The start of Holy Week provides another opportunity for faithful Catholics to pause, set aside all earthly cares, and express with absolute frankness and complete sincerity their disgust with the rite introduced by Pope Pius XII nearly 60 years ago. Their displeasure is understandable even if it is out of place during this particular time of the year. There are, after all, 51 other weeks in which these liturgically minded Catholics can toss out disparaging remarks about, say, the gutting of Palm Sunday or the absurd placement of Tenebrae (darkness!) in the morning light. A number of those dissatisfied with the normative “traditional” Holy Week rite of the Church enjoy extending their ire toward the so-called “1962 books” which, admittedly, also have problems. But as I have argued elsewhere, for the average Catholic in the pew who likely doesn’t have access to the Tridentine Mass outside of Sundays and a handful of feast days, the differences between Mass said out of a 1954 Missal as opposed to one printed in 1962 are minor, even unnoticeable. That doesn’t mean the 1962 books, specifically the Missal and Breviary, shouldn’t be reexamined in the light of what immediately preceded them; it’s just not a matter worth spilling blood over, particularly at this point in the liturgical year.
So it goes. The problem of liturgical absolutism is hardly unique to Roman Catholic circles. It is quite prevalent among the Eastern Orthodox as well, though perhaps less so during Holy Week. A good number of “liturgically minimal” Orthodox parishes still go all out during Holy Week without too much in the way of corner cutting. Depending on one’s point of view about the repetition of readings or the artificiality of having a service called “Royal Hours” outside of the Byzantine Empire, this is either a very good or a very bad thing. My sense, for what it’s worth, is that it’s good. No one can listen to the Passion narratives enough during this time and anything that brings people into church to reflect on Christ’s awesome Sacrifice is undoubtedly a good thing. The meaning of the Orthodox Holy Week rite, when compared to some of the other regular services of the Christian East, is typically quite clear. The symbolism needs no grand or theologically dense explanation. There is the Passion, the Death, the Tomb, and finally Victory.
The Roman Rite is no less clear on this. It’s just arguably less powerful. The austerity and elegance of the Roman Rite demands that every piece, no matter how seemingly minor, be left intact so that the others are not burdened with carrying too much meaning. And in fact, if pieces are lost or obscured, then the liturgical action itself begins to look incomplete. There emerges a sense that something, maybe even a lot of things, are missing. Yes, the “highlights” are retained and everyone knows what transpires on Thursday, Friday, and then on past Saturday into Sunday, but the profundity of these great acts of Mercy and Love, brought about by the grossest injustice in human history, is less present. It does not feel immediate. The Passion was an event in history now dimly recalled on the journey to dinner with relatives and Opening Day for Major League Baseball.
Some parishes, and perhaps a good many monasteries, still do well with what they have been given. And no individual Catholic needs to succumb to the temptation to simply “get through” this week as if it were any other week. There remains the Stations of the Cross, the Sorrowful Mysteries, and hours that can be spent before Jesus in his prison of love. The liturgy of the Church is important, but not so important that it should ever conquer or replace one’s faith. How important it is to remember that in a time of great crisis and turmoil.