I imagine that after the Holy Land, Rome is likely the next biggest Holy Week destination place on planet earth. With spring’s arrival, that means longer daylight, warmer weather, trees in leaf and flowers blooming. At the same time, the influx of pilgrims and tourists to the Eternal City seems to increase by the day. It all culminates in Holy Week and Easter, this year accompanied by pleasant weather and plenty to “see and do.”
For us monks at Sant’Ambrogio, the liturgies of Holy Week, including Palm Sunday and the Triduum of Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Sunday, are shared with the Benedictine Oblate sisters of Saint Frances of Rome at Tor de’Spechhi, just a few blocks from where we live. See my previous essay, “Tor de’ Spechhi: Tower of Mirrors,” to learn more about these sisters.
One of the priest monks at Sant’Ambrogio is present each day for Mass at Tor de’Spechhi, including myself from time to time, as chaplain to the sisters, but during Holy Week they receive an “invasion of monks” (that is, some six of us) for the great liturgies.
That being said, the celebrations are fairly subdued, since the community of six sisters has limited resources for Holy Week singing and celebrating that might be found in a larger monastery or parish setting, for example. Nonetheless the celebrations at Tor de’ Spechhi are carried out reverently and prayerfully. While their liturgies are not usually open to the public, this year the Tor de’Spechhi oblates of Saint Frances of Rome allowed the sisters of the monastic Fraternity of Jerusalem residing in Rome also to attend Holy Thursday “Evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper” with us monks. This somewhat rare exception seems to have been enjoyed by all.
The Fraternity of Jerusalem in Rome is based at the church of San Sebastiano near the Coliseum and technically within the boundaries of the parish of Santa Maria in Portico in Compitelli, to which our Curia of Sant’Ambrogio also belongs. Four sisters of the Jerusalem fraternity reside at San Sebastiano, one of whom is a student at the Pontifical Gregorianum University. Another is a student at the Pontifical Oriental University (for Eastern Christian studies). One of the sisters works at the Vatican, and one of them is the “responsible” (superior) of the sisters’ community, and is mostly in the house at San Sebastiano, praying and working there during the day.
More can be learned online about the Fraternity of Jerusalem, founded in France in the 1970’s, composed of monks and nuns who strive to lead a contemplative monastic life in the midst of the large cities, including Paris, Rome, Florence, Montreal, and elsewhere. They are known for their carefully celebrated Divine Office and Holy Mass and normally many local people join them for Office and Mass. I have begun to assist as Mass chaplain there from time to time. Mass is preceded by Vespers each afternoon. Though few in numbers, the Fraternity of Jerusalem at San Sebastiano sings the Divine Office and Mass very well.
This year the Jerusalem sisters in Rome had just three at home at San Sebastiano for Holy Week, so decided to attend Holy Week and Easter liturgies in the parish or other churches. I first met them on Palm Sunday at our parish, where I attended the 10:00 am Mass after our earlier Mass with the Tor de’Spechhi sisters at 7:00 am.
To some it may sound odd to be going to Mass more than once on a Sunday, but it is something I have been doing sometimes in order to experience other liturgies in the city. Sunday being a “free day,” there is certainly time and energy to do this.
At the same time, celebrating with the brothers with whom I live is also an important part of the daily and Sunday experience for me. From the nearby parish of Santa Maria in Portico, to Sant’Anselmo, our Benedictine headquarter in Rome, to the Priestly Society of Saint Peter parish of the Holy Trinity, to the Brigittine nuns in Piazza Farnase, to the Benedictine-run Greek Catholic College, to the English-language Mass at Caravita, it is a pleasure to occasionally visit one or other of these places for Sunday Mass. This becomes, as Ophrah Winfrey calls it, “Super Soul Sunday.” Hopefully no harm there!
Palm Sunday at Tor de’Spechhi included, after the introduction and blessing of olive branches, a short procession from outside their choir chapel into the choir itself, where Mass was celebrated. The Passion According to Saint Matthew was read by Father Luigi of our curia, as well as by Father Jacques, also from our curia and myself. Father Luigi presided at the Mass and Father Jacques and I concelebrated.
Our two student monks from Vietnam, Brother Matthia and Brother Anselmo, who reside with us at Sant’Ambrogio while studying in Rome, were the masters of ceremony and Mass servers. Our Abbot President Guillermo Arboleda was in Colombia, South America, his native country, during Holy Week this year, but plans to be with us for the celebrations next year. An important part of his work is to travel to our far flung monasteries, so we understand his need to be away on a regular basis. He is always missed when gone and very much a part of our Sant’Ambrogio monastic community.
As mentioned, olive branches are what churches in Rome (and perhaps many other places in Italy as well) use for Palm Sunday. Olive branches are plentiful here, much more so than palms, though palm trees also flourish here. All during Palm Sunday, when taking walks, I saw people carrying olive branches they had obviously gotten at one church or another. It was a welcome sight, seeing Catholics, and maybe those who are not, bringing branches from church to their homes as a reminder of the triumphant entry of Jesus into Jerusalem just days before his passion, death and resurrection from the dead.
Throughout the city of Rome, celebration of the Sacred Triduum begins at about 6:00 pm (18:00) in most churches and monasteries, including Tor de’Spechhi, where we Sant’Ambrogio monks celebrated Mass with the sisters. It would have been interesting to attend other Masses too, but impossible to do so, of course. Some Masses began later, after cena (supper), probably so that working people could also attend.
Adoration in our nearby parish church, open to the public, went on until midnight, so were able to take advantage of that Holy Thursday practice. The altar of repose was near the front door of the church, at the altar and tomb of Saint John Leonardi, founder of the Order of Mater Dei, the priests who minister at our parish, Santa Maria in Portico in Compitelli.
Good Friday Celebration of the Lord’s Passion universally takes place around 3 or 4 pm, so also at Tor de’Spechhi, at 4:30 pm (16:30). It is a Liturgy of the Word and of the Presanctified Gifts, meaning that there is no regular celebration of the Mass, when consecration of hosts takes place. However, Communion from hosts consecrated the day before, on Holy Thursday, occurs toward the end of the Good Friday service.
The content and structure of the Good Friday liturgy is quite different than the more familiar Catholic Mass. This is no accident, as something so extraordinary is commemorated each Good Friday. As such, more concentration (at least for me) needs to occur during the service, to ensure that all goes smoothly.
Holy Saturday is a quiet day of prayer and waiting for the celebration of the Lord’s Resurrection on Saturday night and Sunday morning. We had the Paschal Vigil Mass with the Tor de’Specchi sisters at 10:00 pm (22.00). It ended at about midnight and the sisters served us refreshments after.
Some parishes celebrate this Mass earlier on Holy Saturday evening or at midnight as well as throughout Easter Sunday morning. I stopped in for some of the Mass at our parish and also walked to a few other churches on a somewhat blustery day, accompanied by some rain, wind and sun. Somehow it seemed fitting as a culmination of the Holy Days just past and the “New Day” which Easter celebrations inaugurate each year.