One of the all-time greatest devotions in Holy Week in general, and the Triduum in particular, is the Visitation of the Seven Churches after the end of the Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Holy (Maundy) Thursday. My father, whom I consider one of the wisest men in the world, often says, “Those who neglect ancient traditions do so at their own peril.” The Seven Churches Devotion is one of those traditions worth keeping. And promoting.
And it seems to be one that is still very much alive, in pockets of this country, as it is a model of simplicity. After attending the Mass of the Lord’s Supper, the Blessed Sacrament is moved to a separate altar, and per the Roman Missal (GIRM no. 43): “The faithful are invited to continue adoration before the Blessed Sacrament for a suitable length of time during the night, according to local circumstance.”
Simply put, the “Seven Churches” devotion is a visit to the “new”, temporary home of the Blessed Sacrament, the altar of repose, at seven different churches, spending a few minutes in silent prayer at each church.
One of the blessings of this devotion is that you get to know a couple of different things: First, you see how churches other than your own home parish decorate for this occasion. For example: the two Polish parishes (Holy Trinity and St. Stan’s) we’d visit as kids in Niagara Falls would have full-fledged tombs set up, along with an altar guarded by Knights of Columbus in full regalia. At the lone Franco-English parish (St. George’s), the Eucharist was actually exposed, though behind a thin, see-through linen veil.
Second, and probably more important, you’d get to see people you’d only see once a year on this occasion. In addition to the locals—for instance, the Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus of Ragusa, Sicily (our grade school teachers), entire buses of pilgrims from around western New York would make this visitation.
The irony to all this is that—in the Niagara Falls, New York of old at least—one could easily walk to seven Churches within two miles if one had the time and didn’t mind the late-March deep freeze. In fact, in a city of 70,000 people there were fifteen Catholic Parishes. Unfortunately, as of 2005, there are now only three Catholic churches—and less than 45,000 people in the Cataract City.
However, since there was so much intermarriage between Catholic Italian men and Irish women, a western New York phenomenon, the Seven Churches has been passed on to at least one other generation, too.
Still, here in North Jersey this tradition of visiting the Seven Churches seems to be going strong. The devotion appears to be mainly Italian in origin and may trace back to the Stational Churches of Rome—a tradition that is still vibrant today and is beautifully captured in Roman Pilgrimmage: The Station Churches by George Weigel, with Elizabeth Lev and photography by Stephen Weigel (NY: Basic Books, 2013).
The devotion may also come from the beginning of the Book of Revelation (whence comes the title of this article), in which the Seven Ancient Churches are visited by an angel.
While there are no set prayers for this devotion, one way to “make” the seven churches is to say two of each of the Stations of the Cross at each Church. As a child, at least, part of the fun of this was seeing how very different the Stations were in artistic style from one church to another. In fact, at one of the Polish parishes, the captions to the Stations were actually in Polish!
Further, it was and is a tradition that brought families together in an ad hoc way: we’d begin our pilgrimage as just our nuclear family, but then run into cousins, uncles and aunts, grandparents, and, always at the final church, one great aunt (who at 92 can still be counted on to be found before the Blessed Sacrament as late as possible on Holy Thursday night).
“And it was night.” (John 13:30) There is something mysterious about going to a church at night. And unusual. For one thing, churches, especially in urban areas (like Niagara Falls) are all locked up at night now. But on this night—and again for the Easter Vigil—they are open. However, unlike the Paschal Vigil, while they are open, on Holy Thursday they are silent: candle-lit, still, unmoving, save for the candle flames surrounding the altar of repose. It’s unlike anything else in the church year. True, Tenebrae is held in darkness (as its name states), but there is much reading, and noise at the extinguishing of the final candle. On the night of Holy Thursday, we move in and out of churches in silence, in darkness—and here in the northeast, in the cold.
Regrettably, due to the closure of churches in urban areas, and the “twinning” of parishes, finding seven churches open on Holy Thursday night isn’t as easy now as it was when I was a kid. Still, with a little effort, it can—and should—be done, as there is no other night like it on the Church calendar.
This year, “To the seven churches, go!” Or in the words of our Savior Himself: “Get up. Let us go.”