Keeping Eucharistic Vigil at Rome’s Altars of Repose

During the Paschal Triduum, the faithful anticipate the dawn of Easter.

The altar of repose at Santissima Trinità dei Pellegrini, Holy Thursday 2023 (Photo: Bénédicte Cedergren)

ROME — The adorned altars of repose exposed throughout the Eternal City call the faithful to enter into the dark night of the Mount of Olives with Christ and to keep watch with him in prayer.

The evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper is the beginning of the sacred days of the Paschal Triduum — the three days recalling the passion, crucifixion, death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ — which will conclude with the joyful celebration of the Easter vigil.

 

Accompanying Christ to Gethsemane

At the end of the Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday, the Eucharist is carried to an altar other than the main altar — an “altar of repose” — with a solemn procession, where the consecrated Hosts are placed and reserved for use on Good Friday, while the famous Pange Lingua hymn is sung.

“We see references to altars of repose as early as the 15th century, when the sacred species of the Eucharist were placed in a special tabernacle that was adorned and reserved for prayer following the Eucharistic rite of the Holy Thursday liturgy,” Ashley Noronha, co-founder of the Truth and Beauty Project with her husband, John Noronha, told the Register.

Just as the apostles accompanied Christ to the Garden of Gethsemane, so the faithful also get to accompany Christ to the Mount of Olives “and keep vigil by praying in observance of his request to stay awake, keep watch and pray, lest we fall into temptation.”

“Over the centuries,” Ashley Noronha continued, “the altars in different churches were decorated with beautiful flowers and candles, choirs sang beautiful chants, and reflections on the Paschal mystery were preached through the night.”

Noting St. Jerome’s use of the word Pastophoria in his commentary to denote a “bridal chamber for the Eucharist to be preserved outside of the liturgy,” John Noronha emphasized the rich history of adoration of the Most Holy and the long-standing tradition of devotion to the Eucharist.

“In the Old Testament,” John Noronha told the Register, we see “the most sacred space of the Temple, where the Ark of the Covenant resided, which was God’s presence among his people. In the New Testament, based primarily on John 6:51-58, the Eucharist is in a mystical way, the True Presence of Christ under the species of bread and wine.” 

“It is in the Eucharist present in the altars of repose,” Ashley Noronha added, “where we adore Christ present in a mystical way, both in his crucified and glorified Body. This brings us to communion in prayer, as we keep vigil with him.”

 

The Seven-Church Walk

Another popular tradition is that of visiting seven different churches and their altars of repose — a tradition that is believed to have begun in Rome during the first centuries of the Church.

“In Rome, the seven-church pilgrimage became very popular after St. Philip Neri decided to organize visits to the seven major pilgrimage churches of Rome,” John explained, emphasizing the theological precedent for the number seven. 

“For us, it is a beautiful opportunity to gather the Christian family of Rome, to pray, support and build each other up during this special time.” 

The couple each year leads a group of friends and pilgrims on the “Holy Thursday Church Walk” to visit different altars of repose and give reflections. 

Ashley and John Noronha, co-founders of the Truth and Beauty Project (Photo: Courtesy photo)


Emphasizing the communal aspect of the Eucharist as communion in the Body and Blood of Christ, Ashley explained: “We attend the liturgy together and then proceed in solidarity to visit altars of repose in the beautiful and historic churches of Rome that are wonderfully decorated with flowers and candles.” 

Isabella Murphy, 23, a Rome fellow with The Paideia Institute from California, was one of the many faithful visiting the city’s different churches and their altars of repose on the night of Holy Thursday. 

Isabella Murphy, 23, a Rome fellow with the Paideia Institute from California(Photo: Bénédicte Cedergren/EWTN)


Reflecting upon her experience of trying to catch a glimpse of the altar of repose at the crowded Venerable English College, Murphy said it reminded her of “a woodcut by Gustave Doré of Dante’s Paradiso, where Dante, Beatrice and thousands of others surround the Empyrean [the highest place in heaven] and finally gaze at the dwelling place of God.”

“In the center of the chapel, the tabernacle — though the Lord is still very much hidden from us, the church has put great care into decorating the altar to evoke a sense of the Divine. It felt to me like a hint, a little foretaste, of the Easter vigil.”

