by Fr. Keith Branson, C.PP.S., Publication Editor
The Triduum had an entirely different meaning in Gaspar’s day: it wouldn’t be terribly wrong to say there was no Triduum in his time. Walking through these three days with Gaspar takes a little imagination; however I think Gaspar has a lot of offer us as we travel this road.
Gaspar always preached Christ crucified at the center of his message, and even though the focus of Holy Week of his time was primarily on Good Friday, I don’t think it takes a lot of effort to touch Gaspar’s spirit in our current Triduum celebration. I offer these thoughts to give context and to supplement the other excellent reflections on the Triduum that have appeared in The New Wine Press and our other publications.
From the introduction of the Tridentine Missal of 1570 until the reforms of Pius XII (1955), the Mass of the Lord’s Supper was celebrated on Holy Thursday morning before noon. It was the last of three Masses celebrated on that day in the ancient church: first, a Mass where members of the Order of Penitents had the ashes washed from their foreheads and were restored to the Eucharistic table, then the Chrism Mass where the local bishop blessed the Holy Oils for the upcoming year, and finally the Mass of the Lord’s Supper. In Gaspar’s time, the first had long disappeared, and the Chrism Mass was still a Mass with the local bishop, so the Mass of the Lord’s Supper would have been the Mass that ordinary priests celebrated. It was not a time of great attendance by the people—who were only spectators at the Mass at that time—and not seen as the beginning of a season of its own. At the end of Mass, there was a ritual for stripping the altars in preparation for Good Friday.
The Holy Thursday foot washing ritual wasn’t part of Mass; that celebration became a separate service that day done after the last Mass of the day. There are stories that this ritual wasn’t limited to the clergy through the course of history; it was important to some pious rulers of the Middle Ages. A biographer of Saint Louis IX, crusader and King of France, was repulsed by the condition of some of the poor whose feet his monarch washed in this ritual.
Our connection to Gaspar’s spirit on Holy Thursday is probably best expressed in the act of washing feet. He became the president of Santa Galla Hospital before his ordination at the age of 22 (a remarkable responsibility for a young man!), and outreach to the poor was a focus of his life from the beginning of his personal history. Part of the ministry Gaspar envisioned coming out of his mission houses was caring for the poor of the area. I haven’t seen many references in Gaspar’s writings yet about his attitude toward different rituals of the Church, but metaphorically his service of the poor is a good paradigm for the example of Jesus’ washing his disciples’ feet.
In many ways, our sharing of the chalice today makes Gaspar’s devotion more prophetic, since communion under both species was reserved to the priest and only practiced in Eastern Rite Catholic churches at the time. Jesus’ words of Mark 14:25 and parallels is: “I shall not drink again the fruit of the vine until the day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.” This can give us assurance that we truly are living in the kingdom of God.
Gaspar talks about Christ’s Passion extensively, a focus of his spirituality encouraged by his spiritual directior, Francesco Albertini, and popular in his time. He continually calls his spiritual directees and his fledgling community members to focus on one aspect of the Passion in their meditation. A favorite saying of his was: “How wonderful it is to stand with Mary at the foot of the Cross.”
The practice of Good Friday at that time would have included the Three Hours from noon to 3 in the afternoon of Good Friday, as well as other devotions centered around Christ’s Passion and death. Liturgically, the Good Friday liturgy itself has probably changed the least over the centuries. The high point of this day and of the spirituality focused on the moment of Christ’s death, the final victory over sin, a viewpoint reflected in Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, a movie that crystallizes centuries of emphasis on that moment.
From my reading of Gaspar, the purpose of dwelling on the Passion wasn’t to lose oneself in grief over responsibility for Christ’s death. Meditation on the Passion was meant to build up a sense of gratitude for Christ’s extraordinary gift of his life, humility in seeing our struggles and sufferings being less than Christ’s, and eagerness to offer one’s own life entirely to Christ and his mission. Reflection on the Passion had a positive, life giving purpose, which Gaspar displayed in his energy and enthusiasm for mission that was fed by his devotional practice. It was also meant to be a positive remedy for a society in a time of troubles when human life was cheap, suffering was widespread, and hope was difficult to come by. It was part of Gaspar’s missionary goals and part of his effectiveness as a missionary, something he could leave behind to perpetuate his work.
The Holy Saturday liturgy in Gaspar’s time was celebrated early Saturday morning, and didn’t include the rites of initiation, which were restored by Pius XII in the 1950s. It would have been perceived as the last day of Lent. As today, it would have been a quiet day of waiting, even though the high point of the season had passed in Gaspar’s time.
Fr. Leonard Gottemoeller once told me that before Vatican II, Catholic priests never preached on the Resurrection, or mentioned it in discussing Christ’s saving power. The focus was entirely on the death of Christ. The Resurrection scene in The Passion of the Christ is minimal, and functions only to affirm it happened. The last presidential prayer of Good Friday refers to the Resurrection, and without it, Good Friday would not make sense.
Looking back at that time, we might observe that the Resurrection was always implied, since without it Christianity loses a key reason for being. Gaspar preached new hope, new relationship, new healing and new life in Christ. His zeal could be described as a lived Easter joy, even though he himself probably wouldn’t describe it as such. In our thought today, we see Good Friday through the empty tomb, and that might be a better understanding of Gaspar’s emphasis as well.
Easter is a day when we celebrate the fullness of redemption, the joy of our reconciliation in Christ. Gaspar embraced that joy and tried to spread it to others. Even though we should be cautious in reading too much into the past, to attribute our attitudes to people who would not have known our context, there is much about Gaspar that we can celebrate as we travel the Triduum together: he has much to teach us. As we stand at the foot of the Cross with Gaspar and Maria de Mattias, we can see the hope of reconciliation born in Christ’s Blood and the joy of redemption the Resurrection.