Holy Week. It does it every time.
I realize that if you are not a Roman Catholic of a certain age (partially pre-Vatican II), you are liable to find a lot of what follows of little interest. I certainly don’t want to reduce my legion of loyal followers (maybe two dozen at last count) any further, but, like Miles Davis said about his changing styles in jazz, writing these things is like a curse. Somehow, I have to do it. But you don’t have to read it. So, go in peace if you must.
On the other hand, I want to give it to you straight. Once upon a time, I was a real Roman Catholic. And that entailed real sins, real repentance, the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, real Latin, and real ritual. For some of you, this is some atavistic superstitious itch that needs to be scratched. Maybe it is. But it–writing about Holy Week in the old days–is something I got to do. Because, in part, I need to get this off my conscience and off my chest. In part because childhood memory, rituals of the sacred, and the dogmas and doctrines–even the sacramentals or material accoutrements of the faith–are powerful, even talismanic things. Today is Palm Sunday, and even though I watched the Dominican service streamed from Oxford (yeah, I am a Mass snob too), I got no palm frond to wave, no braided cross to take to the cemetery, no feeling that I have somehow tried to make my peace with two thousand or so years of co-conspirators, aka, the Church Militant, Penitent, and Triumphant. If you know what I’m talking about, you’re in select company. And if not, you could spend a few minutes doing something much worse.
Ok, not too many confessions, because you’re not bound by the seal of confession (you can blab), and honestly, my current sins are awfully boring, truth be told. But I will make one confession. Last Friday, I did the Stations of the Cross. And I mean the old version, the one that goes back to Alphonse Liguori. Really? You mean they still exist outside of some benighted clack of fanatics? No, silly. On line. It isn’t just for pornography and cat videos, or AI, whatever the Hell that is. I can get a reasonable facsimile of the One, True Church online. You know the nulla salus extra ecclesiam version? Yup. You pagans didn’t know that did you? (I had to check the gender of salus, I fear). Well, you can.
The Stations, of course, are a Lenten devotion, and not confined to Holy Week. “Stations” literally recapitulates the words of the accompanying hymn, Stabat Mater (from the Latin sto, stare, status sum: to stand and await), as in “At the Cross Her Station keeping, Stood the Mournful Mother weeping.” The devotion is a commemoration of the via crucis, or what I think of as the great existential story of Christianity: choose the right path and get nailed to a cross for your trouble. My reasons for the practice are entirely personal, but my memories of the days in which I was an altar boy (sorry, no girls allowed then) are of a piece with the rest of my life: vaguely nutty and faintly amusing. If I recall, it took three altar boys and a priest to do the Stations: two dudes holding candles, one guy hauling a Cross on a pole, and the Celebrant, who read the text of the 14 (yes, fourteen) stations and then exposed the Blessed Sacrament in Benediction afterward. Meanwhile, the parish kids howled an out of tune version of Stabat, led by an energetic nun and a technique-challenged organist. You had to be there, especially on a Friday afternoon when the inmates were all ready to make a break for it. Talk about Eternity.
The guy I remembered drawing at Prisontation was a dour type named Fr. Cassady. He was also in charge of the altar boys and didn’t fool around. He spoke with this kind of throaty drawl when he was bawling us out, which was frequent, and usually resulted in written assignments he called “lines.” Lines as in lines on a lined page of loose leaf. Man, one day, he snapped out on this eighth grader named Jimmy Ward for some reason, and it went like this:
Ward, 100 lines…….But Father!
Ward, 500 lines…….But Father!
Ward, 1000 lines…. I didn’t do anything!
Ward, 5000 lines…. Ward incoherently proclaiming his innocence
Ward left the corps d’altar boys soon after. I have no idea what he did.
Cassady did a mean benediction. He insisted on Latin from beginning to end and growled at us when we screwed up. He also really dug incense, and made the acolyte prepare him a double in the censer. Pretty soon, the altar would look like the aftermath of a four-alarm fire, and one guy, who had asthma, practically had to be rushed to Lankenau Hospital for respiratory therapy. And woe betide the kid (me) who cracked up as we processed around the nave of the church, usually because some other kid, buried deeply in a pew, was making obscene gestures. Or because some girl was grinning at me. I mean, sacred purposes notwithstanding, Stations always turned into some kind of train wreck, as did all our efforts at pageantry.
But things didn’t really get rolling until the Triduum, the old-fashioned name for Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Saturday. Good Friday was the real killer. I remembering it going on for well over two and a half hours, or just long enough to get Jesus crucified and dead. Palm Sunday was nothing by comparison, and unless you were unlucky enough to draw foot washing duty on Holy Thursday (gross, I never did), Thursday was ok. But Friday, dude, we let it all hang out. And back in those days, everyone joined in the fun.
