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History of Holy Week

Ten Things You Probably Didn’t Know About the History of Holy Week

Holy Week is the richest span of liturgical tradition in the Catholic Church. While we remember the suffering of Christ, let's take a look at some of the history that makes the time leading up to Holy Week such a rich part of our tradition.

Origins and Early Traditions of Holy Week

  1. The earliest mentions of Holy Week are from St. Denis, bishop of Alexandria in the third century.
  2. During the fourth century St. John Chrysostom called it “great week” : “Not that it has more days in it than other weeks, or that its days are made up of more hours than other days; but we call it great, because of the great mysteries which are then celebrated.”
  3. In the early centuries of the Church, various civil laws forbade work during part or all of Lent.
  4. St. Leo mentioned in a sermon that the Roman emperors had a long-standing practice of releasing prisoners during Holy Week as a secular mirror of the spiritual forgiveness granted to penitents at Easter.
  5. Emperor Justinian, while maintaining the laws forbidding the courts to be open during Holy Week and the week after, made an exception that anyone who wanted to free a slave during this time wouldn't violate any laws by doing so.

Passion Sunday

6. Before the reforms of Vatican II, the Sunday preceding Palm Sunday was called Passion Sunday.

7. At this liturgy, the “Glory be to the Father, etc…” was dropped until the Easter Vigil.

8. Also at this liturgy the statues were all veiled. This currently is optional but still permitted to begin on the fifth Sunday of Lent.

Feast of the Seven Dolours

9. Until the liturgical changes following Vatican II, the Friday following Passion Sunday was dedicated to the Seven Sorrows of Mary.

10. The archbishop of Cologne ordered the feast kept in 1423 and Pope Benedict XIII made the practice universal in 1727.

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