Reflections on the Ancient Pre-1955 Holy Week

By Nick Jones, University of Rhode Island

Christ is risen! He is truly risen!

How great is the providence of our loving God! Even though the pandemic disrupted my plans to attend the various services of Holy Week in person, the Lord allowed me to experience something almost as great. I would have given an arm and a leg to be able to get to any Mass just on Easter Sunday, but, being locked down at home, live-streaming was the next best thing. I had originally been planning to attend only Palm Sunday and Good Friday in the ancient Roman Rite, as it existed prior to the 1955 reforms of Pope Pius XII, while participating in the other ceremonies with my university chaplaincy and home parish.  The closure of churches enabled me, however, to participate, albeit from afar, in the liturgies of Palm Sunday, Holy Thursday, Good Friday, the Easter Vigil, and Easter Sunday in the ancient rite. 

Let’s take a step back. You might be thinking to yourself, “What the heck is this kid talking about? I thought there was only one Holy Week.” To make a long story short, most Roman Catholics probably participated in one of four sets of Rites of Holy Week. The majority of us participated according to the Ordinary Form, the missal promulgated by St. Paul VI in 1970. A small fraction of us participated according to the Ordinariate Form, based largely upon the frameworks set out by the Ordinary Form, with a more edified, sacral English translation, utilized by Personal Ordinariates of former Anglicans and Episcopalians who want to keep their patrimony but also enjoy communion with Rome. Some of us participated according to the rites as laid out in the 1962 Roman Missal, promulgated by Saint John XXIII, incorporating the 1955 reforms of Pius XII. This missal was largely supplanted by the Ordinary Form, although it was never officially abrogated, according to Pope Benedict XVI’s Summorum Pontificum, which is to say that those who have a particular attachment or devotion to the older rites have the right to celebrate them. To make a long story short, this missal was the last product in a long line of reforms throughout the 20th century before the Ordinary Form. It is still the ancient Roman Rite, although it has many differences when compared to the missal standardized for the whole Roman Rite after the Council of Trent, by St. Pius V’s Quo Primum. The biggest difference between these two missals is the inclusion of the new rite of Holy Week. Without going into great detail, many people at the time, and still today, question both the merit and prudence of the reforms, which replace the ancient rites dating from the Patristic period. Thanks to a special indult from the Vatican, the fourth set of rites celebrated are the ancient, pre-1955 Holy Week rites. Many groups dedicated to the traditional liturgy, like the Priestly Fraternity of Saint Peter and the Institute of Christ the King Sovereign Priest, as well as many diocesan clergy availed themselves to this indult. I was able to participate in these rites for the first time with the Fraternity’s Church of Saint Mary on Broadway in Providence, Rhode Island.

Before I discuss each of the days individually, I’d like to set out some general observations. First, I am not trying to argue in favor of any particular rite over another. I will say, however, that I prefer the ancient rites above all of the others, and I want to express why. If it persuades you, great! If not, great! My only intent is to share a positive personal experience.  Second, these liturgies were LONG! The shortest one was Good Friday, only because it didn’t have a sermon or communion, and it still lasted for about two hours. All of the liturgies were long and yet all of them were worthwhile. Whenever anyone asks me about how long they take, my response is always that they take as long as they need, and nothing more. These rites do what they need to do no matter the length. There is, as one writer puts it, nothing superfluous. When you’re engrossed in them, you know that time is passing, but you do not find yourself preoccupied with the time. Liturgy is, after all, the highest form of leisure, and who has ever stopped to think that their leisure is taking too much time? Third, these rites are OLD! All of our liturgies, no matter how modern, incorporate ancient symbolism. But the liturgies of the pre-1955 Holy Week take this to another level –  all of them to the Patristic period. That’s about the 8th century at the latest, for those of you keeping track. The Good Friday liturgy is so old that it predates reciting the Lamb of God at Communion, which was inserted into the missal by St. Gregory the Great, who died in 641. To me, there’s something very meaningful about participating in the same Holy Week liturgies that every Roman Catholic, including all of my Catholic ancestors, would have used until 1955. Fourth, these rites are unmistakably God-centered. We know that the law of prayer is the law of belief is the law of life (lex orandi, lex credendi, lex vivendi). Since that is the case, when our liturgical prayer is so utterly focused on God alone, not worried about the subjective feelings of the one praying it, we can learn to conform our private prayer lives to the same standard. 

