One of the great and lasting contributions which Pope Pius XII made to the universal Church is his reform of the Easter liturgies. Up until 1956 the tail was wagging the dog liturgically: because of the Eucharistic fast, Mass and the Holy Week liturgies had to be celebrated first thing in the morning. Up until 1956 the laity rarely attended and the clergy rattled through the liturgies as quickly as they could. By enabling the Mass of the Lord’s Supper to be celebrated after sunset on Holy Thursday, by permitting the Solemn Liturgy of the Lord’s Passion to be scheduled for 3.00 PM (15.00 hrs.) on Friday and by encouraging the Easter Vigil to commence only after the sun had set on Holy Saturday (9.00 PM/21.00 hrs.) not only were these unique liturgies in sync with the Passion narrative of the first Holy Week but the laity too were now enabled to attend, to receive the Eucharist and, with the introduction of the vernacular in the immediate aftermath of Vatican II, participate fully and actively in the liturgical drama of the Easter Triduum. This year few if any of us will be able to celebrate the Holy Week liturgies and those of us priests who will be doing so in our empty churches will follow the Church’s instructions for a pared-down liturgy without a congregation. Regret at how Covid – 19 has “cancelled” Holy Week and Easter is understandable, but a bit of historical perspective shows us that the involvement in the Easter Triduum we all take for granted is quite new. Up until the reforms introduced by Pope Pius XII, in the lifetime of quite a few in our congregation thus, the vast majority of the laity never attended the Holy Week liturgies. That is why over the centuries the Church invented so many devotional exercises, among the most popular being Stations of the Cross, to bring the majority of her people closer to the Easter mystery. The great passions of J.S. Bach – the St. Matthew and the St. John – the greater part of G.F. Handel’s Messiah (although it has become an indispensable part of the run-up to Christmas), John Stainer’s Crucifixion and even Richard Wagner’s opera Parsifal, performed each year in Holy Week in the Antwerp Opera House, became important cultural celebrations of the Easter story. For countless generations in most parts of the world it was Stations of the Cross rather than the Triduum liturgies that were the unmissable highlight of Holy Week. Covid- 19 has forced us, at least in this regard, to turn the clock back. We can, of course, watch live-streamed Holy Week liturgies – from neighbouring parishes or from St. Peter’s in Rome – but like earlier generations we can pray the Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary, we can do the fourteen Stations in our garden or simply read one of the four passion stories in the pages of the New Testament. We will all learn to appreciate just how much attendance at and participation in the Holy Week liturgies mean to us. It is to be hoped that in 2021 we will be able to celebrate the Triduum as a community once again. But, sobered by the thought of just how lucky our generation has been to have those liturgies as the high point of our Christian year, we might turn to the substitutes and surrogates past generations who did not attend the liturgies of Holy Week have bestowed on us, and allow the great graces those who created the Oberammergau Passion Play, who celebrated the first Stations of the Cross in Rome’s Colosseum, who composed the great Passsions and sacred oratorios, have given to the Christian world shape our celebration of Easter. We are united in our faith in our redemption through the unique sacrifice of Calvary and our faith in resurrection and new life.
We wish you all a Holy Week which enriches you with many graces.
Father Patrick Daly