Even in prison
One must adjust one’s expectations in prison, even for liturgy. The informal (though valid!) liturgical habits of Fr. M., who serves the prison where I help out with an annual retreat for inmates, would drive me to distraction in any other context. But here, he has established a connection to the men he is called to serve that would be the envy of any parish priest.
The high point of the long-weekend retreats is Saturday evening, when Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament and Benediction occur, along with opportunities for Confession and prayer with inmates. Usually this takes place in the prison chapel, a utilitarian space that gestures toward sacredness with its pews and vaulted ceiling. Placing the monstrance on the altar, though, gives the space a dignity it otherwise lacks, and inspires quiet reverence in the retreatants, Catholic and curious alike.
This weekend, however, due to a scheduling snafu, Adoration had to occur in our even more drab classroom. The “altar” was a folding table, the “pews” plastic chairs hurriedly rearranged into something resembling rows. There was, however, an immediacy to the presence of the Lord that was striking, and Fr. M. treated the rite just as if it were occurring in a cathedral.
We concluded with the hymn “Holy God We Praise Thy Name” as Fr. M. processed out of the classroom and down the winding whitewashed corridor back to the chapel space. I was positioned right at the classroom door, so I could watch and listen both to the men and to their priest. Once out of sight down the hall, I expected Fr. M. to go silent while the classroom finished the hymn.
But instead, out of earshot of everyone but me, Fr. M. continued to sing, just him and his Lord. For all I know, he continued to sing as he walked through the reinforced metal door connecting the corridor to the guard station, past the guards and into the chapel, holding the Blessed Sacrament aloft:
Infinite Thy vast domain,
Everlasting is Thy reign.
Yes, even here behind the walls and the razor wire, Jesus Christ reigns. Fr. M. testified to that in a way only a priest can, and thus served his men (even without their knowing) by serving his Lord.
These Seven Days…
…in the Ordinary Form
It is Palm Sunday. At the procession with palms, Luke 19:28-40 is to be read. At Mass, the readings are Isaiah 50:4-7, Philippians 2:6-11, and the Passion narrative from the Gospel of Luke (22:14-23:56).
The great commentator George Leo Haydock asks a piercing question, attached to Phil. 2:10 but relevant to all the readings and to this entire season:
If we shew respect when the name of our sovereign is mentioned, may we not express our respect also at the name of Jesus; and if to his name, why not to his cross as well as to the throne of the king?
To which we might add: Whatever our objects of civil devotion might be—the flag or the founders or modern reformers or this president (or his opposition)—how much more should we revere the Crucified King, without Whom all civil devotions would be nothing but the vain prejudices of a doomed race?
The “Prayer over the People,” just before the Concluding Rites, reads:
Look, we pray, O Lord, on this your family, for whom our Lord Jesus Christ did not hesitate to be delivered into the hands of the wicked and submit to the agony of the Cross.
Your family. As we enter into Holy Week, we do so not observing the Passion from a distance, but with this reminder that in the New Covenant, sealed by Christ’s blood, we are His kin.
Rather than liturgical minutiae, let me give a brief personal statement: Attending the liturgies of the Sacred Triduum for the first time, when I was in college, was one of the most powerful spiritual experiences of my life. The divine drama unfolds in a way that sets these days apart, and that makes Christ’s suffering, death, and resurrection feel real and immediate. The traditions of these days are meaningful and beautiful. If it is at all possible for you, I cannot recommend highly enough attending Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Vigil liturgies.
An altar of repose for Christ in the Blessed Sacrament on the evening of Holy Thursday. The consecrated hosts rest here until at least midnight, and then they are put away until being used for a communion service (no consecration of new hosts) on Good Friday.
…in the Extraordinary Form (1962)
It is Palm Sunday. At the blessing of palms and commemoration of Christ’s entrance into Jerusalem, Matthew 21:1-9 is read. At Mass, the Epistle is Philippians 2:5-11 (nearly identical to the Ordinary Form reading) and the Gospel is St. Matthew’s Passion (26:36-27:66).
On the preparation of the donkey and the colt for Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem in Matthew 21, St. Jerome writes:
The Apostles’ clothes which are laid upon the beasts may be understood either as the teaching of virtues, or discernment of Scriptures, or verities of ecclesiastical dogmas, with which, unless the soul be furnished and instructed, it deserves not to have the Lord take His seat there.
While, as the Church Fathers observed, riding on a donkey was a demonstration of meekness—a reminder that we “be content with that which is necessary,” according to St. John Chrysostom—still the rough back of the beast must be made suitable for the Lord, just as the roughness of our souls must be made suitable for Him.