Palm Sunday

The first liturgy in which I participated was Palm Sunday. This one lasted  about two and a half hours, without a congregation to receive palms and then Communion. This liturgy, although similar to the newer rites, has a great many differences. It can be divided into three principal parts: blessing of palms, the procession, and the Mass. The blessing, much more intricate than the modern rites, is sometimes colloquially known as the Missa Sicca or Dry Mass. This is because it mirrors the order of the Mass, albeit without the Consecration. Following the customary Sunday Asperges, the liturgy began with an Entrance Antiphon and Collect, followed by a Lesson, Gradual, Tract, and Gospel. All of these were done with the same ceremonies as at Mass, to show the solemnity of the blessing and the holiness and value of the palms as sacramentals. Immediately following, the priest stood at the right corner of the altar and blessed the palms with prayers similar to a normal Secret and Preface, complete with the dialogue. They continued, for a total of five prayers, in a manner roughly analogous to the Canon at Mass. Once the palms were ready to be distributed, servers and clerics received them at the altar, as they would Communion. Any faithful who would have been present would have received them at the altar rail. Once again, the rite is sure to emphasize that these palms aren’t just trinkets to make us feel good or to give us a prop, but that they are truly holy and that proper use of them can dispose us to receive grace more efficaciously. The liturgy continued with the procession around the church grounds, recalling our Lord’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem. The procession stopped at the doors of the church, as the ministers outside and the choir inside alternated singing verses of the hymn Gloria, Laus, et Honor. One commentator notes that this physical separation is symbolic of the angels in heaven singing God’s praises, while we here below are still separated from them on account of our sin. The subdeacon then knocked on the door of the church with the processional cross, and the procession continued into the church, back into the sanctuary, and Mass began as usual. Unlike in the reformed old rights and in the new rites, Mass was not abbreviated anyway. The priest laid aside his cope, assuming the chasuble and maniple. The deacon and subdeacon put on their maniples. They both vested in folded chasubles, which are basically just regular chasubles cut or folded up short in the front. This is another sign of the antiquity of this rite, as it predates dalmatics and tunicles by a few centuries. Once those two vestments came into use, they were not used during Lent or Advent or on days of fasting, reserved instead for joyful seasons. This is just another detail of the rite to show that something not quite right is happening, that this is not a joyful day. All three clerics vested in the penitential color violet, as opposed to the modern use of festal red. This shows both that it is still Lent and that even the recreation of the triumphant entrance into the city is an act of sincere penance. The Mass of Palm Sunday demonstrated a clear shift in the focus of the liturgy from the triumphal entry into Jerusalem to the cruelty of the Cross. There was a clear delineation between these two focuses that is often lacking today. Mass continued as usual, until the chanting of the Passion. Ideally, three extra clerics vested as deacons would have processed out to chant it. Only one was available, with the Deacon of the Mass and the Priest filling the other two roles. Once the narrative got to the point both of our Lord’s death, the chanting stopped. The extra deacon went back to the sacristy, and the Deacon of the Mass then chanted the account of the burial of Christ, following the usual rubrics for the chanting of the Gospel. One commentator suggests that this is to show that the majority of the Passion is an extra devotion added to the Mass, and that the burial of Christ is the proper Gospel of the Mass. During the chanting of the burial account, the Deacon used the special weeping tone. Characterized by long, drawn-out notes at the start and end of each line, it is meant to sound as though the minister is crying as he talks about our Lord being laid in the tomb. The priest elected to forgo a homily, allowing the rite to speak for itself. Mass then continued and concluded in the usual manner.

