popular in those days too. I too liked visiting it - not that I prayed all that much, but I loved the beauty of it and was quite taken with watching all the work that went into keeping the candles lit, etc.

Post-1955, people were really taken with the novelty of receving Communion on Good Friday, something they had not been permitted to do before. (Part of me wonders whether it might have been better to end the Good Friday liturgy with the Veneration of the Cross, but that would elminate the rationale for the Holy Thursday procession, one of my favorite moments of the entire week). Anyway, the introduciton of Communion for the people on Good Friday made the Good Friday afternoon service very popular, despite its seeming strangeness. Children were discouraged by the parish and school authorities from taking up precious space in the church at the 3:00 service on Good Friday afternoon. (That was back when a 1200-seat church was still routinely filled for services!) Even so, children did go to the Good Friday service. I enjoyed it because it was so special and unique - especially the constant up-ing and down-ing during the 9 Intercessions. The priest would sing Oremus, and before the Deacon had even begun his Flectamus genua we'd all get down on our knees, ready to jump up at Levate. Not much prayer went on, I suspect, in that far too brief interval, but it was fun.

I didn't start attending the Easter Vigil until High School. It too was sufficiently unique to fascinate, but by then I also already knew enough about liturgy that I could actually appreciate the vivid symbolism of the evening. The historic heart of the Vigil - the Old Testament readings (thankfully reduced from 12 to 4 by Pius XII's reform) and the accompanying prayers (complete with more up-ing and downing to the familiar tune of Oremus, Flectamus genua, and Levate) were pretty boring, but the procesison with the Paschal Candle in the darkened church, the lighting of the congregation's candles, and the chanting of the Exsultet by the deacon (who had switched form purple to white vestments for it) were all grand. Interesting too was the sung blessing of the baptismal water, with its arcane rituals of blowing on the water and mixing oils into it. Then came the change from purple to white vestments for what waas to my mind the highpoint of the service - the singing of the Gloria and the ringing of the bells. To this day, I often remark that the two parts of the Easter Vigil that I still like are the Exsultet and the ringing of the bells. If Holy Thursday was the least altered in the reforms of the 60s, the Easter Vigil was changed the most - being transformed in its structure from an actual Vigil (closing with the first Mass of Easter) to what structurally seems more like a very long Mass.

Easter morning Mass, which, as a celebrant, I now look forward to as the height of the Triduum, was somewhat overshadowed then by that tiresome business about the new clothes and everyone comparing outfits. Serving Mass as an altar boy, there was the added anxiety that I might be the one told (at the last minute, while moving the book before the Gospel) to light the Paschal Candle - a frightening ordeal that sometime took the entire length of the Gospel to accomplish! In later years, I preferred to attend the solemn Mass, where for sheer liturgical exuberance nothing could beat the melody my parish choir used for the Vidi Aquam. Once home, Easter Sunday switched form a primarily churchy experience to a domestic, familial one - dominated by chocolate and a great Italian family feast.

Things were far from perfect then in all sorts of ways, but my memories of Holy Week (especially in the decade 1955-1965) are almost all happy ones.

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