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Passiontide and Holy Week


Christ became, for our sake, obedient unto death,
even the death of the Cross.
Philippians 2:8

The Celebration of Passiontide
Passion Sunday
- Blessed palms and Palm procession
Holy Week - Confession and Easter Duty
The Triduum - Tenebrae

See also Paschalis Sollemnitatis - Vatican Letter on Preparations for Holy Week and Easter - Congregation for Divine Worship
Confession - Penance
Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday

PASSIONTIDE is the last two weeks of Lent, when the readings and prayers of the liturgy focus on the Passion of Our Lord. The word "passion", in the Christian sense, does not mean an intense emotion; it refers to the historical events of Jesus' suffering and death.

Although for several centuries the Fifth Sunday of Lent was known as Passion Sunday, after the Second Vatican Council this name was restored to the Sunday at beginning of Holy Week , formerly called Palm Sunday. As a penitential season of the Church, Passiontide is evidently even more ancient than Lent.

Devotions and Prayers for Passiontide

Among the traditional non-liturgical devotions of Passiontide are saying the Stations of the Cross, praying the Rosary, meditating on the five Sorrowful Mysteries, and saying the five prayers in honor of Christ's five wounds.

The Sorrowful Mysteries are: 1. The Agony in the Garden; 2. The Scourging at the Pillar; 3. The Crowning with Thorns; 4. The Carrying of the Cross; 5. The Crucifixion and Death of Our Lord on the Cross.

There are many booklets containing meditations on the Rosary. Father Romano Guardini's The Rosary (Sophia Institute Press) is excellent, and The Handbook of Prayers (Midwest Theological Forum) contains the Rosary and many other prayers (see links page to contact these publishers). Pope John Paul II's meditations in The Light of Christ is a good resource for this and other devotions.

It is fitting, during this season, that we remember Mary and her inexpressible grief at the suffering and death of her Son.

Another ancient devotion for this season was The Seven Sorrows [Dolors] of Mary. Christian believers appealed to Mary, the Mother of Sorrows who publicly shared in her Son's suffering on the road to Calvary, taking all things upon herself ­ concern, affliction and sorrow.

This devotion listed the Seven Sorrows of Mary as: 1. The prophecy of Simeon, 2. The flight to Egypt, 3. The loss of the Child Jesus in the temple, 4. His way of the Cross, 5. His Crucifixion, 6. The piercing of His heart on Calvary, and 7. His burial in the tomb.

The famous hymn associated with this devotion is the Stabat Mater Dolorosa (Stands the Sorrowful Mother) which was originally written for private devotion in the late 13th century and traditionally attributed to the Franciscan, Jacopone da Todi. The words in English and Latin are in the music section of the Lent-Easter Family source book.

Both Latin and English words to the Stabat Mater are on this site, and both words and music are in The Adoremus Hymnal, nos.400 and 401. (For information about The Adoremus Hymnal see the Adoremus website,, or contact Ignatius Press - see links page.)

All of the events of Our Lord's Passion have been the subjects of works of great Christian art. A good activity with children would be to look at and talk about some of these beautiful works, either in books or, if you're fortunate enough to live near one, an art museum.

These words of St. Paul to the Philippians [2:8] might be recited during the two weeks before Easter, along with the Act of Hope, at morning, bedtime or mealtime prayers:

Christ became, for our sake, obedient unto death, even the death of the Cross.

Act of Hope

O my God, knowing thy almighty power, and thy infinite goodness and mercy,
I hope in thee that, by the merits of the Passion and Death of our Saviour Jesus Christ,
thou wilt grant me eternal life, which thou hast promised to all such as shall do the works of a good Christian;
and these I resolve to do, with the help of thy Grace.
Amen +

Passion (Palm) Sunday 

Benedictus qui venit in nomine Domini. Hosanna in excelcis!

Blessed is He that cometh in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest!

Holy Week, the most solemn and intense period of worship in the Christian faith, begins with Passion Sunday, the Sunday before Easter. In spite of the spiritual gravity of Holy Week, it begins with joy; for on this Sunday, the Church celebrates Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem which foretells the victory of His Resurrection and His return to earth in glory; and with the first reading of the Passion in the liturgies of Holy Week, the Church begins her commemorative pilgrimage with her Lord on His way to Calvary.