Holy Thursday

The evening Mass of Holy Thursday, including the Eucharistic procession, was the shortest liturgy, lasting about 1 hour and 45 minutes. There were fewer peculiarities about this Mass, celebrated as a typical Solemn Mass, but it was still clearly unique. With Holy Thursday being considered a feast of the Lord, this Mass featured the Creed, which is no longer the case. During the Gloria, all of the bells in the church were rung, and remained silent until the Gloria at the Easter Vigil. This was just another step in the gradual liturgical fasting undertaken by the Church. The epistle was Saint Paul’s account of the last supper from his First Letter to the Corinthians. It included his full account, as well as his admonition to receive worthily. This admonition, as well as the warning that anyone who partakes of the Eucharist unworthily is liable to be held guilty for the death of the Lord is absent from the new rite of Holy Thursday, and is in fact never heard in the new lectionary. The Gospel was the account of Our Lord washing the feet of the Apostles. Unlike in the newer rites, the Mandatum is celebrated after Mass, so as to not disrupt the natural flow. In the case of my experience, it was not observed. Had it been, it would have involved only men, most likely only the altar servers. This is to show that the Washing of the Feet is a model particularly well-suited for priestly ministry and charity. In his sermon, the Deacon pointed out a few more unique features of this liturgy. Every great feast of the Church is preceded by a fast, be it Christmas and Easter with Advent and Lent or standalone feasts with their penitential vigils. In each case, the preparatory period is celebrated in the penitential color of violet and the feast uses white or gold.  On Holy Thursday, however, the church confronts us with the reality that something is starting to go wrong. The liturgy begins with full solemnity and festal vestments, and ends with the ministers wearing violet, stripping the altar of all of its ornaments, an aspect which I will further discuss below. Mass continued as usual, with two peculiarities. At the Offertory, two Hosts were placed on the corporal. One was consumed by the Priest for his Communion. The other was placed into an extra chalice which was then veiled and tied and left in the middle of the altar. Additionally, instead of bells, a wooden clacker called to crotalus. What is usually a lovely sound gets replaced with a harsh reminder of Our Lord being nailed to the Cross. Mass concluded, and a Eucharistic procession formed. Again, the Deacon’s homily provided special insight. Instead of the joy of the procession on Corpus Christi, when Our Lord is put in a monstrance for the whole world to see, Our Lord was concealed in a chalice, symbolic of the fact that He was about to pour His life out for the world. The Blessed Sacrament was taken to a special shrine, decorated with flowers and candles, symbolic of His agonizing time in the Garden. The ministers then returned to the altar, with the Deacon and Priest vested in purple stoles. The altar was stripped of all of its ornaments, cloths, and flowers. Unlike in the newer rites, the cross and candles remained on the altar. While this was happening, Psalm 22 (21), in which the author expresses anguish over being abandoned by God and being stripped of his garments, was chanted. This rite symbolized Our Lord being divested both of His clothes and of His earthly glory during His Passion. In the new rite, the altar is stripped without any solemnity. Inasmuch as it is definitely a pragmatic thing to strip the alternate events of Good Friday, the wisdom of the old rite is that it takes on a theological meaning. Had the Washing of the Feet taken place, it would have likewise been a complete rite in its own right. The Gospel of the Mass would have been repeated with full ceremony, and then the feet would have been washed. 

