With Palm Sunday, the Church begins Holy Week. Officially entitled “Holy” since 1955, this week is called holy, “because of the excellence of the mysteries celebrated,” and because it is “enriched by very splendid and sacred rites.” With these words of the Decree Maxima Redemptionis Nostrae Mysteria, the Holy See in 1955 introduced its famous reform of the liturgy of Hoy Week, which among other things restored Holy Thursday’s Mass of the Lord’s Supper, Good Friday’s Liturgy of the Lord’s Passion, and the Easter Vigil to something close to their ancient hours of celebration.
Prior to that reform, as those of us above a certain age can recall, all those services were celebrated (and had been celebrated for centuries) in the early morning hours of Thursday, Friday, and Saturday respectively – a situation Maxima Redemptionis Nostrae Mysteria saw as ”certainly with detriment to the liturgy’s meaning and with confusion between the Gospel accounts and the liturgical representations referring to them.” Even more seriously, “schools, businesses, and public affairs of all kinds were and are conducted everywhere,” with the result that the “common and almost universal experience” was of liturgical services “performed by the clergy with the body of the church nearly deserted.” In the immediate aftermath of those 1950s reforms, churches were frequently filled to capacity for the Holy Week services, especially on Holy Thursday and Good Friday. That may be less so today, when everything is open all the time and multiple distractions abound which Pius XII’s Holy Week reformers could not have imagined - with the result that, once again the solemn ceremonies of Holy Week are increasingly playing to diminishing audiences.
Even so, however, there can be no doubt that this is the week when the Church, so to speak, “pulls out all the stops” to celebrate our collective memory of the great events of our salvation and to enable each one us to re-live those events, in order that we may experience their wondrous effects in our own lives, here and now.
In the ancient Roman Liturgy, the importance of these days was highlighted by the choice of the Lateran Basilica, the Pope’s “Cathedral,” as the “stational church” for Palm Sunday, Holy Thursday, and the Easter Vigil, while the neighboring Basilica of the Holy Cross in Jerusalem (built to enshrine the relics brought back by St. Helena from Jerusalem) is the “stational church” for Good Friday. While the Pope still celebrates Holy Thursday’s Mass of the Lord’s Supper at the Lateran, those other papal liturgies are all now celebrated in the much more spacious setting of St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican.
Somewhere in the Passover Seder, it is said that in every generation each person must experience him or herself a having personally been brought out of Egypt. Whether celebrated in the splendor of a papal basilica or the simplicity of a mission outpost, whether with the Bishop in his cathedral or with fellow parishioners, friends, and neighbors in one’s own parish church, Holy Week is that unique annual opportunity offered to every one of us to experience personally what God has accomplished for us in the passion, death, and resurrection of his Son and continues to accomplish in us through his Church.