Liturgical commemoration of the Passion actually begins during the fifth week of Lent, when Masses are focused on the power of the Cross and the Kingship of Christ. Until the liturgical reforms just before the Second Vatican Council restored important liturgical elements of the early Church which had gradually disappeared (the Easter Vigil, for example), the Fifth Sunday of Lent was called Passion Sunday, and the Sunday beginning Holy Week was called Palm Sunday. Earliest accounts describing the beginning of Holy Week speak of Passion Sunday.

Blessed Palms

The blessing and distribution of palms takes place on Passion Sunday, and altar decorations are palm branches rather than flowers. The palms are solemnly blessed by the priest, and each worshipper holds the blessed palm during the singing of the ancient hymn, Gloria Laus ("All Glory, Laud and Honor") and during reading of the Passion.

These solemnly blessed palms are sacramentals, or signs of Christ's grace which help Christians in the practice of the faith, and, as they are associated with Christ's triumph, the palms symbolize victory over spiritual danger and death. For this reason, palms are associated with martyrdom, and often appear in paintings and sculpture of those who were martyred for the faith. This also explains the old custom of burning a palm in the stove in time of danger (from a threatening storm, for example).

As the blessed palms are sacramentals, then, Catholics keep them in their homes, customarily placing them behind the crucifix. The ashes used on Ash Wednesday come from the burning of blessed palms.

This Sunday was also sometimes called the Pasch of Flowers in European countries, because throughout the Middle Ages flowers were blessed on this day along with palms and olive branches. (The State of Florida is so named because Ponce de Leon landed there on Pasqua Florida Sunday.) The words "pasch" and "paschal" come from the Hebrew word "pesach'" meaning "passage" or "passover."

The Passion Sunday liturgy, incorporating both the blessing of the palms and commemoration of Jesus' entry into Jerusalem to the joyous Hosannas of the people, and the reading of the Passion Gospel, combines two contrasting elements .The two parts are linked by the traditional procession which follows the blessing and distribution of the palms and which leads into the Sacrifice of the Mass; hence symbolically reproducing the historical event of Our Lord's royal entry into Jerusalem which signifies the actual meeting of the Church with Christ; moreover, His entry foretells the entry of the faithful into the eternal Jerusalem, the Kingdom of Heaven.

Palm Procession

According to the account of a fifth-century Spanish pilgrim to the Holy Land, Passion Sunday Mass was celebrated in Jerusalem at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. After this the people were invited to meet again in the afternoon at the Mount of Olives, in the Church of Eleona (the grotto of the Our Father). They then proceeded to the Church of the Ascension for a service consisting of hymns and antiphons, readings and prayers, where at five o'clock in the afternoon the Gospel of the palms was read and the procession set out for the city. The people responded to the antiphons with the acclamation, "Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord," as we say even today.

All these pilgrims carried palms, and with their little children in their arms they escorted the bishop (who represented the Savior) to the Church of the Resurrection where the processsion ended with Vespers (evening prayer).

This palm procession was introduced in the West first in France and then in Italy. In the Middle Ages the custom began of carving a wooden statue of Christ seated on a donkey which was then placed on a cart, the center of the procession. These statues were called Palm Donkeys or Palmesels, and some are preserved in museums.

In medieval Rome the papal procession set out from the papal residence at the Lateran, then the official headquarters of the Popes as the Vatican is now. The palms were blessed by a cardinal and some were distributed by acolytes at the ancient Church of St. Sylvester nearby. The Pope alsodistributed them himself in the Hall of Leo IV at the Lateran.


Holy Week

At the Name of Jesus, every knee should bend
for the Lord became obedient unto death, even to the death of the cross.
Philippians 2:10,8

HOLY WEEK has been held in great reverence since the very early years of the Church. No other Christian observance has interested the world so much as Holy Week. For the rituals of the Church during these few days of each year, so complex and so laden with meaning, emphatically and prophetically proclaim to the entire world the liberating and redeeming and perpetual truth of the Gospel the Good News that Christ has died, Christ is risen and Christ will come again.

As early as the fourth century, St. John Chrysostom referred to Holy Week as The Great Week, "Not that it has more days in it than other weeks, or that its days are made up of more hours than other days; but we call it great, because of the great mysteries which are then celebrated" [Homily 30, on Genesis]. In other Christian cultures we find the week before Easter referred to by several names such as the Painful Week (Hebdomada Poenosa) because of the sufferings of the Christ and of the fatigue and physical sacrifice required of the faithful in observing them.

Although in our time and nation the Church's only required food fast is to restrict meals (fast) and to abstain from meat (abstinence) on Good Friday, we learn from medieval Church documents that Christians observed a strict fast from Monday of Holy Week to the cock-crow of Easter Day. A very strict fast was usually observed from Thursday evening to Easter morning.