Good Friday

The Liturgy of Good Friday, known as the Mass of the Presanctified, lasted for about 2 hours. While the overall structure of this rite is the same in all four uses of the Roman Rite of Holy Week, the ancient pre-1955 rite enjoys many rich peculiarities. Firstly, it is celebrated in the mourning color of black. While red does connote blood, it had only ever been used in the Roman Rite in reference to martyr’s blood, on their feasts. It is also used in Masses dedicated to the Holy Spirit, symbolic of the Tongues of Fire at Pentecost. The only connection between the Passion and the color red had been the use of red in connection with the Exultation of the Holy Cross. The title of that feast and the use of red should inform us implicitly as to the inappropriateness of using red on Good Friday, which is all about the defeat of the Cross and the sorrow that foments within us. Red, considered a festal color, is always connected with the joy of a martyr’s entrance into Heaven. As on Palm Sunday, the ministers vested as at Mass, in chasuble and folded chasuble. In the 1955 changes to Holy Week, the chasuble was not used for the entirety of the rite, a practice that was thankfully rectified in the Ordinary Form. The significance of the use of the chasuble throughout is the connection of this rite to that of the Mass. Although by ancient custom the Church does not celebrate the inherently joyful Eucharist on Good Friday, the rite mimics that of the Mass. One commentator describes this rite as being almost “Mass gone wrong”. At the start of the liturgy, the altar was bare, but still held the veiled cross and the six candles. A cloth was placed on the altar as the ministers prostrated themselves to start the liturgy. There were no Prayers at the Foot of the Altar, but the ministers silently prayed Psalm 51 (50). Immediately following, a Prophecy from Hosea was read, followed by a Tract from Habbakuk, the same Collect as from Holy Thursday, and then a Lesson from Exodus with a Tract from Psalm 139. After this, the Passion of Saint John was chanted, in the same format as on Palm Sunday. Once more, the burial of Christ was treated at the proper Gospel and was chanted in a haunting tone. Following this were the Solemn Intercessions. These eight prayers all fit the same format. In each case, the Priest introduced the intention and said, “Let us pray”. This was followed by “Let us kneel” from the Deacon and “Arise” by the Subdeacon. Then the Priest prayed the prayers themselves, all of which took the form of a Collect. These prayers provide great insight into former periods of the Church’s liturgical life. In terms of both format and content, these prayers reveal to us how the early Church prayed and serve as a great means of connecting us to prior generations of Catholics throughout the ages. One notable exception was the use of the Prayer for the Jews as composed by Pope Benedict XVI, as opposed to the older one. Many people who are much smarter than me have spent a lot of time debating the merits of this change. All that I will say is that I do not think that the old prayer was problematic in and of itself, but I do think it was easy to misinterpret. This new prayer, whether we like it or not, is the one that the Church has asked us to use. These prayers fit well into the Good Friday liturgy. The missal that I used to follow noted that we ask the most of God on the day commemorating His most merciful act. Just as Christ died for all, even His enemies, so too do we pray even for the enemies of the Church. With the prayers having been concluded, the rite transitioned to the Adoration of the Cross. At this point, the ministers removed their outer vestments and their shoes. When this rite was first drawn up, vestments took a much more ample form. As such, the removal of the outer vestments facilitated greater range of motion. Contemporarily, however, most vestments used in the old rite follow the baroque or Roman style, leaving the priests arms mostly free and unencumbered. Over time, the removal of the vestments took on the symbolism of the humility of the ministers. Additionally, ancient Roman custom specified the removal of shoes during penitential periods. The ministers, having taken the veiled cross off of the altar, began to unveil at the lowest step on the epistle or right side of the altar. Having unveiled part of the upper portion of the cross, the Priest sang, “Behold the wood of the cross, on which hung the Savior of the world.” The choir responded, “Come, let us adore” and genuflected towards the cross. This was repeated on the second step of the altar, and then on the highest step, in the middle. Each time more and more of the body of Our Lord was revealed, which one commentator notes is symbolic of the fact that it was not until Christ was lifted high on the Cross that someone acknowledged Him as Lord and God during His Passion. While the intercessions were taking place, a long carpet had been rolled from the steps of the altar into the nave of the church. On top of this carpet a violet cushion was placed, upon which the cross stood.  