THE PROCESSIONAL NATURE OF HOLY WEEK
Processions give Holy Week a distinctive
quality. People nearly numbed by the humdrum of weekly worship quickly figure
out something is up with Holy Week. It isn’t just the processions. The reading
of the Passion, the washing of feet, the singing of special prayers, and the
rites of initiation all contribute to the richness of these ceremonies. The
practice of fast and abstinence and the rearrangement of the parish’s regular
schedule of worship also remind us that these days are special.
The liturgical processions of Holy Week
conspire to draw believers more deeply into the meaning of their ritual.
Processions make each one of the faithful a participant in a larger drama. They
perform the function of anamnesis: By recalling the significant events
surrounding the end of Jesus’ life, we become present to his passion, death and
resurrection. We enter this mystery, and it enters us. We become one with the
dying and rising of Christ.
Some processions are functional. They happen
because people need to move from point A to point B. But all processions
attract a deeper meaning when placed in the context of a specific time and
Some processions are non-liturgical. In some
places, the faithful take the processions of Holy Week into the streets. They
decorate the road with flowers and colored sawdust. They arrange Mannerist
statues on platforms, and groups of civic leaders bear each of them aloft on
solemn shoulders. They process through the community amid incense, prayer and
More commonly at home, many parishes observe
the non-liturgical procession of Stations of the Cross on the Fridays of Lent.
A procession of ministers forms and walks from one station to the next while the
events of the Lord’s passion are recalled in a way that inspires contrition and
prayer. In some churches the stations are located too close to each other to
mount much of a procession. In others they are spaced so far apart that the
entire body of believers may join the procession with the ministers. The
stations originated as a substitute for those who desired to walk in the actual
footsteps of Jesus, but who could not overcome the obstacles of distance or
health preventing travel to Jerusalem. The Stations of the Cross popularized a
notion that Holy Week nobly achieves – walking is prayerful. Moving one’s
entire body can be as spiritual as singing songs and making acclamations.
Processions naturally express faith.
In the months before Holy Week, the liturgy
offers two other processions. The Feast of the Presentation of the Lord
(February 2) begins with a blessing and procession with candles. The First
Sunday of Lent may begin with a penitential procession including the singing of
the litany of the saints. (See the Paschale solemnitatis #23 and the
Ceremonial of Bishops #261.) But Holy Week engages the faithful with a
series of occasions to express their faith in action, a variety of circumstances
compressed in a narrow window of time, in which the wonder, fear and relief of
the paschal mystery come into focus.
These unique processions integrate belief,
drama and universal prayer. They take place during the Mass of Palm Sunday, the
Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday, the celebration of the Passion on
Good Friday, and at the great Paschal Vigil.
Palm Sunday Procession with Palm Branches
The fourth century pilgrim Egeria recorded in
her diary a procession she witnessed down the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem on
the Sunday before Easter. Hers is the earliest recollection of Christians
observing a procession to commemorate the triumphal entry of Jesus into the holy
city. Outside Jerusalem, however, there is no record of this practice in the
Roman Rite until the ninth century.
At that time Bishop Amalarius of Metz
described a procession of palms on the Sunday before Easter, and the best poet
in Charlemagne’s court, Theodulf of Orléans, composed a hymn for the occasion.
He called it Gloria, laus. It still appears in the liturgy, and it has
been rendered in English as the popular hymn “All Glory, Laud, and Honor.” The
translation and the tune are more recent, but the original version of this hymn
goes back to our earliest observance of Palm Sunday in the West.
The idea of processing on this day spread
after a description of the liturgy appeared in the tenth-century Roman-Germanic
Pontifical (99:162-206), a book for bishops that influenced the later
development of the Roman rite. This pontifical presents two versions of the
liturgy to the reader. The first is more elaborate, including an exorcism and
blessing of the branches before the people receive them and process to the
church. Theodulf’s hymn already has a place in this pontifical, indicating how
quickly beloved his poem had become.
Today the missal offers three options for
opening the Palm Sunday mass with the commemoration of the entry of the Lord
into Jerusalem. The first form is the procession, and it is followed by the
solemn entrance and the simple entrance.
In the first option, everyone gathers in a
secondary church or another appropriate place outside the main church, toward
which the procession will return. The faithful already hold branches in their
hands. They are joined by the priest and deacon. The priest may wear a cope.
