Friday, April 7, 2017

As Holy Week Approaches

Catholics of my age will likely remember little or nothing of the traditional, unreformed rites of Holy Week, prior to Pope Pius XII's 1955 reforms. My minimal childhood memory of Holy Thursday from when the Mass of the Lord's Supper was still  in the morning is a fleeting one. I remember the church being very crowded (as churches tended to be in those days), and I remember the schoolgirls in their white communion dresses solemnly walking past in the procession at the end of Mass. I have no memories at all of the other Holy Week ceremonies, for the obvious reason that as a child I would not have attended them. 

In those days, when the Easter Vigil service was still celebrated in the early hours of Holy Saturday morning, I suspect not many were in church to hear the bells ring at the Gloria. But I do remember how, promptly at noon on Saturday, when Lent ended and Easter officially began, my grandmother would sit us all down at the kitchen table, where obedient to her command, we cracked open our Easter eggs, while we listened on the Italian radio station to the splendid celebratory cacophony of the bells of Rome (pre-recorded six hours earlier).

But I do remember how Pope Pius XII's Holy Week reforms were implemented and received in my parish - and presumably similarly elsewhere. (The above photo is of the High Altar of my home parish as it looked at Easter 1963.) For the most part they were well received and enthusiastically embraced (not least by budding liturgical enthusiasts such a myself). So this year, in preparation for Holy Week, I re-read Maxima Redemptionis Nostrae, the 1955 Decree of the Sacred Congregation of Rites reforming (or, in the ideologically preferred language of the time, "restoring") the order of Holy Week.

Nowadays Pius XII's liturgical reforms tend to be seen through the prism of what followed - in other words as harbingers, whether for better and for worse, of Paul VI's much more radical reforms. That may make sense historically, but it misses the very different quality of how Holy Week was actually experienced thanks to Pius XII. In that sense, it really was a "restoration" of sorts - not so much in the polemical sense of being a restoration of real or imagined past liturgical practices, but in the even more important sense of really restoring the Holy Week liturgy to the faithful in a way they could begin to appropriate it in their devotional lives.

It was probably still the case then that the majority of Catholics attended only on Palm Sunday and Easter morning. Even so, it was widely believed at the time that the reformed services were being well attended and appreciated. For how long that lasted may be a matter of some debate, but at least at first there was certainly some real enthusiasm generated by the reform - if only because of the novelty of the hours at which the services were celebrated, the novelty of Communion on Good Friday, and the widespread publicity attached to the changes. There was even a TV program about Holy Week (filmed at some parish in France, I believe) which showed the services being celebrated in that parish - and also gave us a glimpse of the newly restored Holy Thursday morning Chrism Mass, which I doubt anyone I knew at the time ever saw celebrated in real life!

Now, of course, with generally diminished church attendance, it should come as no surprise if a more traditional pattern has reasserted itself, with widespread attendance only on Palm Sunday and Easter morning.   That's fine. But, for those drawn to how the Church lives out and teaches its story though the liturgy, the rest of Holy Week remains incomparably rich. As Maxima Redemptionis Nostrae tried to remind us,  "the liturgical rites of the Sacred Week possess not only a singular dignity but also a particular sacramental power and efficacy for nourishing the Christian life."

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