As the Church begins its entry into the Paschal Mystery, innumerable Churches of Rome will be brightened this evening with Altars of Repose, inviting pilgrims to visit Christ in the Blessed Sacrament.
Although the tradition of visiting Altars of Repose on after Holy Thursday Mass is practiced throughout the world, the sheer number of churches in Rome makes the city come alive with pilgrims, each going from one church to the next to pray before the Eucharist, and see how the different altars have been decorated.
John and Ashley Noronha, experienced tour guides of Rome and known for having hosted the EWTN series, “Vatican Report’s Art & Faith,” take part in the tradition of visiting the various Altars of Repose on Holy Thursday every year. Ashley, who also works as Relevant Radio Network’s Rome correspondent, spoke with ZENIT about the significance of this tradition, especially as it is practiced in the Eternal City. “Just after we have celebrated the institution o f the Eucharist on Holy Thursday,” she said, “it is hard to immediately say goodbye to Christ in the Eucharist, as He is laid in repose on a side altar. The church feels empty as the light at the tabernacle is extinguished and the tabernacle door quietly opened. The feeling of desolation stirs my imagination to what the apostles and disciples might have felt as they mourned the loss of Christ. What anguish. But unlike them, we know the end of the story.”
The tradition, she explained, is reminiscent of those hours after the Last Supper when “Christ went to the Garden of Gethsemane to pray with the apostles.”
“Our walk from church to church gives us the gift of accompanying Him to the garden. In each church, the altar of repose is decorated with beautiful, fragrant Spring flowers and surrounded by flickering candle light, that breaks the darkness. Praying at these altars brings us right to the garden to be with Him.”
Ashley went on to speak about how in Rome, with its many churches, there is a sense of fellowship that comes from visiting these Altars of Repose together. “Just like the early Christians, on Holy Thursday we walk church to church following the ancient tradition to visit at least seven churches and adore Christ, reposed on a side altar. Each year we gather a group of friends of all ages, so we can walk together and enjoy the fellowship that comes from praying together and adoring the Lord in friendship. One of the blessings of being in Rome – a city with more than 900 churches – is that we can actually go by foot to visit so many churches in such a close proximity.”
John Noronha, a professor of theology and art and architecture, spoke with ZENIT about how special it is to “participate in this ancient tradition, knowing that as we walk together from one historic church to another, we are privileged to walk the same streets as many of the great saints like Peter, Paul Jerome, Gregory the Great, Philip Neri, the English Martyrs, Charles Borromeo and so many more.”
He continued by noting how “it is a reminder of the practice of early Christian communities in Jerusalem and Rome, during periods of persecution, visiting each other as a means of encouragement and a sign of solidarity. Just like they did, tonight we pray and keep vigil and make present the spirit of Gethsemane on Holy Thursday. We also enjoy fellowship with people who converge on Rome from all over the world, as we together visit one beautiful church after another.”
A native of India who lived in the US for a number of years, John said that, for him, visiting the different churches on Holy Thursday night bring back “nostalgic memories of following this same tradition while growing up in India and at the historic churches in Philadelphia. It really brings home the Catholicity of the Church, to think of Catholics the world over doing the same and being united with each other in Christ.”