To begin the liturgy a song is sung, and
everyone makes the sign of the cross. After a greeting, an instruction and a
prayer of blessing, the priest sprinkles the branches with holy water. If
someone invites the people to hold their branches aloft, it makes everyone look
more ready to process. The gospel of Jesus’ entry to Jerusalem is proclaimed –
Matthew in year A, Mark in year B, and Luke in year C. John’s gospel is
proclaimed each year on Good Friday.
A brief homily may happen at this time, though
it is usually omitted. A reference to this homily exists in the twelfth century
ritual, and even though it is rarely done, tradition keeps the option in the
liturgy. If the preacher wanted to develop the theme of this gospel, he is free
to do so, but the people are probably standing, the procession has not yet
begun, the realization of the length of this mass is dawning upon them, and they
would probably not be the most receptive audience.
After these opening ceremonies a priest,
deacon or lay minister invites everyone to join the procession using words such
as, “Let us process in peace.” And all respond, “In the name of Christ. Amen.”
The procession begins. It may be led by
incense, cross and candles. The cross may be decorated with palm branches. The
deacon carries the book of the gospels, the priest takes his place in line, and
all the faithful with branches follow the ministers into the church. If the
priest is wearing a cope, he exchanges it for a chasuble when he reaches the
Meanwhile, songs are sung. Psalms 23 (24) and
46 (47) are recommended, along with Theodulf’s ever-popular Gloria, laus.
This is a wonderful procession, and it usually
works, although there are some challenges. Before it begins, you must choose
the proper space for the start of the liturgy and equip it. Every church is
different. You may start this liturgy in a narthex, the great outdoors, or a
building separate from the church. Will people be able to see? How will they
hear? Do you have sound reinforcement for them? Do they need participation
aids to join in the singing?
A great challenge is getting people to the
right place for the beginning of the service. Once you find a good space, use
it year after year so that a tradition is formed. Announce the location for the
start of this Mass at the previous weekend’s liturgies. Several minutes before
Mass begins, announce to those who have entered the church as usual where they
should now go. Distribute the branches there, not in the church. Station
ushers and greeters by the door, and give them instructions to direct people
kindly to the proper place for the start of Mass.
Be sure that musicians and ministers have
worked on their cues together. This is not a difficult liturgy, but everyone
needs to know who starts what and when. Musicians make the first sound. They
also lead singing for the procession. Do they know when to start? What is
The procession may be a little disorderly. If
you process a long distance, do not expect everyone to sing the same thing at
the same time. Processional music rarely works that way. Everything will come
together once you enter the main space.
The procession is the first of three options
for the beginning of Palm Sunday’s liturgy. The second option, the solemn
entrance, envisions people gathering at the door of the church or inside,
holding branches in their hands. The final option, the simple entrance, begins
with the priest in the sanctuary. The procession is expected only at the
principal Mass. But some parishes use it more than once because it is hard to
identify one Mass as principal.
Holy Thursday Procession of the Blessed Sacrament
The Mass of the Lord’s Supper concludes with a
procession of the Blessed Sacrament, and this custom developed much later than
the procession for Palm Sunday. The idea of reserving and adoring the Blessed
Sacrament on Holy Thursday dates to the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. And a
procession is not noted until the sixteenth.
In those days, Mass normally ended with a
dismissal, a blessing and a reading of the Last Gospel (the opening of John).
But these were omitted on Holy Thursday. Instead, the priest removed his
chasuble, put on a cope, and prepared to carry the leftover consecrated
communion breads from the altar to a place of reposition. The procession moved
from the main altar to a side altar or chapel within the same church. Cloths
and candles would appropriately decorate the area of reservation. The ministers
carried incense, cross and candles to accompany the reserved sacrament. The
hymn Pange, lingua was sung, concluding with the familiar strains of
Tantum ergo. At the end of the procession, the priest or deacon placed the
Blessed Sacrament in the tabernacle or another similar small box. The ministers
returned to the sacristy.
Today the Mass of the Lord’s Supper concludes
in a similar way, with the carrying of the Blessed Sacrament. After communion,
the leftover consecrated bread from this Mass is placed in a ciborium or similar
sacred vessel and set on the altar. Following the communion prayer, the priest
places incense in the thurible, and then he kneels and incenses the Blessed
Sacrament three times. He puts on a white humeral veil, stands, takes the
vessel and covers it with the ends of the veil. Cross, candles and incense lead
a procession through the church to the place of reposition, which may be inside
the church or in another chapel appropriated decorated. Pange, lingua
and Tantum ergo are still recommended to be sung while the priest and
deacon place the Blessed Sacrament in the tabernacle. (Other eucharistic hymns
may be used.) Then the ministers leave.