Once the ministers had finished unveiling the cross, they made their way into the news and then into the sanctuary to physically adore the cross themselves. As they made their way, the ministers and all those who made their adoration performed three double genuflections, as one would normally make towards the exposed Blessed Sacrament. This is symbolic of Our Lord falling three times during the Way of the Cross. While adoration was occurring, several beautiful chants were offered. First, the choir sang the Reproaches, a bitter monologue wherein our Lord compares His mercy towards His people and their mistreatment of Him. This was followed by the hopeful Crucem Tuam. The final chant was the Crux Fidelis, which highlights the necessity and triumph of the Cross. These chants were all sung in full, even though there were less than ten people who had to adore the cross. None of them are optional.  The modern rite allows any combination of the three older requirements, but it also allows for any other suitable hymn. Once more, this rite connects us to our liturgical patrimony. Before discussing the final component of the liturgy, it is useful to talk about the nature of the Adoration of the Cross. As mentioned before, on Holy Thursday, only one additional Host was consecrated for use on Good Friday. Until the reforms of 1955, only the priest celebrant received Communion on Good Friday. the other two ministers, any other clerics who might happen to be present, servers, choir, and all the faithful do not receive the Eucharist. Rather, it is considered that the Adoration of the Cross is our Communion for the day. As will be discussed in a moment, the celebrant receives communion because this rite is still a sacrifice, albeit not the Sacrifice of the Mass. The rest of those gathered on the day of Our Lord’s most dolorous death do not partake of the Communion of His Body, but rather partake of the Communion of venerating the instrument through which He accomplished our redemption. We are deprived of the greatest fruit of the Cross, on the day in which we commemorate the agony and sorrow of the Cross. This is yet another sign of our liturgical fasting which we have undertaken since Septuagesima Sunday. The final component of the liturgy, the Mass of the Presanctified, followed the Adoration of the Cross. The Priest, having resumed his chasuble, then vested in a festive white humeral veil.  A procession complete with candles and incense was then made to the Altar of Repose. The Blessed Sacrament was returned to the main altar, as the beautiful hymn Vexilla Regis was chanted.  This hymn sings of the triumphs that come from the agony of the Cross. In the 1955 reforms, incense was removed from this procession, seemingly inexplicably. Additionally, only the Deacon was involved in the procession, which was done with three newly composed antiphons. In the modern rite, there is no use of incense or singing. Once the Sacrament was placed upon the altar, the chalice was filled with wine and a drop of water, like at Mass. This was done, however, without the Offertory prayers of the Mass. The priest then imposed incense as at Mass, without blessing it. He then incensed the Sacrament and the altar in the same manner as is done at the Offertory. He himself was not incensed. He then washed his hands, omitting the typical, joyful Lavabo psalm. With all of this being finished, the priests recited the “In spiritu humilitatis” and the “Orate Fratres” as typically done at Mass. The “Suscipiat”, however, was not said. All of these rites make it clear, again, that there is still an offering of the Son to the Father which is performed upon this day. The sacrifice, however, is not renewed as is typical at Mass, once more showing that something is not quite right. In her wisdom, the Church does not allow the joy that comes from full celebration of the Eucharistic sacrifice to overshadow the penitence of Good Friday. She brings the liturgical fasting to its high point by forbidding the greatest act of the sacred liturgy itself. The rubrics for the rite then direct the priest to omit all of the typical actions up to the Our Father. The Embolism following the Our Father was chanted, after which the priest elevated the Host to be adored by the faithful. At a time that would typically be accompanied by the ringing of bells, the crotalus from Holy Thursday was once more sounded, followed by a fraction of the Host being placed into the chalice. Following this, all of the rites of the Priest’s Communion at Mass were observed. He then received the contents of the chalice without saying anything and purified his fingers and the chalice, as at Mass, though without any prayers. The prayer “Quod ore sumpsimus” from the missal was then recited. Once the chalice had been reassembled and removed from the altar, the ministers and the servers departed in silence. The altar was once more stripped, leaving only the cross and candles. The abrupt end to the liturgy again highlights its incompleteness. From beginning to end, this rite clearly demonstrates that the death of Our Lord changes everything. This is highlighted by the Tabernacle being left empty, both on the Altar of Repose, which is then dismantled, and on the main altar, where the tabernacle door is left ajar. In our sinful folly, we have killed the Lord, and the Church confronts all of our senses with this reality.

