It's funny how various seasons of the year invoke such vivid memories. It's certainly true for Holy Week, at least for me. My memories of Holy Week are associated especially with places I've lived and worked as a priest.
On Palm Sunday, for example, I think of the good people of my first assignment, St. Vitus Parish in New Castle, PA. St. Vitus is a large and vibrant Italian Parish and Palm Sunday had a very special place in the life and culture of the Italian families. The faithful flocked to Church to receive blessed palm; they visited the graves of their loved ones to remember and pray; and they had festive family gatherings with tons of great food. I remember hearing that if children took a piece of palm to their godfather and kissed his hand, they received a dollar.
In a parish setting, the early days of Holy Week are times of personal prayer and extensive preparation for the ceremonies that follow later in the week. In my young priesthood it was also a time of hearing confessions, lots of confessions.
In the already mentioned St. Vitus Parish the pastor was a good man and dedicated priest but also short-tempered and irritable. People were afraid of him and avoided his confessional. They formed long lines at the boxes of the "nice young assistants." This of course infuriated the pastor who hollered at the people to move to his line, only driving more sinners our way. Invariably, he gave up and returned to the rectory to watch television. (Perhaps that was his goal all along!)
Holy Thursday morning takes me back to the Diocese of Youngstown for the celebration of the Chrism Mass. The Chrism Mass there had a very prominent place and was easily the most popular liturgy of the year. By 9:00 a.m. the Church was filled to standing-room-only for the 10:30 liturgy. At the Chrism Mass every parish was represented by colorful banners that led the procession; by designated representatives of the parish; by catechumens; confirmation classes and school children. The music was glorious. The priests renewed their commitment; the sacred oils were blessed and distributed; and the Bishop had the opportunity of presenting a very significant homily, almost a keynote address, for the diocesan Church.
On Holy Thursday evening I return again to St. Vitus Church. After the Mass of our Lord's Supper many of us participated in the Seven Church Walk (actually a ride on school buses), a beautiful tradition observed in many places. Organized by the Holy Name Society, we visited seven churches in the New Castle area, paid visits to the Blessed Sacrament beautifully reposed, prayed and sang Eucharistic hymns. We returned to St. Vitus for coffee and donuts which had to be consumed before midnight when the Good Friday fast promptly began.
Good Friday is the day with the fewest memories for me, perhaps because of the somber, quiet nature of the day. As a youngster in Pittsburgh I remember sitting on the front porch with my buddies in near silence, unwilling to play whiffle ball or ride bikes from 12:00 to 3:00 as we marked the Lord's Passion and Death. (Obviously, the 1950s were more supportive of a Christian lifestyle!) As a seminarian in Erie I remember trying to concentrate on the Good Friday services while listening to the buses outside the chapel, revving their engines, ready to take us home for Easter vacation. And as a parish priest I recall using Good Friday evening to prepare homilies for Easter and then entering the quiet and locked parish church to practice singing the Exsultet.
And that takes us to Holy Saturday, and my assignment as chaplain of the Sisters of the Holy Spirit in Pittsburgh. The Holy Week liturgies there were always prayerful and peaceful. In particular, though, I remember blessing the Easter foods on Holy Saturday morning, a meticulously planned devotion maintained by the sisters of Polish heritage. The foods that were blessed - the eggs, the bread, the dairy products, the meat, the wine - all had some reference to the Paschal Mystery.
On Holy Saturday evening I think of my second parish, St. Sebastian Parish in the North Hills section of Pittsburgh. The pastor there, the venerable Roy G. Getty, had instructed me to learn about and inaugurate the new Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, the rediscovered process for receiving new members into the Church. Though reluctant at first, I eventually did so with gusto. It became one of the defining experiences of my priesthood. I worked closely with several classes of catechumens and candidates from the parish for several hours every Tuesday night throughout the year. I met wonderful people, learned their stories and accompanied them in their journey of faith. The Easter vigil was an unbelievable experience; it had great power and beauty for the new Catholics, their families, the parish community and for me, their sacramental shepherd.
Easter Sunday has its own very familiar images: packed churches, Easter bonnets, and spring flowers. But for me, the personal memories of Easter are wrapped-up in the Easter basket my mom filled - with the chocolate bunny, little chocolate eggs wrapped in aluminum foil, dyed eggs, marshmallow peeps, and other snacks - and gave to me every year from my infancy till the time just before her death when I was well into my fifties. I knew for sure she was failing the first time she didn't have the energy to give me an Easter basket. I still have the basket, though, and it will take its prominent place again this year, empty of candy, but filled with memories of my mom.
I hope that your memories of Holy Week are as vivid as mine. And I hope that your memories will lead you to a full, rich and joyful experience of the Lord's suffering, death and resurrection.
(This column originally appeared in The Providence Visitor)