Happy Easter! Or, as we say in Italia, Buona Pasqua!
Last Sunday was Easter Sunday, the most important day in the Catholic calendar, which kicked off the Easter Season (Catholics don’t have months, we have seasons; this means that you can wish people a happy Easter all the way until Pentecost, which falls on May 15th in 2016). In Italy, Easter is particularly special, because the seat of the Catholic Church is in Rome. It naturally follows that Easter is accompanied by a fair amount of pomp and circumstance in the Eternal City.
A few weeks ago, my coworkers and I were planning our Easter holiday. We had five days off of work, which, while being a pleasant holiday, isn’t enough time to fly home (for me anyway). We were kicking ideas around, and I blurted out, “How about Rome?” I’ve been dying to go back to Rome since I studied there in college, and it’s become a bit of a running joke that I always suggest Rome for a trip. This time, though, my friend jumped on the suggestion, and before I knew it, we had cheap train tickets and accommodation for the whole Easter vacation, and I got to celebrate the most important days in the most important city in my faith tradition.
The three days before Easter Sunday, called the Triduum, are solemn holy days for Catholics. The first is Holy Thursday, and there are two main celebrations on this day: the Chrism Mass and the Mass of the Lord’s Supper. In Rome, the Pope celebrates the Chrism Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica on Holy Thursday morning. During this mass, he blesses all the oil that will be used in the holy sacraments throughout the next year (we use oil to anoint people participating in certain sacraments, including Confirmation and Anointing of the Sick). In the evening, we celebrate the Mass of the Lord’s Supper, in which we remember Jesus’ last supper and the washing of the Apostles’ feet. Traditionally, the Pope celebrates this mass at his cathedral, San Giovanni Laterano (the Pope is the bishop of Rome, and San Giovanni is his seat, making it the cathedral in Rome). However, Pope Francis is a bit of a rabble-rouser and likes to shake things up a bit. This year, he celebrated the Mass of the Lord’s Supper in Castelnuovo di Porto, about 15 miles outside of Rome, at a camp for refugees seeking asylum in Italy. This means that he washed the feet – a gesture of respect for and honor of human dignity – of refugees, for whom he’s been preaching compassion and acceptance. I, however, stayed in Rome, and participated in a mass at Santa Maria in Vallicella on Corso Vittorio Emanuele II.
The second day of the Triduum is Good Friday, a day of solemn prayer on which we remember the death of Jesus on the Cross. We call it Good Friday not because we like it when people get crucified – that’s actually quite terrible, in a way that people have since become desensitized to – but rather because it was on Good Friday that salvation was achieved for all mankind. On Good Friday, there is no Eucharist; all of the consecrated hosts are removed from the Tabernacles at the end of the Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday, reinforcing the memory of Christ’s death and subsequent descent into Hell. One of the traditional prayers on Good Friday is the Stations of the Cross, or Via Crucis, during which we follow the path the Christ took on his way to be crucified. In Rome, the States of the Cross are held at the Colosseum, playing on an old tradition that early Christians were martyred there and connecting their sacrifice with Christ’s. However, research has shown that it was actually very unlikely that Christians were martyred in the Colosseum, and that it was reserved for gladiatorial fights and mock battles. Even so, it’s wonderful symbolism, and we still celebrate the Stations at the Colosseum. I was lucky enough to get inside security, with a view of the Pope’s chair up on the ridge opposite the Colosseum. We were packed in like sardines, but the prayer was beautiful and the reflections, as always when Pope Francis is involved, were poignant and startlingly relevant to today’s social situation.
From the reflection on the First Station: Jesus is Condemned to Die: “Lord Jesus…we are afraid of those who are different, of foreigners, of migrants. We are afraid of the future…Lord Jesus…free us from fear by your justice. Grant that the cry of our anxieties does not prevent us from hearing the gentle power of your invitation: ‘Be not afraid!’”
The last day of the Triduum is Holy Saturday. There is no special celebration on Holy Saturday, until the evening. In the Catholic Church, we use the Jewish calendar, in which days begin at sundown. Therefore: Jesus died on Good Friday at 3:00 (day 1), on Holy Saturday, he remains in the tomb (day 2), and sundown on Saturday begins Sunday, and Jesus rises from the dead (day 3). This is why we can hold that Jesus was dead for three days and still celebrate the Easter Vigil, the celebration of his Resurrection, on Holy Saturday evening (which, according to the Church calendar, is technically Sunday). Rome is absolutely rife with Easter Vigil celebrations, as it is absolutely rife with Catholic churches. The Pope says mass at St. Peter’s Basilica, and people need tickets to attend. Despite the best efforts of both myself and my support team back home, I did not get tickets. Instead, I went to the Vigil Mass at one of the Jesuit churches in Rome, Sant’Ignazio. It turned out that that particular mass was being celebrated in German – apparently there’s a large German-speaking community there – of which I have exactly zero understanding, but it was still beautiful.
Easter Sunday is, of course, full of festivities in and of itself. One of my friends and I swarmed into St. Peter’s Square, along with several thousand other pilgrims, and waited for the Pope’s address. I believed that the Pope would say mass inside St. Peter’s, and then come out on the balcony for the Urbi et Orbi, the Easter address, but he actually said mass in the square. He then drove through the crowd in the PopeMobile, before going up to the balcony where everyone could see him to give his speech. Again, Pope Francis did not disappoint. The speech began with a heartfelt, “Fratelli e sorelle, buona Pasqua!” (Brothers and sisters, happy Easter!) and culminated in a sentence that I found particularly splendid: “Questo rassicurante messaggio di Gesù, aiuti ciascuno di noi a ripartire con più coraggio e speranza per costruire strade di riconciliazione con Dio e con i fratelli. Ne abbiamo tanto bisogno!” (May this comforting message of Jesus help each of us to set out anew with greater courage and hope, to blaze trails of reconciliation with God and with all our brothers and sisters. How much we need this!)