History also tells us that early Christian rulers issued decrees forbidding not only festive activities but also work in trade, business, and the courts. Holy Week, it was decreed, was to be spent in contemplation and meditation and the faithful were be free from worldly concerns as much as possible. (Clearly this was before anyone had the idea of "separation of Church and State.") 

Confession and the Easter Duty

The discipline of fasting from food is not the only nor even the primary way in which we must prepare our entire selves ­ body and soul ­ to receive the benefits of our Savior's redeeming sacrifice. Physical fasting is not enough.

St. Paul warns us that "you cannot belong to Christ Jesus unless you crucify all your self-indulgent passions and desires" [Galations 5:24]. We are powerless to do this alone. We must have God's help. In order to receive Christ and in order to prepare ourselves for our responsibility for His mission on earth, we must be drawn ever closer to Him in prayer and action. But sin separates us from Him. We must be convinced of our sins, repent, receive forgiveness and be reconciled to God.

Through His Grace we must try to become holy, "perfect, even as your Father in Heaven is perfect." This is why the Church calls all her people, especially at this time of year, to the Sacrament of Penance, to perform their Easter Duty. At least once each year during the Easter season Catholics are required to confess sins, receive absolution and receive Communion in order to remain truly members of the the Church.

This is what the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council, like the early Fathers of the Church, tried to teach us with the emphasis on personal awareness of how we have offended God and need His forgiveness. As Pope John Paul II said "The awareness of sin, in which the person knows before whom and towards whom he is guilty, is an indispensable pre-condition for obtaining the objective value of forgiveness. This is because He against whom the sin is committed and who is therefore offended is also the Father who has the power to fogive it." And this is what the Church invites us no, implores us to do during Holy Week.

Related pages on this site: Act of Contrition -- Confession-Penance -- Fast and Abstinence

The Triduum

In the Triduum, or Three Days, Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday ,the Church gives us a singularly dramatic, intense and richly symbolic expression of the very heart of Christian belief. Even in our unspiritual time and culture, the Triduum and Easter reaffirm the essence of the Church's central beliefs in the strongest possible way a way which penetrates the deepest recesses of the human heart, and calls forth a response from all, young and old, rich and poor, and in every state of life.

Through the Church's continued observance of many ancient liturgical traditions, and also the restoration of the ancient Easter Vigil, the liturgical expression of these core truths of the faith during Holy Week is without parallel. Although the penitential season is now less severe than in times past, and some inspiring symbols and devotions were lost in the confusion of rapid and sometimes erroneous liturgical changes after the Second Vatican Council, for the believing Catholic the days of Holy Week make it possible even for us, who are so easily distracted by the world and its enticements, to concentrate with our entire being on the Events which assured us of God's inestimable love, and which made possible our Salvation.

By participating in the liturgy of the Church and by increasing our own observance of these holy days in our homes, we can deepen our understanding of these Events in the history of Salvation.


The Latin word Tenebræ means "darkness." Tenebræ is very ancient service of prayers in the Church which takes place during the darkness of night. Many parishes are now reviving this extraordinarily moving service which consists of three sets of Psalms and verses from the Lamentations of Jeremiah chanted on each of three nights of Holy Week: Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. (Originally this was a service of Matins said in monasteries before dawn on Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday; but it customarily takes place the evenings before.)

The service begins with the nave of the church in darkness, except for a candelabrum on a stand in the sanctuary, usually containing fifteen candles arranged in an inverted `v', called a `Tenebræ hearse.' As each lamentation, introduced with a letter of the Hebrew alphabet, is chanted one of the candles is extinguished until only one, representing the Light of Christ remains. Then this is extinguished, leaving the church in darkness. The ministers and cantor leave the sanctuary, and a loud noise like a thunderclap (representing the earthquake during the Crucifixion) is heard; after which a single candle representing the Light of Christ is brought in, placed on the altar and the people leave in silence.

This is a very impressive service, and we hope you are able to attend with your children at least once during the Triduum. If your parish does not have Tenebræ it is worth trying to find a place that does.

If you have young children you might consider using the adaptation of this service in this book, Stations of the Cross. It is by no means as powerful as real Tenebræ, celebrated in church, but it does retain the symbolism of Christ as our Light, and it may be a workable substitute if your children are little or if the real service is not available where you live. (See Stations of the Cross.)

Also see: Seder Meal for Christians

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