“ …About to hand Himself over to death, [He] entrusted to the Church a sacrifice new for all eternity, the banquet of His love…”
The opening prayer for the Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday sums up what the holy days of the Triduum are all about. The Evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper is the beginning of the sacred days of the Triduum, which conclude with the joyful celebration of the Easter Vigil.
At Holy Thursday Mass, we remember that this banquet of love—new for all eternity—is the Eucharist, and our hearts respond in thanksgiving. The Church even provides a tradition for us to be able to offer our gratitude.
The Seven Churches Pilgrimage for Holy Thursday
At the end of the Holy Thursday liturgy, instead of the closing prayer (which we will not actually hear until the Easter Vigil) there is a procession to the altar of repose. This is where Jesus in the Eucharist will be in reserve for the faithful to spend time in prayer and adoration until midnight. It’s an extension of the invitation the Lord gave His disciples in the agony in the garden to "watch and pray" (see Matthew 26: 40-41).
The altar of repose is usually beautiful, dark, and quiet. It is filled with many adorers who are remembering the gifts Jesus gave us that first Holy Thursday night (the gifts of the Eucharist and priesthood) and what was coming (the agony in the Garden, betrayal, and arrest of Jesus).
It is my favorite tradition during the Triduum.
A few years ago, a priest was visiting the convent for our “last supper” before we entered into the silence of the Triduum. He brought up the tradition of the seven churches pilgrimage, something I had never heard of but was intrigued by. Essentially, it’s visiting seven local altars of repose on Holy Thursday night. Spiritually, it’s a deep expression of keeping watch with the Lord in the Garden, and an experience of the "catholicity," universality, of the Church.
Pilgrimage Among the Saints
The original pilgrimage dates back to Saint Philip Neri in the 1500s. Known as the second apostle of Rome, He would lead a pilgrimage to the four major basilicas and three other minor basilicas on Wednesday of Holy Week. You can follow in his footsteps today. Covering about 12 miles, it’s a pilgrimage among the Saints. It winds through the heart of Rome, visiting the churches where Saint Peter, Saint Paul, Saint Sebastian, Saint Justin, and Saint Lawrence are buried.
That pilgrimage has expanded in Rome during Lent, with the tradition of the “Station Churches.” Each day of Lent there is a church to visit and pray in. The churches of the pilgrimage were established by Saint Gregory the Great as a way to honor the early Church martyrs. Falling out of tradition when the Pope moved from Rome during the Avignon papacy, it has experienced a revival of sorts since the 1970s.
I love pilgrimages. Pilgrimages are important in both the Old and New Testaments. There are countless traditions of pilgrimages—to the Holy Land, Lourdes, the Camino—to name a few. Long or short, messy or easy (99.9% of the time it's messy) they can be a powerful encounter with God’s grace and gifts.
We have a chance to find refuge in the Lord and pray among the Saints on Holy Thursday night as we participate in the altar of repose. So when the priest shared about the seven churches pilgrimage during the time of the altar of repose, this added the opportunity for a concrete expression of the pilgrim road in my heart. I was hooked.
How to Participate in the Seven Churches Pilgrimage for Holy Thursday
How do we participate in the seven Church pilgrimage?
- First, check with your diocese and see if there is an official list of churches participating and the times of the altars of repose.
- Or, you can build your own pilgrimage from your parish to other nearby parishes. Be sure to check the times of the altars of repose, some close earlier than others.
- At each altar, you can spend time meditating on Jesus’ experience in the Garden (here is a booklet to help).
However, in my experience, I spend my time in thanksgiving and awe. I gave thanks for the great gift of the Eucharist and priesthood instituted on Holy Thursday night. I marvel in awe of the beauty of the universal Church. Last year, our pilgrimage included the Cathedral, two Hispanic parishes, a Polish parish, an Irish parish, a Traditional Latin Mass parish, and a downtown young adult parish. Talk about an experience of the Catholic Church! Each parish, as different as they were, were universal in the reverence and honor given to Jesus in the Eucharist.
I hope you have a chance to participate in this tradition. If not, I hope at least you can visit your parish altar of repose. May it renew your love of the Eucharist and awe at His coming to us and staying with us.
Have you ever made the seven churches pilgrimage on Holy Thursday? What was your experience like?