One year, it was, you should pardon the expression, hotter than Hell on Good Friday, probably early to mid 1960s. So, we had to do that stuff in cassocks and surplices, and possibly, if it was toward 1965, dolled up in little monsignor outfits with a zucchetto on our heads (cute, right). And, of course, this stuff was choreographed all around the altar, with censers, and wooden knockers instead of bells (one of the other idiot altar boys brought the thing down on his finger and yelled a most inappropriate oath at a moment of great solemnity) and covers over the statues that we could gawk at. And then the litanies, Ora Pro Nobis, which went on for half an hour and nailed every saint in Heaven. We also prayed for the perfidious Jews, which a couple of my public-school friends learned of and spilled to their parents. Sheesh, you’d a thought we were the antisemites rather than Rome. And we did a lot of Three Stooges collisions, none of which entertained Fr Cassady, who was ready to throttle a few of us. It didn’t help that one of the younger priests thought we were entertaining and kept looking away laughing. I think he left the priesthood for a blonde. So, we didn’t know what to do. And do I recall correctly, or did we read The Passion on Good Friday, with multiple actors? Man, that went into extra innings too. It didn’t help that I burst into laughter when Cassady began to chant Ecce Lignum Crucis, Pependit. He sounded like a goat in heat.
In the debriefing we usually got (i.e., the chewing out), Cassady informed me “Salvucci, you were chosen for this assignment for your ability to organize and retain information. Not be a clown.” Ouch. Yes, Father. Did I think I would ever be chosen again. No, Father. It sort of helped that I was on the verge of graduating anyway, not that I reminded the Old Tyrant of that. We still had to do the Easter Vigil, and that was an even bigger deal, with Paschal Candles, priests blowing on the baptismal water (clean it up, ok?), and lots of flowers around so that the place smelled like the Gangemi Funerals on South Broad when they were running a full house with maybe a made dude or two requiring extra flowers, like extra onions on a cheese steak. You know, special.
Predictably, there was another disaster. I have always had allergies and sinus problems. While I deeply love flowers (some of you endure my FB posts), they don’t deeply love me back. Standing up on an altar surrounded by lots of white flowers made my nose itchy, and there were a few sneezing fits that night. So, while Fr Doherty was inexpertly carving the Paschal Candle with an only passable Alpha and Omega and infusing the baptismal waters with the Holy Spirit–his–I was either sneezing or stifling a yawn because it was after Midnight. And we did it right back then, usually not wrapping up until 1AM or so. I didn’t have much to do, thank God, and it wasn’t like it occurred to me to actually try prayer. Who went to Mass to pray, after all? I do remember coming home one year and having a sandwich, which adolescent metabolism permitted. I didn’t fall down the altar steps like one kid did, but my ecclesiastical career was clearly going nowhere.
It’s funny, after all these years, memory traces can still summon up the Hound of Heaven thing. So, all that stuff, including the keeping silent from 12 to 3 on Good Friday that we did in the 1950s before any of this stuff happened, had some lasting effect. The more loused up the secular world seems, the more I’m willing to contemplate retreating to a spiritual one. Some cynic can say that approaching mortality has that effect on people, and looking for certainty has always motivated a religious impulse. It did with Cardinal Newman, so I’m damned if I’ll make an apology for it. Besides, I asked a priest to do Dies Irae at my Mom’s funeral, and he said he couldn’t. Somebody has to remember “I am A Catholic. In case of Accident, Call A Priest.” Today, you’d have to find one first.
Good luck with that.
7 thoughts on “Holy ! Week !”
Holy acid trip!
Fantastic. Matches my memories, though my experiences as the Magister were a bit different. Surely yo remember all the vestment changes at the Easter Vigil, white to purple to white, at times the celebrant, deacon, and subdeacon in different colors, the subdeacon changing in the side transept. And all those altar boys needing to know what to do, where to do, what to say . . . that was on me. The only time I was reprimanded was by the pastor (a good priest) who, after I explained that the deacon didn’t heed my direction to incense the altar, said to me, “I don’t care if the Pope is up there, YOU are in charge and you do whatever you need to do to make sure the ritual is followed scrupulously, even if it means tapping someone on the arm or shoulder.” Scrupulously. He was an advocate of expanded vocabulary, taught me words like dearth and plethora, got me started learning Latin when I was 10, and sat me through seminary training and books not available to the laity, but that’s another story . . .
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Yes to all of the above and more. Mass attendance on first Fridays for some number of consecutive months guaranteed a Beatific Vision. Was it 9 months? Was it even a thing or just made up to have us feel better about going? You are going to heaven dude, such as it is.
Also, it’s interesting to me that getting older is bringing you to seeking out spiritual expression. For me, it’s the opposite direction, at least so far. Not even C. S Lewis has made a dent. I get the enjoyment of ritual. I can see it, feel it. It speaks to me as well. But my left brain is too loud. Not ruling out a deathbed rethinking though. 🙂
Heaven is my family. That will be enough
This post brought back so many memories. My brothers (including Bob Wolper) were the A-team of altar servers at St. Patrick in Norristown. Learned their Latin, served daily Mass when scheduled, did all the big events. Bob did manage to pass out (or sway quite a bit) with all the incense at some super High Mass.
Boys, boys, remember your privilege. Girls who wanted to be servers couldn’t. 😊
Also amazing to think so much of this stuff was done with priests’ backs presented to the congregation. And a prayer called The Secret.
Thanks for this post.
Interesting article, thank you for sharing your personal experiences and memories of Holy Week.