From beginning to end, the celebration of the Easter Vigil lasted for about 3 hours and 40 minutes. There has been discussion as to what the proper time of this service should be. In the early Church, vigils were all-night affairs, ending around dawn. Eventually, vigils came to be anticipated on the day prior to the feast. For example, every aspect of the liturgy of August 14th commemorated the vigil of the Feast of the Assumption. The modern conception of a vigil as a celebration of the feast itself, just on the night prior, does not really have any historical basis. Vigils were always seen as a penitential preparation for a great feast, not as the beginning feast, but rather as  the anticipation of it. This is the idea behind the Easter Vigil as well. In any case, the Church has asked that the Easter Vigil be celebrated as the sun sets. In my locale, this was 7pm. As the light from the sun gave way to darkness, our anticipation of the light of the Resurrection became all the more desirous. The liturgy had four basic components, each of which was extremely intricate. First, there was the Lucernarium. Then there were the Prophecies. This was followed by the Blessing of the Baptismal Font and Litany. Lastly, there was the Mass itself. The liturgy began outside the church, where a fire had been lit from flint and steel. The priest was vested in a cope, while his ministers wore folded chasubles. All of these vestments were violet in order to show the penitential character of the rites. The priest blessed the fire with a series of prayers, as well as the grains of incense which would be later inserted into the Paschal Candle. A procession was then formed, with the priest at the very end, and the deacon right before him. The Deacon changed into a white dalmatic, symbolic of Easter joy, and took up the reed, three candles arranged like a trident at the end of a long shaft. The reed is symbolic of the reed used to beat Our Lord as well as the three Persons of the Blessed Trinity. The reed, which had its origins in the patristic era, was totally discarded in the 1955 Reforms. The closest we have to an explanation for this is a vague desire by the reformers to simplify the rites. The reed is used because the Paschal Candle has not yet been blessed. Additionally, it has the symbolism discussed above. The next part of the right makes much more sense when used with the reed as opposed to with the Paschal Candle. The procession stopped three times before entering the sanctuary. Each time one of the three candles was lit, and the Deacon sang and the others responded “Lumen Christi. Deo Gratias” (The Light of Christ. Thanks be to God). Once the procession reached the sanctuary, the reed was placed in a stand next to the unblessed Paschal Candle, by the pulpit on the Gospel (left) side. Before the altar, the Deacon asked for and was granted a blessing from the Priest in order to proclaim the Exsultet.  This was similar to the manner in which a Deacon asks for a blessing before proclaiming the Gospel. In the ancient rite, the Exsultet serves that’s more than just a proclamation of the Resurrection. It is also the blessing of the Paschal Candle. At two points throughout the proclamation, the Deacon stopped to impose the grains of incense in the shape of a cross and to light the Paschal Candle from one of the candles of the reed. From the newly lit candle, the altar candles were lit. Before being lit, the Paschal Candle was understood to represent the column of clouds which led the Israelites during the Exodus. Afterwards, it took on the symbolism of the column of fire. The proclamation of the Exsultet set the tenor for the rest of liturgy. It expressed the joy of the reality of Easter, of the glorious night that gave way to the first Easter Sunday morning. However, the structure of the liturgy was such that the full recognition of the reality of Easter never came to light. Indeed, like other videos, this liturgy looked forward to Easter without celebrating Easter completely. Once all of this was done, the Priest and his ministers, now vested in a violet chasuble and folded chasubles respectively, took their position on the Epistle side of the altar, as they had during the Intercessions on Good Friday. A lector then proclaimed 12 Prophecies from the Old Testament, highlighting our Lord’s faithfulness throughout the entirety of Salvation History. These prophecies were the Creation of the World, the story of Noah’s Ark, the story of Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac, the parting of the Red Sea, the proclamation by Isaiah that the Gentiles would be incorporating the people of God, Baruch’s reproval of the wickedness of Israel which has led to they’re ruin, Ezekiel’s vision of the restoration of the valley of the dry bones, Isaiah’s foretelling of the establishment of the New Covenant, God’s instructions to Moses as to how to celebrate the Passover, Jonah’s preaching to and the repentance of Nineveh, Moses’s repudiation of the wickedness of the people from Deuteronomy, and lastly the story of the Three Young Men refusing to worship the idol of Nebuchadnezzar from The Book of Daniel. Several of these prophecies were followed by Tracts. All of them were followed by a Collect, which retained the ancient “Let us pray. Let us kneel. Arise” formula from Good Friday. This was the most time-consuming part of liturgy. In the 