The rubrics never mention the rest of the
faithful, but if the procession is moving to a place outside their range of
vision, it would be most fitting for the people to join. They may sing along
the way, and they may begin their time of private prayer when they arrive at the
place where the liturgy concludes.
This procession recalls the night Jesus left
the upper room and walked to the Mount of Olives, where he asked his disciples
to watch and pray with him. This connection becomes clearer if the procession
moves away from the space where the eucharist was just celebrated into a
separate place where reservation of the Blessed Sacrament will remain throughout
the early hours of the night. A narthex, a large sacristy, or an appropriately
decorated room in a separate building may serve the purpose just fine.
Again, the music will be difficult to hold
together if the procession is long. But the important thing is to invite people
to walk with Jesus on this night before the Passion. The music recommended for
the procession – either in Latin or in the vernacular – deserves a place in
every parish’s repertoire.
Good Friday Adoration of the Cross
The idea of venerating the cross of Jesus
dates all the way back to the discovery of what the Church believes to be the
relics of the true cross. The finding is attributed to St. Helena, the mother
of Constantine. Our observance of the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross on
September 14 each year recalls the day that the relics were first put on view in
the fourth century.
The incorporation of adoring a cross during
the Good Friday liturgy appears in the eighth-century Gelasian Sacramentary,
probably recording a practice that developed somewhat earlier. At the
conclusion of the Good Friday service, the body and blood of the Lord
consecrated the previous day were brought to the altar along with the cross of
the Lord. The priest adored and kissed the cross. He offered an oration and
led the Lord’s Prayer. Then all the faithful adored the holy cross and received
Today a cross is brought forward for the
adoration of the faithful after the solemn petitions and before the communion
rite. Only one cross should be used. The showing of the cross to the faithful
may take one of two forms: by unveiling or in procession.
In the first form the cross is covered with a
violet veil, and it is brought to the sanctuary between ministers carrying
lighted candles. The priest stands at the altar and removes the cloth a third
at a time while he, the deacon or the choir sings, “Behold the wood of the
Cross”. All respond, “Come, let us adore.” Everyone kneels for silent
adoration each time.
In the second form the priest carries the
unveiled cross through the body of the church. The same dialogue takes place,
the people kneeling in adoration each time.
The cross is placed in the sanctuary between
lighted candles. The priest goes first. He may remove his chasuble and shoes
if he wishes. He genuflects or kisses the cross, or makes some other sign of
reverence. Other ministers and the faithful do the same.
The liturgy never mentions ushers here, but
their presence may help move the procession along and create some order. Even
though people are accustomed to processing up the aisle for communion, the Good
Friday procession sometimes throws them off. They may need encouragement to
break out of single file, or to approach the cross from two or more sides.
Ushers can help keep the procession moving solemnly and reverently.
The cross should be located in a place where
people can reach it. It should be accessible to those who cannot stoop, as well
as those in wheel chairs. Upon arriving at the cross, people should feel free
to venerate it any way they wish. They may genuflect. They may touch it. They
may kiss it. They may even process up the aisle without their shoes.
A variety of musical selections is
recommended, including the traditional Improperia, but these have been
little used in recent years because they sound like an indictment of Jews for
the crucifixion. The missal now recommends singing Stabat Mater, the
song frequently used at Stations of the Cross. This choice will help link a
popular devotion to one of the principal liturgies of the church year.
A piece of trivia: after the adoration of the
cross, people passing in front of it anytime after this service and before the
Easter Vigil are to genuflect to the cross of Christ. It is the only occasion
when Catholics genuflect to anything other than the body and blood of Christ as
it is consecrated on the altar during mass or reserved in the tabernacle.
Easter Vigil Procession with Fire
The use of fire at the start of the Holy
Saturday liturgy can be found in Ordo 23, an order of Mass probably
dating to the eighth century, but compiled in a ninth-century manuscript. The
text presumes that fire was used during the Good Friday liturgy, probably for
the sake of visibility, and that it was hidden in the sacristy afterward.
Deacons and subdeacons brought the fire back into the church to begin the
celebration of Holy Saturday.