Emphasizing how the sensory beauty of the altars of repose, decorated with flowers and candles, help draw hearts and minds closer to God, Murphy added: “I visited other altars, some elaborate and some fairly simple. But it was a reminder to me that the reality of each tabernacle is the same: Christ is there, in visible splendor or not! And I want to keep this experience with me in every Mass and every visit to the Blessed Sacrament that I make.”

The altar of repose at Santa Maria in Monserrato degli Spagnoli(Photo: Sofia Engstrand)


 

‘Jesus Goes Forth Into the Night’

To Holy Thursday belongs the splendorous remembrance of the Institution of the Holy Eucharist and of holy orders. But as Pope Benedict XVI reminded the faithful on Holy Thursday 2012, “To Holy Thursday also belongs the dark night of the Mount of Olives, to which Jesus goes with his disciples; the solitude and abandonment of Jesus, who in prayer goes forth to encounter the darkness of death. ... Jesus goes forth into the night.” 

“Just as David goes up the Mount of Olives in agony,” John Noronha explained, “Christ in his human nature is also agonizing as he even sweats blood, thereby preparing the earth for anticipation of his passion.” 

The symbolism is rich, the couple emphasized. The word Gethsemane — meaning “oil press” — reminds us how Jesus’ spirit is crushed, just as the olives go through the suffering of the press to yield fragrant oil. At the same time, the word mount — meaning “an ascent” — is theologically directed toward an encounter with God. 

“As we endure the darkness, long prayer and loss of sleep by keeping vigil,” Ashley Noronha added, “we also remember the words of Christ in John 12:24: ‘Unless the grain of wheat dies, it cannot produce good fruit.’” 

“There is a delightful bittersweetness to Holy Thursday,” Barnabas Mercer, 26, an English seminarian for the Diocese of Arundel and Brighton, told the Register. “With childlike affection, we comfort Our Lord before we have to say goodbye to his wonderful Presence until he returns at the Easter vigil.” 

Debating whether we could really say that we would not have failed to stay awake as the apostles did, Mercer added: “As we do what his friends could not, and watch with him in this dark hour, we wonder how many times we have taken his presence for granted, how many times we have failed to watch with him over the past year.” 

Barnabas Mercer, 26, an English seminarian for the Diocese of Arundel and Brighton studying in Rome(Photo: Bénédicte Cedergren/EWTN)


“How interesting it is that it is at night that we lose him, and in another night that we gain him again,” Mercer reflected. “When Judas left to betray Our Lord, it was night, and at the Exsultet, we hear it triumphantly sung that  ‘this is the night’ when Christ broke the prison bars of death.”

 

Awaiting Triumphant Faith

Although the church entered into the dark night of the Mount of Olives and the even darker night of the Passion of Our Lord, the flickering candlelights and the fragrant flowers clothing the altars of repose remind the faithful of a battle already won, of a victory already given to those who believe.

“The candles decorating the altars symbolize the light of Christ,” John Noronha explained. “As the wax melts, it symbolizes the tears of Christ for our sins, and as the candle diminishes, it represents Christ’s descent into his hour of darkness.” 

“The beautiful flowers that adorn the altars along with the candles symbolize the beauty and fruit of his sacrifice,” Ashley Noronha added. “Flowers are not only beautiful, but are where the pollen and stigma unite for the survival and propagation of its species. Similarly, Christ brings about this union between God and man for the spiritual survival of our human species.”

The altar of repose at San Salvatore in Lauro(Photo: Sofia Engstrand)


“Jesus goes forth into the night,” Pope Benedict XVI said. But Benedict XVI also  reminded the faithful that Christ entered the darkness to overcome it:

“Jesus himself is light and truth, communication, purity and goodness. He enters into the night. Night is ultimately a symbol of death, the definitive loss of fellowship and life. Jesus enters into the night in order to overcome it and to inaugurate the new Day of God in the history of humanity.”

Mercer added, “The night of our triumphant, beautiful faith is still to come. So we watch, and stay awake, in loving silence and quiet anticipation.”

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