Today marks the mid-point counting the days numerically from Ash Wednesday to Easter. So this coming Sunday is Laetare Sunday, when the Church replaces her somber violet vestments with bright rose, adorns the altar with flowers, and allows for a greater use of the organ. These are external symbols of the joy that we are meant to feel as we prepare for the Easter feast – whether we are new Catholics preparing to receive the sacraments of initiation at Easter or life-long Catholics called to a life of ongoing conversion.
At a time when the observance of Lent was much stricter, this mid-Lent moment of relaxation was much valued. Thus in 1216, Pope Innocent III said: On this Sunday, which marks the middle of lent, a measure of consoling relaxation is provided so that the faithful may not break down under the severe strain of Lenten fast but may continue to bear the restrictions with a refreshed and easier heart.
Unfortunately, the virtual disappearance of the Introit and the other antiphons of the Roman Missal from most worshipers' ordinary Sunday experience has sadly made such traditional titles as Laetare Sunday somewhat obscure, if not meaningless to most people today. Laetare Sunday gets its name from the opening words of today’s traditional Introit: Laetare, Jerusalem (“Rejoice, Jerusalem”). Appropriately, today’s Roman station church is the Basilica of Santa Croce, “the Holy Cross in Jerusalem,” an early 4th-century basilica built around part of the Empress Saint Helena’s imperial palace in order to enshrine the relics (above all that of the True Cross) which she had brought back to Rome from Jerusalem. Originally, the floor of the basilica was covered with earth from Jerusalem. Thus, the church’s unique title, “the Holy Cross in Jerusalem.” The Jerusalem theme associated with this Sunday also accounts for another very venerable custom connected with this day, that of people returning home to visit (and bring flowers to) their “Mother Church” on this day. Especially in Britain and Ireland, this custom evolved into visiting (and bringing flowers to) one’s mother on this Sunday. Hence, its British title “Mothering Sunday.”
Laetare Sunday is traditionally also the day for Popes to bless the Golden Rose. From Fulk IV, Count of Anjou, in 1096, to Charlotte, Grand Duchess of Luxembourg in 1956, the Golden Rose was usually awarded by Popes to Catholic Kings, Queens, Princes, and Princesses, and occasionally also to churches. Beginning with Blessed Paul VI in 1964, it has been awarded exclusively to churches and shrines. In 2008, Pope Benedict XVI gave it to the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, DC, where it remains on display for the public to view (photo). Pope Francis presented it to the Black Madonna of Czestochowa on the occasion of last year’s World Youth Day in Poland.
Above all, this midpoint of the Lenten season is also a fitting occasion to emphasize the Sacrament of Penance as an important part of our spiritual preparation for Easter.