As we enter into the three days we know as the Triduum—beginning with Holy Thursday—many Catholics will once again take part in an ancient ritual of visiting churches (the Visita Iglesia) after the Evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper—a local “mini-pilgrimage.”
The Evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper ends with a procession of the Blessed Sacrament, which is then placed in reposition (on a special altar) so that the faithful may remain in vigil until 11 p.m. or midnight. As a result, Catholic churches are unlocked on this evening, providing Catholics with an opportunity to visit a variety of parishes, especially in urban areas where a cluster of churches may be within just a few miles of one another. Traditionally, Catholics visit seven parishes on this night (symbolic of the ancient practice of visiting the seven basilicas of Rome as an act of penance: Saint John Lateran, Saint Peter, Saint Mary Major, Saint Paul Outside-the-Walls, Saint Lawrence Outside-the-Walls, Saint Sebastian Outside-the-Walls [replaced in 2000 by the Sanctuary of Divine Love], and Holy Cross in Jerusalem), ideally ending up at the cathedral of the diocese. However, this mini-pilgrimage can take any shape or form depending on your circumstances. The goal is to spend a few minutes in each church, praying before the Blessed Sacrament, and keeping vigil on the night that Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane before his arrest, asking his disciples to stay awake with him.
For Catholics, the notion of going on pilgrimage—even a mini-pilgrimage such as this one—represents our recognition that we are on a journey to life with God in the fullness of his Kingdom. Our life on earth is not merely something to be tolerated as we await our true destination. Rather, our life on earth is a journey, and we encounter God along the way. As Catholics, we symbolize this journey by making pilgrimages to holy places. Participants in a pilgrimage are not just travelers; they are pilgrims. To be a pilgrim is to be on a sacred journey in search of fulfillment in God. As a Church, we are a “pilgrim people,” traveling together toward our God. As a sacramental people, a pilgrimage is just one more example of how we embody our faith.
This is a great tradition for families to engage in, and children enjoy the idea of being out late and walking into the prayerful, darkened spaces of the various churches—a wonderfully catechetical experience of encountering Mystery. I remember this experience as a child and fondly recall taking my own kids to visit churches on Holy Thursday. To this day, my wife and I continue this tradition, which sets the tone for the solemnity of the remainder of the Triduum.
What has been your experience of visiting churches on Holy Thursday? What is catechetical about this experience?