I love traditions. While I enjoy surprises, spontaneity, and serendipity, there is something comforting about doing the same thing at the same time year after year. My family wasn’t big on traditions though, as much as I loved them. That might be partly why I love my Catholic faith – the rituals and customs offer a sense of peace, comfort, and belonging – comfort food for my soul.
Daily routine is always labeled as boring, but something that is done less frequently, like once a year, becomes special. It becomes tradition! Every year, I know what I will be doing on Holy Thursday evening. I don’t necessarily know where I will be, but I am certain of who I will be with and what we will be doing. Because it’s a 30-year-old tradition!
This week is what is known in the Christian world as “Holy Week” – a remembrance of the final week of Jesus’ life. While all of the events of the week are important, especially the commemoration of Jesus’ death on Good Friday, the traditions of Holy Thursday have always held a special place in my heart. The Mass that is held on the evening of Holy Thursday is different from other Masses held throughout the year. While every Mass is a remembrance of the Last Supper, on Holy Thursday we remember the institution of both the Eucharist and the priesthood in a very special way. We sing the beautiful Pange Lingua and Tantum Ergo as the Eurcharist is processed around the church. The Mass does not end in the usual way, but the altar is stripped bare and the Eucharist is reposed in a special side altar where it will remain until Mass is once again celebrated on Holy Saturday.
In some cultures, it became customary to visit churches on Holy Thursday evening after Mass. The reason for the visits is to spend time in prayer in commemoration of Jesus’ night in prayer at the Garden of Gethsemane. The act of visiting churches probably originated in Rome many years ago as a form of a pilgrimage. How many churches should be visited? Most cultures say 7 churches, which is quite possible if you live in a large city. But time constraints usually held us to 3 – most churches now close at midnight or earlier so it is no longer possible to spend the night visiting churches.
This tradition in my life began when I was in high school. It was 1982, and my friend Lou and I were 15 years old. After the Mass that evening, the young priest at our parish and the nun that we helped at school asked if we would like to accompany them to visit a few churches. Little did we know then that it was the start of a yearly tradition. After high school, Lou entered the seminary and eventually was ordained a priest himself, so he did not continue the visits with us each year. But other than a few years here and there, the three of us continued our tradition.
Because our practice itself became routine, it is the years that I broke with tradition that stand out in my memory. One year Lou and I joined a friend and another parish priest, and we drove to a neighborhood in Philadelphia that has three big, beautiful, old churches all within two blocks of each other. One of the three churches was St. Adalbert’s, and I was happy to visit there since I knew it was where my grandparents were married. Since this was before my genealogy passion began, I did not know was that my great-grandfather was one of St. Adalbert’s founding parishioners. During our visit, two men and two women broke the silence with song. They were professionally trained singers, and their spontaneous hymn was in beautiful 4-part harmony. I remember little else about that night, but I can still remember being in awe at their song of praise.
In 2006, I was in Rome for Holy Thursday. What a place to be – I could have visited a hundred churches that night! They were all open, and lit candles lined the entrances to beckon you to enter. We walked without a plan and quickly found several churches. Some were famous, while others were small and not usually visited by tourists. I don’t even remember the names of the places we visited, but the experience was special. Even though I was far from my “traditional” friends, I was happy that I found other friends that wanted to share the experience.
There have been one or two other exceptions to the rule but aside from these few instances every other year – for the last 30 years – my “original” touring company continues the tradition. When we gather after Mass, the first question is usually “Where are we going this year?” A church name is suggested. “Didn’t we go there last year?” It’s an amusing task to decide where to go, because we can never remember where we went year after year.
We have been to many churches more than once. Every year we say we should write down our “picks” for the year, but we never do, and it’s more fun to argue about where we’ve been and haven’t been. Over the decades, we have been to just about every church in Northeast Philadelphia (more than once) and a good portion of Lower Bucks County. When Father was made a pastor in Delaware county, I’d pick up Sister and trek down that way for Mass, and we found a whole new cache of churches to visit. And yet there are still many in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia that we have not yet seen.
Our tradition isn’t all pious, however – part of what makes the evening enjoyable is the company. Some years, when life got in the way, it was the first time we had seen each other since the previous Holy Thursday. Occasionally one of the three of us had to miss due to illness or other commitments, but the remaining two continued on schedule. After our visits, we go out to eat (before the Good Friday fast begins) and catch up on each other’s lives and memories.
If you’ve never participated in the custom of visiting churches on Holy Thursday evening, consider starting your own tradition tonight!