The first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox is designated as Easter Sunday in the Roman Church. From Palm Sunday through the Easter Vigil was the height of ritual in the Catholic Church, especially when Latin was still the rubric. In more recent years, local parishes have had less than spectacular services.
The distribution of palms, an exotic plant for those of us living in northern climates, and part of the background of the holy land, was a ritual that continued at home with the fashioning of more or less elaborate crosses from the fronds. This was a tradition more ethnic than religious, although the line between Italian and Catholic was certainly never definitive. Sunday morning before dinner was arts and crafts and thirty or forty woven crosses would be fashioned for parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, teachers and friends and palm crosses were even brought to the gravesites of dead relatives. The afternoon was a time to visit grandparents and extended family.
The solemn mass of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday evening was highlighted by the intonation of the “Gloria in Excelsis Deo” during which bells were rung and sometimes the organ and other musical instruments accompanied the Gregorian chant. After the Gloria the bells and organ remained silent and all the chants were a cappella. This abrupt withdrawal of music was dramatic and left the congregation focused intensely on the rituals of the concelebrated mass, the washing of feet and the solemn procession to the candle-lit and flower laden tabernacle where the consecrated wafers of bread were to be kept for Friday’s service.
Good Friday was not at all spectacular but rather solemn and drab with the longest reading from the gospel of the betrayal and execution of Jesus. This was the only day of the year when there was technically no Mass, only communion using the pre-consecrated hosts. Instead of bells, the deadened sound of wooden clappers announced the beginning of communion.
On Holy Saturday evening, it was as if the church couldn’t wait for Easter. The services began with the several long rituals: the blessing of the new fire, the blessing of Easter candle, the blessing of the baptismal water, recitation of several litanies of saints, lighting of candles and much chanting without musical accompaniment. By contrast, the vigil mass officially began with the intonation of the “Gloria in Excelsis Deo” with a return of all the bells and organ music and trumpets and other instruments. This was always an impressive and inspiring moment.
Easter Sunday, especially after they allowed Saturday vigil to count for Sunday, was anti-climatic, a morning service for parishioners in new clothes.
I always considered myself more of a Catholic than merely a “Christian”. People who called themselves Christians had no real roots or traditions, only borrowed and watered-down rituals, borrowed from the Roman church, hardly recognizable and totally out of context. Catholics, on the other hand had almost two thousand years of tradition and scholarship behind them. Every tradition, every ritual, every prayer, and every sacrament had an explanation, a history, a meaning and logic. The accoutrements were elegant as well: beeswax candles, gold chalices, colorful vestments, incense burners, Gregorian Chant, symmetrical processions, impeccable choreography. It was an elegant religion. No wonder so many gay boys were lured to the priesthood. What other profession allowed one to remain unmarried without question and provided a lifetime of job security? All male seminaries and the opportunity to hang around like-minded individuals was a bonus.
Everyone expected me to become a priest. There was an unspoken formula for making that determination that went something like this: (Italian)Boy + (Sensitive) + (Good Student) – (Talk About Girlfriends) – (Sports) = Priest. The irony was that sex was not a part of this equation. The absence of heterosexual interest did not necessarily indicate disgrace. The saving grace of sissy boys was the possibility of joining the asexual priesthood. These priests would carry on the traditions, provide the rest of the community with a communication network to God and the Saints, and be held in high esteem because they were chosen.