People embark on journeys of faith riding in many means of transport. Elijah took off for heaven in a flaming chariot. The Wise Men hit the road to Bethlehem on camels. And in Chicago, after Mass on Holy Thursday night, Mike Cahill pilots me and our son and daughter in our 12-year-old car through the chilly streets, to one Catholic Church after another. Seven, if we can make that many before midnight, when they snuff out the candles and lock the doors.
Sometimes we take the Dan Ryan Expressway, regarded by more timid Chicagoans as the road most likely to speed you, too, on your journey to heaven, minus the flaming chariot. Flaming autos, more likely.
Our drive tonight feels like riding in a funeral. We don’t play the radio. We don’t listen to the Cubs game—though some claim that a Cubs game is a penance unto itself. We might sing a song or two.
Holy Thursday is a night rich in symbolism. After the Mass, with its blessing of oils and washing of feet, the altar is left bare. The priest carries the Blessed Sacrament to the “altar of repose,” adorned with candles and flowers. People gather to pray, until midnight if the church is open that long. In the quiet, thoughts barge in of what followed the Last Supper: the garden, the sleeping disciples, the prayer of anguish, the soldiers.
Apparently the tradition of visiting churches on this night comes from Rome, where pilgrims visited the seven major basilicas on holy days. We are lucky to live in Chicago, where you can hardly throw a stone and not hit a Catholic Church. So we set off, seeking out a few of the city’s famous old churches as well as some off the beaten track. One of us will hop out and try the door. If it’s open, we go in, kneel down, pray for a while. In not one church can you miss the fact that Holy Week is upon us. At St. Sabina’s one year, a purple banner hung the whole width of the balcony. It inquired in giant letters: “Discipleship costs. Are you willing?”
The night invites us to wrestle with this question. Sure, I might reflect on it at home, but I wouldn’t. The dark churches help us stay mindful of who we are: beloved children of God, but also quite capable of protesting, as Peter did on this very night, “I don’t even know the man!” Discipleship costs, and he wasn’t willing to pay the price just yet. What about me?
A tradition like this is one small way to set Holy Week off from the rest of the year, for kids and parents alike. It brings young and old face to face with the mystery of our faith, allowing us all to ponder and take to heart whatever we can. Such rituals often speak more loudly than a month of religious education classes.
Ted and Barb, good friends of ours, take their seven kids on this Holy Thursday pilgrimage. Last year Ted made a program. It said, “Holy Thursday Night. Can you stay up with the Lord? Peter, James, and John couldn’t do it on the first Holy Thursday . . . can you? Seven churches. Twenty-one Hail Marys. Twenty-eight miles. All before midnight. Are you game?”
They were. Even the college kid and the lanky high school junior piled into the van. The sophomore wavered, but the others chanted her name until she climbed in.
After all, it’s terrific practice for those dark times when God really needs us just to stay awake.
By Catherine O’Connell-Cahill, from the pages of At Home with Our Faith, Claretian Publications’ print newsletter for parents on nurturing spirituality in the home. Winner of the Best in Class award in 2013 from the Associated Church Press, as well as a First Place General Excellence award from the Catholic Press Association for the past four years running. Here’s a sample issue.
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