By the twelfth century, however, we have the
first evidence for the blessing of a fire in the atrium of the cathedral in
Rome. The newly blessed Easter candle was incised with the Greek letters alpha
and omega, and the priest sang three times Lumen Christi, or “Christ our
Light.” So began the Paschal vigil in the twelfth-century Roman Pontifical
Today the Paschal Vigil begins outside the
church with a burning fire. The people gather there. If doing this presents
difficulties, the celebration may begin indoors. But that is not the ideal, and
the fire is supposed to be large enough to shatter the darkness of night. Going
outdoors is best.
The priest blesses the fire, prepares the
paschal candle and lights it. It is the only candle lit at this point. The
deacon stands at the door of the church, lifts the candle and sings, “Light of
Christ.” All respond, “Thanks be to God.” The priest lights his candle from
the paschal candle, and the procession moves to the middle of the church, where
this dialogue is repeated. All the other worshipers light their candles from
the paschal candle and process to their places for the third singing of “Light
of Christ.” The deacon places the paschal candle in its holder, and the church
is illumined, except for the altar candles.
For this procession to work, people need to
gather outside the church, as they did on Palm Sunday. Keep the church dark
before the service to discourage people from entering too early. The choir will
have to rehearse elsewhere. Readers will have to know their place in the
lectionary. Station ushers and greeters at the door. Have them encourage
people to remain outside. Pass out candles to those waiting for the liturgy to
The fire may already be blazing. The liturgy
begins with a blessing of the fire, not a lighting of the fire.
It can be a focal point while people gather for the start of the greatest
liturgy of the church year.
This procession is designed in a way that
people start walking in the dark without their candles lit. The idea is to
recall the Exodus from Egypt, when a pillar of fire led ancient Israel by night
on their flight to freedom through the waters of the Red Sea and into the
Promised Land. The imagery is significant to interpret the meaning of the
resurrection and the sacrament of baptism.
In some churches, the candles of the faithful
are lighted earlier, as they begin to enter the building. It will take a while
for the flame to spread. Awkward pauses characterize the opening of this
liturgy, but the excitement of watching the church grow in light is palpable.
This procession proclaims a great mystery:
darkness yields to light, death is swallowed up by life.
Easter Vigil Procession to the Font
As early as the end of the first century,
those desiring to be baptized had to go to a place where there was water –
preferably running water, such as a stream (Didache 7). Fifty years
later Justin the Martyr says those to be baptized were brought to a place where
there was water (First Apology 61). Gradually this movement to the water
became stylized, and it took the form of a solemn procession accompanied by
music and ministers.
Today the procession to the font still
performs the practical function of moving those to be baptized to the place of
their initiation. The procession envisions that the font is separate from the
main body of the church in a place large enough to accommodate everyone who
participates in the Easter Vigil. The baptistry of the cathedral in Rome, for
example, St. John Lateran, is completely separate from the church. The same is
true in other cities, including Florence and Siena. In Pisa the stunning
baptistry and cathedral are often overlooked by tourists interested only in
climbing the famous leaning bell tower, which occupies the same area.
In other churches, the baptistry can be found
in a small area near the front door, where baptisms are not visible to the
entire congregation. In newer and remodeled churches, a font may be located in
the main aisle by the front door.
If the usual font is in an area too
constricted or removed from sight, a temporary font may be erected in the
sanctuary for the vigil. If there are catechumens, they join the procession to
the font. In most parishes, the procession covers a short distance, so it
consists only of catechumens, godparents, and the necessary liturgical
ministers. But if the font is really in a separate building, everyone would
leave their places and follow along.
The music that accompanies this procession is
the litany of the saints. If there are baptisms, this chant asks God to bring
new life to those chosen for the grace of baptism. If there are no catechumens,
it asks God to sanctify the font. During Holy Week, people have processed to
imitate the joyful reception of Jesus in Jerusalem, to spend time with him in
prayer at a place of eucharistic reservation, to adore his cross and to follow
his light to the promise of eternal life. Now they process to water, the place
where belief and symbol meet, where Christ welcomes new members of the chosen
The final procession of Holy Week is one we
make every week: the communion procession. At the Easter Vigil the newly
baptized join this procession for the first time and complete their initiation
by partaking of the body and blood of Christ. Although this procession may seem
commonplace, it is new on this night – new because of those who join it, and new
because of the time in which it takes place: the holy night of Easter, the night
in which Jesus rose from the dead, processing from death to life, and breaking
open the gates of heaven for all who walk with him along the way.
38/1 (January-February 2007):9-12.
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