Basilica Tenebrae service illuminates Good Friday darkness

| Julie Pfitzinger For The Catholic Spirit | April 13, 2011 | 0 Comments

Photo courtesy Basilica of St. Mary

The Good Friday Tenebrae service at the Basilica of St. Mary never ceases to be a moving experience for Johan van Parys, who has directed the devotion for the past 16 years.

During one section of the hour-long service, a large wooden cross is passed across the crowd, from hand to hand, modeled after the tradition in many European towns when Catholics would carry the cross through the streets on Good Friday.

“I’m always standing quite close to the cross as it is being passed and to see the emotions on people’s faces as they reach for the cross or to see children standing on pews to take their turn, it is quite something,” said van Parys, liturgy and sacred arts director at the basilica.

According to van Parys, the origins of Tenebrae — which is Latin for “shadows or darkness” — hail from the pre-Vatican II era when members of monastic communities would begin a series of 14 readings and songs as Holy Thursday ended at midnight and Good Friday began. At the beginning of the service, 15 candles were lit and, one by one, the monks extinguished the candles until one sole light re­main­ed.

“The practical theory behind this tradition is that as they were praying throughout the night, it would begin to become daylight so candlelight was no longer needed,” van Parys explained. “Theologically, it was thought that with each reading, the death of Jesus was drawing ­closer.”

A light in the darkness

In the early tradition, the remaining candle was hidden behind the altar, but at the Basilica, the candle is carried out to the narthex while the rest of the church remains dark.

The Tenebrae service also features a striking combination of sound and silence. There are songs and readings, but there is also the tradition of “strepitus,” meaning “to make a loud noise” in Latin, where people bang on the pews for a few moments in a symbolic show of grief over the death of Jesus.

And in silence, brilliant red rose petals, in simulation of the blood of Christ, are dropped from the dome of the Basilica; it is so quiet, said van Parys, that one can hear the petals hitting the ground.

In 2002, the Basilica added a particularly poignant segment to the Tenebrae devotional service as a result of the collaborative nature of the relationship between the church and Temple Israel in Minneapolis in areas of interfaith initiatives and social justice.

Persecution to partnership

“Prior to the Second Vatican Coun­cil, Good Friday was seen as a day when Catholics would traditionally persecute the Jewish people, blaming them for the death of Christ. Jews would literally hide from Catholics on that day,” said van Parys. “We thought it would be a jarring yet enlightening experience to invite a rabbi to speak to our congregation during Tenebrae.”

For the second year, it will be Rabbi Sim Glaser from Temple Israel speaking for a few minutes during the service.

“It is quite a statement that a rabbi would be invited to speak at a Cath­o­lic Church on Good Friday,” he said.

Rabbi Glaser agreed with van Parys about the emotional nature of the Tenebrae service, in light of not only history but also regarding the nature of the experience. “There is so much mediocrity in many religious celebrations. This service is very tactile, so visual and beautiful. It is high art and high drama,” Rabbi Glaser said. “I have half-jokingly said to people that if I were going to be a Catholic, I wouldn’t miss the Tenebrae service for the world.”

The fact that Tenebrae is a devotional service allows for the sentiments and emotions of those in attendance to come to the forefront, said van Parys.

“They can be present to the suffering and death of Jesus and identify with that pain in their own lives,” he said. “There is a sense of consolation, I think, where people can find strength in that suffering.”

Tenebrae service

» What: Tenebrae is a  devotional service with songs and readings to help worshippers recall and identify with the suffering and death of Jesus.
» When: 7 p.m. Good Friday, April 22
» Where: Basilica of St. Mary, 88 N. 17th St., Minneapolis

For more information on this and other Holy Week services at the Basilica, visit

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Category: Holy Week/Easter