Open Wide the Doors to Christ the Redeemer
Most Reverend Kevin C. Rhoades,
Bishop of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania
A Personal Reflection on Holy Week
The photo on this page shows the statue of the "Pietà" which is in the narthex of Saint Mary's Church in Lebanon. Kneeling and praying before this statue of the Virgin Mary cradling the body of her Son, our Lord Jesus, is one of my earliest religious memories from childhood. In those days, it was common for Catholics to stop in church to make "a visit to the Blessed Sacrament." I am happy that this beautiful tradition is being reinvigorated, particularly in our ten adoration chapels throughout the diocese. Growing up in Lebanon, I remember stopping in the beautiful "old Saint Mary's Church" to pray before the tabernacle and also before the statue of the "Pietà."
The "Pietà" (Italian for "compassion") depicts the loving compassion of Our Blessed Mother, Our Lady of Sorrows, on Good Friday. As we observe Holy Week each year, we enter anew into the mystery of our redemption in Christ. We do so in union with Mary, whose loving compassion for her Son extends also to us, her children. From the cross Jesus gave her to us as our spiritual mother when He said to Saint John: "Behold your mother." On Calvary, the Mother of the Redeemer became also the Mother of the redeemed.
During Holy Week, especially during the Easter Triduum, we contemplate the great gift and mystery of our redemption accomplished by our Savior Jesus Christ in the Paschal Mystery. We celebrate the two aspects of the Paschal mystery: the suffering and death of Jesus (by which He liberates us from sin), and His resurrection (by which he opens for us the way to a new life) [cf. CCC 654].
I remember with gratitude being ordained a priest in 1983, the Jubilee Year of the Redemption. Our beloved Holy Father, Pope John Paul II, proclaimed that extraordinary holy year to mark the 1,950th anniversary of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. I recall with emotion the powerful words and invitation of the Holy Father to the whole Church: "Open wide the doors to the Redeemer!" Twenty four years later, those words still ring in my heart.
One of my favorite songs for meditation, composed and sung by Martin Doman, a musician who serves in our diocesan Office of Worship, reflects this theme. It is entitled "Open wide the doors to Christ." Is this not the Church's invitation to the world in her mission of evangelization? It is also the call to each one of us in our individual lives and in our parish communities. This call comes to us in a particularly powerful way during Holy Week as we recall the depth of God's redeeming love revealed in the passion, death, and resurrection of His Son. This week we contemplate what Pope Benedict XVI has described as "love in its most radical form." At the beginning of Lent this year, the Holy Father exhorted us to look at the pierced side of Jesus on the cross, recalling the words from Saint John's Gospel: They shall look on Him whom they have pierced (John 19:37). I hope that this Lent has been for you a time of renewal through an experience of Christ's merciful love in all its redeeming strength. We are renewed in a particularly powerful way when we are restored to God's grace through the sacrament of Reconciliation. I pray that this Holy Week will be for you a time of spiritual renewal and grace through personal prayer and participation in the Church's liturgical celebrations.
When we begin the Easter Triduum on Holy Thursday night, we enter, in a sense, into the Upper Room with Jesus as we celebrate the Mass of the Lord's Supper. We give thanks for the two sacraments instituted by Christ during the Last Supper: the Eucharist and Holy Orders. The Lord Jesus gave us the Holy Eucharist as the perpetual memorial of His death and resurrection so that we can participate in His sacrifice and receive the graces of redemption through the Paschal banquet. The Lord Jesus gave us the ministerial priesthood so that the Eucharistic sacrifice of His Body and Blood, the source and summit of our lives, would be celebrated in every time and place. Please pray with me this Holy Thursday for our priests and seminarians and for an increase in priestly vocations, for without ordained priests, who alone receive the power to consecrate the Eucharist, we cannot celebrate the Eucharistic Sacrifice. Perhaps you can keep this intention in mind during prayer before the Blessed Sacrament this Holy Thursday night when the Eucharist is solemnly reserved for adoration in our parish churches and chapels after the Evening Mass of the Lord's Supper.
Perhaps there is no other day in the entire liturgical year when we hear so intensely the call to open our hearts to Christ our Redeemer than Good Friday, the day our Lord's heart, pierced by the soldier's sword, overflowed with merciful love from the cross on Calvary. How will we spend Good Friday this year? In many "Catholic countries" Good Friday is a holiday: there is no work and in many places they have outdoor processions and dramas commemorating the way of the cross and our Lord's crucifixion. These traditions continue in some places in our diocese, particularly in our Hispanic communities. In a more secularized culture, the public observance of Good Friday becomes more difficult. Yet the Church invites us on this solemn day to enter deeply into the mystery of the redemption by commemorating our Lord's Passion and Death, especially through attendance at the Good Friday liturgy. This is the only day in the entire year when the celebration of Mass is prohibited. Instead, we commemorate the Lord's passion, according to an ancient tradition of the Church, in a service that includes the liturgy of the word, the veneration of the cross, and Holy Communion (consecrated the night before at the Holy Thursday Mass of the Lord's Supper). This celebration usually takes place on Good Friday afternoon, at about three o'clock. You can check the diocesan website for the times and places of the Good Friday and all the Easter Triduum liturgies in parishes throughout our diocese. In many parishes, there are also opportunities on Good Friday evening to gather together in prayer and worship of our Crucified Lord with devotions like the Stations of the Cross. I will never forget Good Friday nights when I was a student in Rome, gathering in prayer with Pope John Paul II at the Coliseum for the Way of the Cross. The Holy Father would carry the cross at that place where so many early Christians embraced the cross of martyrdom for love of Jesus.
