Dominicans Bringing Back the Lost Traditions of Passiontide

(photo: Image Credit: Province of St. Joseph, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

You can’t miss it.

Last Sunday you probably noticed that all the statues, images, and crosses in your parish sanctuary had been covered with a purple veil. We are closer to Good Friday and the Holy Week is nearly upon us. These last two weeks of Lent that commence with the covering the statues traditionally were known as Passiontide.

With the revision of the General Roman Calendar in 1969, the term Passiontide and the accompanying commemoration fell out of use, although the covering of the purple veils continued.

That may be changing, thanks to the Dominican Friars of the Eastern Province of United States, who last Saturday held their second annual Passiontide prayer vigil in an effort to recover the spirit of this traditional period of preparation. “It’s not a well-known jewel of the Lenten season,” said Brother Athanasius Murphy, O.P., a deacon in training to be a priest and a key organizer of the event.

Brother Murphy says Passiontide is a way to prepare for Holy Week. “Passiontide is a night prayer vigil that draws upon the elements of Stations of the Cross, Tenebrae, and veneration of the cross of Christ on Good Friday and blends these together into a candlelit experience of what our Lord Jesus is about to undergo in throughout Holy Week,” he said.

“It has an almost-but-not-yet feel to it,” he added.

According to Maria Trapp—yes, the one portrayed in the Sound of Music—during Passiontide we focus on the sorrows of Christ in the last year of His life, leading into Holy Week, when the focus shifts to His last week. “We can feel the hatred of Christ’s enemies growing day by day. On Good Friday we shall witness once more the most frightening of all happenings, foretold by the prophets and even by Our Lord Himself, the bloody drama of Calvary,” Trapp wrote in Around the Year with the Trapp Family, available in its entirely on EWTN.

That penitential spirit is at the heart of the Dominicans’ Passiontide prayer vigil. During the liturgy, a procession carries a large cross through St. Dominic Church in Washington, DC. The congregation chants the penitential Psalms and asks for the grace of contrition to witness what the Lord will undergo in His final moments on earth.

“Everyone had an opportunity to venerate a relic of the True Cross by bringing up flowers with prayer intentions written on a card,” Brother Murphy said, in describing this year’s service. “The large wooden cross with the relic on top of it was surrounded by the flowers, giving it the appearance of a living tree which has blossomed.”

Last year the vigil, an outreach effort which was targeted towards young adults, drew a larger-than-expected crowd in its first year, filling to capacity St. Dominic’s Church—which normally holds between 800 to 1,000 congregants. This year’s vigil drew hundreds of people, more even that last year, after a get-out-the-word campaign that even included a special Dominican-themed video game, as I reported earlier this month. Some drove hours—as far as Connecticut—to make it, according to Brother Murphy.

One hopes other pastors, lay leaders, and parishioners around the country take note. The benefits to having your local parish holding a Passiontide prayer vigil are obvious.

Some lumber late into Lent or stumble along the way in their observances. Some, for whatever reason, cannot make the Stations of the Cross on Fridays and therefore have not been able to participate in a crucial part of the Lenten season. A Passiontide prayer vigil is a way to invite such Catholics to participate more deeply in spirit of Lent even at this late hour. “Yet even now return to me with your whole heart, with fasting, weeping, and mourning” (Joel 2:12).

Of course, Passiontide also provides much-needed spiritual succor and direction to those who have been walking through the entirety of Lent: an important juncture in the journey lies ahead. It is time to leave the desert of testing and trials. We will soon enter Jerusalem. We must prepare more closely to Christ so that we may, with Him, go up to Golgotha.

It’s too late for your local parish to hold a Passiontide prayer vigil this year. But that does not mean it is too late for you, your family, and your fellow believers to observe this important time of preparation now. 

First, there are Passiontide prayers that can help us enter more deeply into the meaning of this period. A collection of traditional prayers appropriate for this purpose can be found online here. Passiontide morning and night prayers are available here. Also, Around the Year with the Trapp Family, describes how liturgical custom shaped home life: Trapp recalls covering the crucifix and statues in their house and omitting the Gloria Patri from evening prayers in emulation of the truncated prayers at the foot of the altar during Mass. (The relevant portion of her account can be found by doing a simple search for “Passiontide” in the online text of the book.)

Finally, reading and reflecting on the relevant portion of Abbot Guéranger, OSB, classic The Liturgical Year can further inform and inspire our observance of Passiontide. The longest online excerpt on Passiontide itself appears to be here.

Perhaps most importantly, let us take our spiritual cue from the purple-shrouded statues and images populating our parishes. “We’re denying our senses something that we desire in order to more completely focus on one, the love that God has for all of us and, two, the trials and suffering that our Lord Jesus Christ is about to undergo during Holy Week before His resurrection on Easter Sunday,” Brother Murphy said.

So let us take this time to strip away those final distractions and focus more deeply—in our prayers, readings, and reflections—on what lies before us.