1955 reforms, only four prophecies were retained. In the modern rite, there is an option for up to seven. The genius of the Church is at work in the length of this portion of the liturgy. As the priest would point out in his sermon, we are meant to experience the extended, doleful longing for Our Redeemer which the Jews of old would have experienced. This essential and visceral experience of the rite is very much lacking and in its reformed organization. All of this was complete, a procession was formed towards the baptistery, after the priest changed into a violet cope. There, the Easter Water was solemnly blessed. Had there been catechumens, they would have been baptized with this water. Additionally, those eligible would have been Confirmed. This blessing was immensely rich and powerful, and my own descriptions fail to do justice to their profundity. The Priest first divided the water with the Sign of the Cross, to show that it will be used for Baptism, which draws strength from the merits of Calvary.  He then exorcised it, and imposed a three-fold sign of the cross over it, claiming it in the name of the Trinity. He then cast some of it out of the font to the North, South, East, and West, to show that the grace of baptism has been extended to the whole world. He breathed on it so as to ask God to infuse it with the Holy Spirit, and likewise asked for the Spirit to be infused into it as he submerged the Paschal Candle three times. Lastly, he infused the oil of the Catechumens and Sacred Chrism to strengthen those who would be Baptized with it. Since there were no catechumens, the ministered returned to the altar and prostrated themselves as the Litany of the Saints was chanted. On this night, the verses of the Litany were doubled, which is to say that, rather than the cantor beginning and the people finishing each verse, the cantor proclaimed the verse in full, while the people responded in full – a practice that I personally found more earnest. Unlike the prostration at the start of the Good Friday liturgy, the ministers were afforded cushions, making the experience a bit more pleasant and comforting. Towards the end of the Litany, the ministers made their way to the sacristy, to vest for Mass. At last, they were able to resume the festive white vestments they had placed aside at the end of Holy Thursday. Mass began as usual, with the full Prayers at the Foot of the Altar, which had not been prayed since the First Sunday of Passiontide. These two features marked a gradual relaxing of the liturgical fasting of Lent. To counter this, however, there was no Introit. This trend of relaxing fasting continued with the solemn intonation of the Gloria, complete with the return of the bells and the lighting of all of the artificial lights of the Church. It reached its highest point for the liturgy following the Epistle, when the priest solemnly intoned the threefold Alleluia which had not been chanted since before Septuagesima Sunday. At the Gospel, which was Saint Matthew’s account of the women discovering the empty tomb, incense was offered, but no candles were used. This symbolizes the fact that the first women going to the tomb expected Christ to still be dead. Since they did not have the light of Faith, so too does the Church not provide the light of candles. The incense is symbolic of the spices with which they intended to anoint the Lord’s deceased body. Again, the Church eases us into the reality of the Resurrection. Just as in the early morning not everyone knew about it, so too does the Church withhold the full solemnity of Easter until the proper Mass of Sunday, which is the first Mass of the Resurrection itself. All of these distinctions are lost in both sets of reforms. In fact, the modern Easter Vigil Mass is very clearly one integrated Mass with extra readings and the Blessing of the Font after the homily. Following the Priest’s sermon, there was neither a Creed nor an Offertory antiphon. The absence of the Creed symbolized the previously discussed lack of faith of the aforementioned women. Additionally, alongside the lack of an Offertory, we see the Mass not totally restored to the full pre-fast standard. More pragmatically, these components might also be missing from the Mass because it is old enough to predate these components being a standard. The Preface of the Mass was that of Easter, and the Canon included the proper “Communicantes” and “Hanc Igitur”. Communion occurred as usual, except that it did not include the Agnus Dei or the offering of the Peace, both because of the antiquity of the rite and because, chronologically, those things occurred for the first time on Easter Sunday night. There was no Communion antiphon or Post Communion prayer. Instead, there followed an abbreviated form of Vespers. It was composed of Psalm 117 (116) and the Magnificat. Vespers ended with a final prayer and was followed by the typical “Ite Missa Est”, with a double Alleluia and the “Deo Gratias” likewise with Alleluias. Mass then concluded as is typical and our three and a half hour adventure came to a beautiful end. The complete solemnity of Easter was on full display on Easter Sunday morning. This Mass featured the sprinkling rite with the “Vidi Aquam”, the Easter Sequence of Victimae paschali laudes, and a full set of antiphons replete with alleluias. At long last, everything that had once been removed was restored.

