The Easter Triduum is the liturgical season lasting three days and commemorating the Last Supper, the Passion, and the Resurrection. Across the country, churches and individuals commemorate these holy days with special traditions and devotions. In particular, Holy Thursday and Good Friday have solemn practices where Catholics can more fully participate in Christ’s passion and death.
On the night he was betrayed, Jesus gathered with his apostles to celebrate the Passover. As Catholics, we gather at the Mass of the Lord’s Supper on the evening of Holy Thursday to commemorate this first Mass in a special way. During the washing of the feet, the priest reenacts the events of the Last Supper when Jesus washed the feet of the apostles. During the meal, Christ institutes the Eucharist as he gives the apostles his body and blood and establishes the priesthood as he says, “Do this in memory of me” (Luke 22:19). As Holy Thursday Mass comes to an end, the Eucharist is placed in the altar of repose where the faithful are invited for Adoration.
Visiting seven churches on Holy Thursday
After the Eucharist is placed in the altar of repose, there is a tradition where the faithful visit seven churches and pray at the altar of repose in each one. The tradition is believed to have begun in Rome where pilgrims would visit the seven basilicas as an act of penance. It continues today in many countries, especially in cities where there is a higher density of Catholic churches. The faithful that gather at the altar of repose pray silently, calling to mind the night Jesus went with his apostles to the Garden of Gethsemane and said, “My soul is sorrowful even to death. Remain here and keep watch with me” (Matthew 26:38).
In western New York, faithful Catholics come to the Polonia neighborhood of Buffalo after Holy Thursday Mass to participate in the Seven Churches Visitation. The tradition in Buffalo was established by the Polish immigrants that moved to the east side of the city in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Christopher Byrd has lived in the Polonia neighborhood all his life. When he was growing up, his family would participate in the visitation by walking from church to church and visiting the altars of repose for Adoration. While some of the old churches in Polonia have since closed, people still come in to the city to participate in the visitation, which Byrd now helps promote.
He says, “Holy Thursday really sets the stage through the rest of Easter Sunday. The solemn feeling. That’s what you get — Good Friday is the next day, and what that day brings. It prepares your way. There’s something to say about putting yourself in that frame of mind to get ready for Easter.”
Good Friday is a solemn day marked with a somber tone as Catholics commemorate the passion and death of Jesus Christ. Many choose to go about their day in silence, especially from noon to 3 p.m. — the hours Christ hung on the cross. Some churches host a reflection on the Seven Last Words of Christ. In the afternoon Catholics gather at their parishes for the celebration of the Lord’s passion where veneration of the cross takes place. In the evening the Stations of the Cross allow for further reflection on Christ’s suffering as the priest leads the faithful along the road to Calvary.
‘Praying the steps’ on Good Friday
In the late 1840s Archbishop John Purcell of Cincinnati was on a voyage from Europe to America when he ran into rough storms. He prayed that if the Lord would protect him through the intercession of his mother, he would build a church in her honor on the highest point in Cincinnati. He made it through the storms, and when he returned to Cincinnati, he began plans to build a church in the Mount Adams neighborhood, the highest point in Cincinnati overlooking the Ohio River.
Due to hard financial times, he could not get many businesses to help fund the project, so he reached out to Catholics throughout the area. He asked them to climb the hillside to the construction site while praying the Rosary and ask the Blessed Mother to intercede with her Son so they would be able to raise enough money to build the church. The people responded, and their prayers were answered. In 1860 the Church of Immaculata was dedicated.
Soon after the dedication, Catholics in the area began climbing the hillside on Good Friday while praying the Rosary. When they reached the top, they would venerate the cross in front of the church. Some people would leave flowers or rosaries and then go into the church to pray the Stations of the Cross and attend the Good Friday services. That tradition has been maintained for almost 160 years. In 1859 the church built wooden steps into the hillside. From that point on, the tradition became known as “praying the steps.” The city of Cincinnati eventually replaced the wooden steps with concrete steps.
The parish is now known as Holy Cross-Immaculata since merging with another neighborhood church. The tradition of praying the steps begins at midnight on Good Friday. After an extended period of Adoration at the altar of repose, the people gather at the bottom of the steps on St. Gregory Street. At that point, a local bishop blesses the steps and leads the people up the steps praying the Rosary out loud. From that point on and for the next 24 hours, thousands of Catholics come to pray the steps.
“[It’s] people of all ages, Catholics and non-Catholics alike. It’s … an incredible experience. It’s … amazing to see that all day long there are these throngs of people there but there’s just this calm feeling,” said Fr. Leonard Fecko, the pastor of Holy Cross-Immaculata. “And everything is very, very quiet. People do their own thing. Some people go into the church. They’ll light candles at the different altars.”
There are 107 steps leading up to Holy Cross-Immaculata from St. Gregory Street. The faithful climb the steps, silently praying either the Rosary or some other form of prayer. Throughout the day the parish council and parishioners offer hospitality. In the morning they serve a small breakfast, and later on they host a fish fry. Everyone in the parish gets involved. Priests are there to hear confessions all day, only stopping for the Good Friday services. Every year up to 15,000 people visit to pray the steps.
A personal Good Friday pilgrimage
Jo Flemings from Charlotte, North Carolina, was inspired by her seminarian son to do a special pilgrimage on Good Friday last year. Her son was studying in Rome and told her about the Seven Churches Visitation.
In Charlotte there are five churches in an 18-mile loop. Flemings decided she would visit the five churches of Charlotte on Good Friday. She says, “As I was thinking about it, there are these people that I know who are burdened with so many cares, heartaches, and worries.”
She wanted to take their suffering and offer her pilgrimage on their behalf. She wanted to physically carry the weight of their suffering. She decided to wear a backpack filled with white river rocks with prayer intentions written on each one. She says, “I wanted it to conform to my body so it would be easier to carry first of all, and secondly, I wanted it to be something that would be symbolic of the variety of the number of concerns that I would carry for people.”
She began her pilgrimage early Good Friday morning. Though the walk was physically arduous, she continued on, knowing that people were praying for her.
When she reached her final destination at her parish church, Fleming says, “We have this new Mary garden outside of church, so I put all my rocks there. I took them out one at a time out of my backpack and put them in a decorative fashion around the back of the statue of Our Lady in this little grotto area. All those prayer requests were centered to the Lord in commemoration of his passion and death. And they were entrusted ultimately into the eternal care of Our Lady.”