Watching Holy Week on TV (or its post-modern equivalents) is nothing new. For decades, I - and I have to assume many others - have watched some or all of the papal Holy Week ceremonies in Rome (usually recorded earlier in the day). What will be new this year is that watching a broadcast of Holy Week will, for almost everyone in the Church, be their only access to those special ceremonies - ceremonies that will also in this case be quite radically reduced in length and solemnity. So perhaps this may be an appropriate occasion to do some reflecting on Holy Weeks past and begin some reimagining of Holy Weeks future.
At 72, I am, of course, just barely able to remember Holy Week as it was before Pius XII's monumental reform in 1955. During the short period between 1955 and the post-conciliar liturgical renovation, Pius XII's "Restored Order of Holy Week" (Ordo Hebdomadae Sanctae Instauratus) seemed to be quite popular among the (admittedly self-selected) minority of Catholics that took an interest in such matters and attended such ceremonies. It was, of course, one of the concerns of the reform to make those ceremonies more accessible - in the first place, by moving them to the hours of evening (Holy Thursday), afternoon (Good Friday), and night (Easter Vigil), when it was thought that more of the faithful could conveniently attend them (although it became obvious very quickly that Saturday night was not a particularly convenient time for almost anyone - least of all for priests who had been hearing hours of confessions or those tasked with decorating the Church for Easter after the late-night service was finally over). Celebrating those liturgies at such more seemingly appropriate hours, it was also assumed, would make them more "authentic" and that too, presumably, would make them more popular. And, for a while at least, that was what happened.
Of course, it was always the case - and certainly still is now - that the best attended Holy Week liturgy was (and is) Easter Sunday morning, and that the second best attended was (and is) Palm Sunday morning. Good Friday probably came in third, although other Good Friday devotions such as the Stations of the Cross and the Seven Last Worlds remained at least as or more popular in particular communities. Holy Thursday (my own personal favorite after Easter Sunday morning) attracted a smaller but committed following. And, then as now, the Easter Vigil remained generally one of the most poorly attended services of the entire year.
But, back in 1955, at what in retrospect may have been the zenith of the 20th-century liturgical movement, the Church, in the Decree Maxima Redemptionis nostrae, confidently claimed that the liturgical rites of Holy Week possess both a singular dignity and a particular power and efficacy for nourishing Christian life (non solum singulari dignitate, sed et peculiari sacramentali vi et efficacia pollent ad christianam vitam alendam).
But how does that apply now, when, once again, those glorious ceremonies will be celebrated in empty churches - emptier even than they were in 1955?
To be continued ...
(Photo: Palm Sunday in Happier Days)