Final Thoughts

Like many Catholics, for a long time, I never had any conception of a Mass celebrated differently than in the Ordinary Form. After experiencing the joys of this Holy Week, I can no longer imagine not celebrating at least certain celebrations in the ancient form. Through participating virtually in this Holy Week experience, I feel like I have rediscovered a treasure that was taken from the Church for no discernible reason.  I will be careful here to acknowledge that, of course, I accept the validity of the changes in 1955 and the Ordinary Form, which is how I worship the majority of the time.  A very wise priest I know always says that Our Lord left us sacraments themselves, not rites. There is great and authentic liturgical diversity within Christendom, but I see no harm in questioning the prudence of such drastic and immediate liturgical changes.  Within 15 years of the 1955 changes, the Patristic Holy Week had been replaced with something drawn up more or less according to the whims of a committee of a few clerics.  The rites that would have been observed by Popes Gregory and Leo the Great, by Ss. Francis and Anthony, Ignatius and Francis Xavier, Philip Neri and Charles Borromeo, by Bl. Pier Giorgio Frassati, and a young Karol Wojtyla and Joseph Ratzinger, were simply tossed aside.  One of the crown jewels of Western Civilization was diluted down into a shell of its former self. Despite this, let me be clear.  I love Holy Week no matter what rite is used, however,  if you asked me to choose between the most gourmet burger and a piece of prime rib, of course I am going to choose the prime rib. Both will nourish me, both will be fulfilling, but one will possess those characteristics to a far greater degree.  Analogously, the same is true of the ancient Holy Week.  To paraphrase Pope Benedict, that which has been authentically regarded as sacred in the past cannot simply be found to be valueless all of the sudden. Tradition is not good simply  because it worked in the past, but rather, it is good because it is timeless.  These rites, slowly crafted by the wisdom of the Church throughout the years, remain perennially valuable and I pray that all Catholics will someday witness the full restoration of these most glorious rites. 

Edited by Maddie Sanders 

5 comments

  1. This is a magnificent summary and recap of the Ancient Holy Week liturgies held by the FSSP priests of St. Mary’s Church in Providence, RI. I live 150 miles away from Providence but I worship at St. Mary’s when visiting my sons there. Having participated, so to speak, via live-stream, in these liturgies as did the author, I am most grateful to have this document as a resource to re-live these precious hours in Holy Week, in the same manner employed many centuries past, in the patristic era.
    It took some time to get used to the counter-tenor chanting, a practice which I believe dates back to the 16th century. Apart from this very minor peculiarity, if you will, the Pre-1955 Holy Week rites were, as the author stated, “glorious.” To actually be there in person would have been even greater than glorious, if such a thing is possible, and it would have to be.
    Assuming that the author, Nick Jones, is a student at URI, his embrace of the ancient Latin Rites is quite impressive, along with the bits of historical commentary he provided – as well as his wise and prudent acknowledgment that this essay in no manner disparages the current Ordinary Form in use today. Very impressive indeed. If a special calling in the Church is brewing for Mr. Jones, we would have yet another glory to celebrate. Benedicamus Domino!

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    • Thanks so much Lawrence! I was not familiar with the idea of countertenor. The only places where I’ve attended the old Mass had music provided by the same family as our music director at Saint Mary’s.
      I am, indeed, a junior at URI. That definitely makes it tougher and I’d like to experience the old rites with regularity. But, I have turned a few of my peers on to the old Mass. My ultimate goal is to have at least a Low Mass down there.
      I do think it’s important to recognize it legitimacy, but also the disconnect, of the new rite. At the same time, it would be imprudent to suggest that we totally abandon it immediately, as that would be just as shocking to the faithful as the initial implementation of the new rite

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      • Nick, emaled your article to the FSSP fathers. They were happy to get it:

        “Lawrence,

        Wonderful article, thanks!
        Keep the Faith:)
        In Christ,
        Fr. John Kodet, FSSP
        Parochial Vicar

        St. Mary’s Catholic Church”

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  2. An excellent article. It seems this year that the Old Old Holy Week people are not the wicked crypto-sedevacantist types that the 1962ers believed. It is just a pity that the rites have not always been celebrtaed at the old times: the mornings. There has been some interesting work on the “true times” and the reason for them. Maybe next year we will see more people praying Vespers in the late morning, before the main meal. Lots of stuff about this and the old times can be found on the ST LAWRENCE PRESS BLOG and the RADTRAD blog. Thank you for all this.

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