When Christ in the Blessed Sacrament is moved on Holy Thursday to a tabernacle in a different location to represent his time in the tomb after his crucifixion, Catholics have an opportunity to follow and pray there as a way of entering into the Passion, liturgical ministry professionals say.
Transferring the Blessed Sacrament is primarily a way of safeguarding the consecrated hosts needed for the Good Friday liturgy when none can be consecrated, said Michael Silhavy, a member of the archdiocesan Parish Services Team.
But the practice, which dates back to the Middle Ages, also offers Catholics an opportunity to reflect in their parishes on the institution of the Eucharist, as well as the events commemorated during the Paschal Triduum, which continues through Good Friday, Holy Saturday and ends on the evening of Easter Sunday.
The main purpose should not be confused, said Jesuit Father Joseph Weiss, pastor of St. Thomas More in St. Paul.
“The purpose of reserving the sacrament that night is not first of all adoration,” he said. “The purpose is for distribution at the Good Friday liturgy. Only secondarily is praying before the Blessed Sacrament part of this custom.”
The number of hosts needed for Good Friday makes the transfer a practical consideration, but it’s also spiritual, said Johan van Parys, liturgy director at the Basilica of St. Mary in Minneapolis. “How much more present can we be, especially at the institution of the Eucharist?”
Because the Eucharist is reserved, it’s appropriate to spend time in vigil, Silhavy said. “We’re not pretending we’re in the garden with Jesus, but in a way we are,” he said. “It’s not that we’re time traveling back. We’re taking the event and we’re bringing it into the future.”
Father Weiss said, “It’s one more opportunity to reflect on and deepen your appreciation and participation in the liturgies of Christ’s passion and resurrection.”
Some parishes maintain the time after the Holy Thursday liturgy for silent prayer, while others periodically read Scripture or lead prayer to help the faithful enter into the mysteries.
At a tabernacle in a side chapel where the Blessed Sacrament is reposed, St. Thomas More offers a vigil concluding with night prayer at 10 p.m., Father Weiss said. Gospel readings every half hour punctuate the period of silent prayer.
The Basilica of St. Mary views the entire Triduum as one continual prayer time, said van Parys, adding that the church remains open all night after the Holy Thursday liturgy. The faithful can pray compline (night prayer) every half hour or pray silently.
Worshippers, including sometimes groups of youth, pray throughout the night, van Parys said. “For young people, praying in the night has an appeal.”
The Latino community at Incarnation-Sagrado Corazon de Jesus in Minneapolis reads Isaiah 53, which focuses on Christ’s Passion, during the procession to transfer the Blessed Sacrament to a tabernacle in the sacristy, said Brad Capouch of Sagrado Corazon de Jesus.
In the community’s tradition, when participants leave the church they receive a small loaf of bread commemorating the Last Supper, said Deacon Carl Valdez, who serves the Sagrado Corazon de Jesus community.
Visiting and praying with the reposed Blessed Sacrament at different parishes on Holy Thursday is another custom believed to have originated in the early church. Distance between parishes may be one reason the practice isn’t as common here as in some European countries, Father Weiss said.
Although there are practical reasons the Blessed Sacrament is transferred to a side altar on Holy Thursday, praying there offers a chance to enter more deeply into the Triduum. According to the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments, which handles most affairs relating to liturgical practices of the Latin Church, “It is an invitation to silent and prolonged adoration of the wondrous sacrament instituted by Jesus on this day.”
The Archdiocese of Anchorage, Alaska, offers a booklet of prayers and meditations for Holy Thursday online at http://www.archdioceseofanchorage.org/documents/HolyThur06Bklt.pdf.