I remember a very elderly Vietnamese woman, Anna Maria Thi Duong Chuyen, who was one of my parishioners when I was pastor at Saint Francis of Assisi in Harrisburg. She and her family had suffered for their faith and immigrated here in 1992. Though knowing no English, they came to church and attended Mass, either in English or in Spanish, every day with great devotion. They loved Holy Mass, even if they did not understand the language, for they knew in faith the mystery being celebrated. I remember one Good Friday, during the veneration of the cross at the Good Friday liturgy, Anna Maria approaching the cross on her knees with tears streaming down her face. Her love for our suffering Lord, borne of a faith tested by trial and persecution, was manifested in the devotion of her tears. Seeing her in the church that Good Friday was like witnessing a living Pieta. This past February, Anna Maria died and I can only imagine that loving encounter between this faithful woman and the Lord whom she loved. For me, she was like a living saint at Saint Francis and in our diocese. This Good Friday, I remember her and all the faithful departed of our diocese who have gone before us in faith to meet the Lord. May they receive the fruits of Christ's victory on the cross: forgiveness of sins and eternal life in heaven!
On Good Friday, we stand in special solidarity with our brothers and sisters in the Holy Land. We remember them in our prayers and we share with them the gifts of our material sacrifices in the special collection for the Holy Land. Two months ago, I received a letter of thanks from the Franciscan Commissariat of the Holy Land for the generous contributions of the people of our diocese last year ($88,692.00 in the 2006 Good Friday collection). As I reviewed the list of contributions from each diocese of the United States, I saw that ours was one of the largest, certainly per capita, given our medium size. I continue to be edified by the faith and generosity of the people of our diocese. Thank you for your loving sacrifices in support of the Church's pastoral, charitable, educational and social works in the Holy Land as well as here in our own diocese through the Bishop's Annual Lenten Appeal.
As a Catholic community, we observe Good Friday as a day of penance, particularly through abstinence and fasting on this day of Our Lord's sacrifice on the cross. I remember as a child our observance of the three hours of Our Lord's agony on the cross: no music, no playing, and a reverential spirit of silence from 12:00 noon to 3:00 p.m. It can be a time to pray the Stations of the Cross or the sorrowful mysteries of the holy rosary or to read meditatively one of the Passion narratives from the Gospels. I invite you to prayerfully and consciously consider how you will spend Good Friday this year. I pray it will be a day of special grace for you. Let us take time to contemplate the face of Christ crucified, to open our hearts anew to His redeeming love, and to enter more deeply into the mystery of the salvation He won for us on the cross!
On Holy Saturday, we await, as it were, at the Lord's tomb and recall Christ's descent into the realm of the dead to free the just who had gone before Him. That night, the Church throughout the world keeps vigil, preparing to celebrate the glorious mystery of Christ's Resurrection, "the crowning truth of our faith" (CCC 638). At the Easter Vigil Mass, we will celebrate the sacraments of Christian initiation for those who have been preparing through the RCIA to be born anew by Baptism, to be strengthened by the sacrament of Confirmation, and to receive the food of eternal life in the Holy Eucharist. May every Catholic in our diocese remember these newly initiated brothers and sisters in prayer and welcome them with the love of Christ! At no other time in the year do we experience more fully that "the Church is alive" than at the Easter Vigil, when hundreds of people join our family of faith!
The joy of Easter Sunday is the joy of new life in Christ. I've noticed that most of the Easter cards sold in stores depict Easter as a celebration of the beginning of spring. Easter joy is indeed reflected in the joy of spring, yet it is so much more. At this time of the year, we enjoy anew the beauty of new life in the world of nature, but on Easter we celebrate an even greater reality, the abundant beauty of the new creation through Christ's redemption fulfilled in His resurrection. At Easter, we are invited to open the doors to our Redeemer, who died and rose again. His resurrection demonstrates the victory of love over hatred, grace over sin, and life over death. We celebrate on Easter Sunday, and throughout the fifty days of the Easter season, that Jesus Christ is indeed the resurrection and the life (cf. John 11:25). Our faith in His resurrection from the dead gives us hope in the midst of the trials and sufferings of life for we know that Christ is alive, that He is risen in glory and that He promises us a share in His new and risen life. In fact, this participation in the new life in Christ has already begun through the sacrament of Baptism. And the Holy Eucharist preserves and increases this new life, the life of grace, within us. Did not Jesus Himself say: He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has (present tense) eternal life, and I will raise (future tense) him up on the last day (John 6:54)? The Eucharist is both the Bread of Life for our pilgrimage on earth and "the pledge of the glory to come" (cf. CCC 1402-1405), an anticipation of the banquet feast of heaven.
Every Sunday is a celebration of the Resurrection of the Lord. Every Sunday we participate in the wellspring of redemption and receive "the medicine of immortality, an antidote to death" (words of Saint Ignatius of Antioch to describe the Holy Eucharist).
My brothers and sisters, I wish all of you a happy and blessed Easter. I hope this rather personal spiritual reflection might be some help to you as you enter into Holy Week. I began this letter with the image of the "Pietà" in my home parish of Saint Mary's in Lebanon. The Sorrowful Mother who held the dead body of her divine Son at the foot of the cross is also the Joyful Mother and the first creature to enjoy eternal life. Though the Gospels do not mention an appearance of the Risen Christ to His Mother, Pope John Paul II taught us that it is certainly reasonable to think that her Risen Son indeed appeared to Mary "so that she too could delight in the fullness of paschal joy."
In the Easter season, the Church addresses Mary in the words "Regina caeli, laetare, alleluia!" ("Queen of Heaven, rejoice, alleluia"). May Mary's joy at the resurrection of Jesus be yours this Easter! May she help all of us by her prayers to open the doors of our hearts to her Son and to experience anew this Holy Week the love of our Redeemer!