Holy Week's Solemnities

A look at Pope Benedict XVI's events and Masses leading up to Easter. From our March 25 issue.

Benedict XVI  holds palms as he arrives at the Passion Sunday
Mass in St. Peter’s Square.
LENT’S CULMINATION BEGINS. Pope Benedict XVI holds palms as he arrives at the Passion Sunday Mass in St. Peter’s Square. (photo: 2011 Reuters photo/ Stefano Rellandini)

Holy Week at the Vatican this year will be as intense as usual for the Holy Father, who is scheduled to celebrate six Masses and deliver five homilies and addresses that will usher in the Solemnity of Easter for the Catholic Church.

As in almost every Catholic diocese throughout the world, the Vatican’s Holy Week will begin with the blessing of the palms, procession and holy Mass on Palm Sunday, April 1.

Usually held outdoors in St. Peter’s Square under sunny spring skies, the Mass tends to draw large crowds of pilgrims holding palm fronds and olive branches.

Pope Benedict XVI, wearing crimson-and-gold-colored robes, is likely to remind the faithful of the meaning of the celebration that marks the triumphal entry of Christ into Jerusalem, when palm branches were placed in his path before his arrest on Holy Thursday and his crucifixion on Good Friday. (Read full text of his Palm Sunday homily here.)

The Holy Father will then celebrate his next Holy Week liturgy on Holy Thursday morning, when he preaches a homily at the chrism Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica.

The chrism Mass manifests the unity of the priests with their bishop through the blessing of three oils that will be used throughout the year.

In his 2010 chrism Mass homily, Benedict XVI stressed that oils point to Christ’s anointing and serve “as an expression of the Church’s unity, guaranteed by the episcopate, and they point to Christ, the true ‘shepherd and guardian’ of our souls.”

The Pope added that the oils, used in four sacraments, including baptism and in the anointing of the sick, are “offered to us, so to speak, as God’s medicine — as the medicine that now assures us of his goodness, offering us strength and consolation, yet at the same time points beyond the moment of the illness towards the definitive healing, the resurrection.”

In the evening, at 5:30pm, the Holy Father will begin the Paschal Triduum with Mass of the Lord’s Supper in the Basilica of St. John Lateran.

Benedict usually devotes his homilies on Holy Thursday — both at the Mass of the Lord’s Supper and the chrism Mass — to the priesthood and the holy Eucharist, which were instituted by Christ on this day. The Pope also washes the feet of a select group of 12 Roman priests, imitating the gesture of Jesus to the apostles.

And as in every other church on Maundy Thursday, the altar of the basilica will be stripped as a reminder of how Jesus was stripped of his garments when he fell into the hands of the Romans and was exposed naked to their insults.

Throughout that evening, until midnight, the doors of the Lateran basilica and all of Rome’s churches are thrown open for pilgrims to visit seven altars of repose — a tradition that dates back to early Christianity.

The tradition is to visit Rome’s pilgrim churches: four patriarchal basilicas (St. John Lateran, St. Peter’s, St. Paul Outside the Walls, St. Mary Major), plus the city’s minor basilicas (St. Lawrence Outside the Walls, the Holy Cross in Jerusalem and the Shrine of the Madonna of Divine Love).

Most Romans, however, visit seven churches that are usually in close proximity. Many of them will spend time praying in front of the Blessed Sacrament, and every church will have chapels turned into tastefully adorned altars of repose. Some enjoy the tradition so much that they will visit far more than the traditional seven churches.

At 5pm on Good Friday, the Holy Father will preside over the Celebration of the Lord’s Passion in St. Peter’s, during which the homily will be delivered, as is the custom, by the papal preacher, Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa.

But unlike last year on Good Friday, the Pope won’t be offering television viewers a pre-recorded question-and-answer session from seven people around the world. That program was a first in papal broadcasting history.

At 9:15pm, the Via Crucis devotion (Stations of the Cross or Way of the Cross) will take place at the Colosseum. Commemorating the passion and death of Jesus Christ through the reading of prayers along a path of 14 stations, each station is accompanied by meditations written by a guest author.

The Holy Father requested the texts for meditation during the Way of the Cross be written by Danilo and Anna Maria Zanzucchi, a married couple and founders of the New Families Movement, which is part of Focolari. The theme of the meditations will be the family, and the Way of the Cross will follow its traditional 14 stations.

The Via Crucis at the Colosseum dates back to the 18th century and was revived in 1964 by Pope Paul VI. It has since become a worldwide televised event.

Also guaranteed to attract a large worldwide audience will be the Easter vigil Mass presided by the Pope on April 7.

Easter Day Mass will be celebrated in the morning in St. Peter’s Square, followed by the Pope’s message and blessing urbi et orbi (to the city of Rome and to the world).

As in previous years, the Holy Father is expected to draw attention to areas of conflict and suffering in the world today and offer words of hope. Concerns over the ongoing violence and bloodshed in Syria are likely to figure highly into his remarks.

Not only will this be the usual, intensive Holy Week for the Pope, it also follows on the heels of his recent trip to Cuba and Mexico.

The Holy Father is therefore likely to do what he normally does after Easter: take a short, well-earned rest at his summer residence of Castel Gandolfo.

Edward Pentin writes from Rome.