The Entry into Jerusalem by the late medieval painter Giotto.
The introit contains Psalm 22:1, instantly recognizable because it is quoted by Christ on the Cross:
Domine, ne longe facias auxilium tuum a me: ad defensionem meam aspice: libera me de ore leonis, et a cornibus unicomium humilitatem meam. Deus, Deus meus, respice in me: quare me dereliquisti? longe a slaute mea verba delictorum meorum.
O Lord, keep not Thy help far from me: look to my defense: deliver me from the lion’s mouth and my lowness from the horns of the unicorns. O God, my God, look upon me: why hast Thou forsaken me? Why cannot my sinful words reach Thee, Who art my salvation?
This short prayer is full of drama, beginning with begging the Lord’s help but culminating in the despair of the Cross. We will have to wait until next Sunday for the drama to be resolved.
It will be Holy Week. One could fill a book, perhaps two or three, with the details of preconciliar Holy Week liturgies, especially given the reforms of Pope Pius XII in 1955, which set the stage for the more comprehensive reform of the Second Vatican Council.
The most striking details in the 1962 rubrics for Holy Week may be those for the Gloria on Holy Thursday. The Gloria, of course, is not usually said during Lent, but it returns just for this Mass. At that time, the organ plays and the bells peal for the very last time until the Gloria of the Easter Vigil, roughly 48 hours later. For those two days, an uncomfortable but expectant stillness rests over the church and the entire parish community. Even private conversations at home or in the car feel like they should be conducted quietly, as if something dreadful but desperately important is happening all around us; nothing we can say or do seems like it could possibly matter in comparison.
This is the drama of liturgy. After experiencing the collapse into stillness on Holy Thursday and the mournful anticipation of Good Friday, the Vigil Mass takes on its full glory as an eruption of light and noise and joy. Even if you’re hungry or the kids are fussy or you light your daughter’s hair on fire (like I did last year), it’s one of the best moments of the year.
Those Seven Days…
…in Catholic Twitter
Bishop Richard Umbers, the Ordinary of Catholic Twitter (and also Auxiliary of Sydney, Australia), lays down the goods on prayer:
Padre Brendon with possibly the best response to a headline that received many exasperated responses:
Slate@Slate“Why is it so hard for a young, single woman to find good guys just for sex?” https://t.co/B5BxRmI2qV
Matthew Walther hates space—and has a good point about space images that are beautified by human hands (and algorithms):
And, really, what is a newsletter for if not patting oneself on the back every once in a while:
…in the Content Mines
At America, Mary Hallan FioRito argues for the expansion of perinatal hospice care, so that women with adverse diagnoses late in pregnancy have access to humane and often beautiful care for their children, reducing the pressure to abort.
Kevin Jones writes about work by the sociologist W. Bradford Wilcox demonstrating how the retreat from marriage disproportionately harms lower income Americans, leading to economically, politically, socially, and spiritually dangerous alienation.
Pro-life activist Obianuju Ekeocha describes the overwhelming emphasis on abortion and contraception in foreign aid to Africa as a kind of neo-colonialism.
Derek Rotty reminds us not to despair: It’s never too late to recommit to a Lenten discipline that has lapsed, or to begin a new one.
And, in a totally different vein, these short films about traditional Irish handiwork are delightful. Called, simply, Hands, the series was produced for Irish television in the 1980s to document crafts and skills that were on the cusp of being replaced by modern methods. Twenty of the videos are available on this YouTube playlist, and others may be available elsewhere. The full series is available for purchase here.
As for me…
In the secular liturgical calendar, it is Masters Weekend. Last year, I wrote a piece for First Things about how the Augusta National Golf Club has asserted and thus maintained its distinctiveness on our featureless cultural landscape; in contrast:
…the Church is too often just another smoothed-over institution on the terrain of modern liberalism. Maybe there’s a small crucifix perched on top, big enough to be recognized by those looking for it, but not so big as to disturb the quiet horizon.
We don’t act as though the Church had something special to offer, and so, with rare exceptions when her irrepressible transcendence bursts forth, no one treats her as though she did.
I was pleased to help put together this little devotional based on Mother Angelica’s habit of praying the Way of the Cross. It’s especially seasonal right now, of course, but the Stations can be prayed fruitfully any time of year.
Did I miss something important? Get something wrong? Do you have ideas for how to improve These Seven Days? Drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org. This is a work in progress, and your feedback will help to make it the best it can be.
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