I know that my experience of growing up in an area where Catholics were a small and scattered minority was very different from those who grew up in an area like Chicago, where Catholics formed the dominant religious group. On the positive side, I did not come to resent the Catholic Church the way a lot of people here seem to, who found the church to be an overbearing and bullying parent on top of the parents they already had. Down South the Catholic Church was in no position to bully anybody. On the other hand, the Catholicism I grew up with was a church largely bereft of cultural traditions. Up here I hear the term “Cultural Catholic” to refer to those who no longer attend church or follow church teachings, but still consider themselves Catholic because their ethnic roots are so intertwined with the Catholic Church. I could never be a Cultural Catholic. If I ever stopped going to Mass, I would automatically become Baptist.
Memphis was a city that experienced little foreign immigration from so-called “Catholic countries” for most of the twentieth century. The population grew from the inside or from people moving in from rural areas. The percentage of the population that was Catholic declined, and the various traditions associated with Catholics from particular countries faded away. Until I came to Chicago as an adult, for example, I had never heard of the custom of bringing Easter baskets to church on Holy Saturday for a blessing (Why would anyone do that?) or preparing special foods for Easter or the day before Easter. I had never heard of the custom of visiting seven churches on Holy Thursday night. The Catholic Churches I knew were just too far apart for that to happen.
One tradition we did keep during Holy Week was the Holy Thursday altar. Although we had moved to a newer neighborhood by the time I started school, my parents liked to return for special occasions to St. Mary’s, the Franciscan church downtown where they had been married. The church has a special chapel opening off the side of the body of the church, and this chapel became the central attraction during Holy Week. From Monday to Wednesday of Holy Week my dad and several other men would spend two or three hours each evening preparing this chapel for Holy Thursday. At the end of the Evening Mass, the Blessed Sacrament was carried in procession (under a special canopy in those days) to the Altar of Repose for adoration on Holy Thursday night and for visits on Good Friday. The idea is that during the time of Christ’s passion, death, and burial, the Body of Christ (the Eucharist) should not be present in the body of the Church. (At Assumption we use the regular tabernacle, decorated for exposition Thursday night, but then move the Blessed Sacrament to our old baptismal chapel at midnight). At St. Mary’s an enormous tabernacle about six feet tall (called a Repository) was placed on the chapel altar and an even more enormous backdrop was placed behind it; drapes and curtains were hung halfway around the room; every candlestick and candelabra from the closet was brought out and made ready and then on the last evening flowers were brought in. It was such a big deal that the newspaper, even in a Baptist town, would frequently run a picture of “St. Mary’s Holy Thursday Altar.” One year, though, when we arrived for Holy Thursday services my dad was startled and dismayed to find that something had been added to the decorations. An elderly Franciscan brother had placed a battered old floor lamp next to the chapel altar. “I just thought we needed more light down here,” he said.
What’s my point in going down memory lane? The point is that fifty five years later these memories of Holy Thursday are still vividly etched in my mind. As a child I got to see something beautiful and majestic on Holy Thursday and in that beauty to see Christ’s abiding presence in the Eucharist. The words of the Mass in those days were in Latin; but I did not need words to understand that what Christ did on Holy Thursday was important. I had a picture. So, my invitation to you is to create your own memories of Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday. Each of these liturgies is unique. Because they are not like every other Mass we attend, they touch us in a way that is fresh and new. So, come at 6:00pm Holy Thursday night to celebrate the birthday of the Eucharist, at 12:10 or 6:00pm on Good Friday for the Passion Service, and then come back for the first Mass of Easter on Holy Saturday at 7:30pm. This Mass begins with the blessing of the fire and candlelight procession and includes the baptism, confirmation and first communion of the adults who have been part of the RCIA process since September. Come to this Easter Mass and make our newest Catholics feel really welcome!