As a priest, I am required to go on a retreat at least once a year, and I am grateful. They are wonderful opportunities to step back from our daily ministries, reflect upon our relationship with God and hopefully increase our devotion to the Lord. These are always spiritually enriching and much-needed experiences.
I know that many of you don't have the flexibility to go on a four- or five-day retreat. You are busy at home, work and elsewhere and find it difficult to get away from your responsibilities for any length of time, even for something as important as your relationship with God.
We are coming up on a time when the Church, through its liturgies, provides an opportunity for all of us to grow spiritually without going away. It's not called a retreat. It's called Holy Week.
Holy Week is our chance to walk with Jesus on the journey of his death and resurrection. You don't need to leave for a few days, but you do need to decide that you are going to give an hour-and-a-half to two hours to the Lord on four specific days.
The week begins with Palm Sunday, which is a great introduction to Holy Week because it tells us what we will experience over the next seven days – both the glory and the suffering of the Lord. We receive palms as we enter the church, and the beginning gospel reminds us of his entry into Jerusalem. We get a sense of the glory and the hallelujah that were his as he came triumphantly into Jerusalem welcomed by so many. Just a few days later, the people turned against him, and we hear that in the second Gospel reading when we read the Passion.
We then have a few days to reflect, pray and read about Jesus’ sacrifice before Holy Thursday, when we celebrate the Lord's Supper. In this beautiful liturgy, we remember Jesus' service to his apostles as he washed their feet and established the priesthood, and most importantly, the gift of the Eucharist that to this day allows Jesus to be present in us in such a special way. We then prepare for the crucifixion by removing or covering the crosses and processing with the consecrated hosts to an altar of repose, where we have the opportunity to reflect, pray and give thanks to Jesus for his love for us.
In more somber liturgies on Good Friday, we have a chance to get in touch in a much deeper way with Jesus' crucifixion and how he died for us. We can attend Stations of the Cross, one of the great Lenten rituals for many Catholics, and hopefully the evening services as we hear the Passion from the Gospel of John, venerate the cross and receive the Eucharist that was consecrated at the Mass of the Lord’s Supper.
Holy Week culminates in the Easter Vigil on Holy Saturday night, which is a beautiful celebration and the most important liturgy of the year. It begins around sunset, and amid the darkness there is much light and candlelight. It is a journey through our history as we hear the scriptures of salvation and celebrate Jesus’ resurrection and the gift of eternal life that awaits all of us. All we need to do is accept it, and we also celebrate in joy and gratitude with those who are doing that and entering the Church on this glorious night. Of course, many people go to church on Easter Sunday morning as the celebration continues.
If you attend these liturgies, I can promise you that you will be uplifted. Through these rituals that have taken place for centuries, you will be reminded of how much Jesus loves you.
You may have rituals in your home as well, as we did in my family when I was growing up. On Good Friday, we would spend time in church attending Stations of the Cross, and at home my mother always had us do some chores around the house. These chores were to remind us of how Jesus struggled, suffered and sacrificed for us.
I also remember well the joy of decorating Easter eggs on Holy Saturday. This was always great fun for me. I can still picture our family sitting around our kitchen table and doing this. I also remember the joy of looking for those eggs on Easter Sunday morning. They were hidden in some of the craziest places in our house, and the hunt was great fun for me and all of my brothers and sisters.
Whether in the church or the home, these rituals are reminders and celebrations of God's love for us, of how he gave his own son to die for us, and how God is the center of our lives.
My prayer for all of us this year is that we take the time and make the effort to nourish our spirits. I pray especially for our staff and volunteers at Catholic Charities, that they recognize the great work they do every day and remember that they need to refresh themselves as well. Whether they are Catholic, our brothers and sisters in another Christian denomination or a different religion, I hope Holy Week and its rich liturgies enhances their relationship with the Lord. If we are close to the Lord in our own lives, we can better give the Lord's presence to those we meet in our ministry each and every day.
Have a blessed Holy Week. If you can commit your time, your heart and your mind to these days, you will in essence have your own mini retreat. You will be different come Easter Sunday, when you will find the risen Lord much more alive in your heart and in your life.