A Catholic's Guide to Holy Week

Part of the beauty of the Catholic Church comes from the richness and significance of our traditions, especially in the days leading up to Easter.

 Min read
April 13, 2022

Part of the beauty of the Catholic Church comes from the richness and significance of our traditions, especially in the days leading up to Easter. 

During Holy Week, the Church helps the faithful enter into the very heart of our faith by inviting us to more fully and tangibly experience the events of Christ’s Passion, Death, and Resurrection through unique prayers, special liturgies, and ancient customs.

Whether you’re a Cradle Catholic or just recently begun attending mass, this guide will walk you through the events of Holy Week. 

Palm Sunday

Holy Week begins with Palm Sunday in which we recall Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem before his death. So at mass, palm branches are blessed and are carried in procession. You might choose to fashion these palms into the shape of a cross and bring them home as a reminder of your faith in Christ, the Messiah, the Savior of all. 

This day is also called “Passion Sunday” because during this mass, instead of a traditional Gospel reading, the whole congregation participates in a “reenactment” of the Passion Narrative. 

You may also notice the sacred images in your Church (like the Crucifix, saint statues, etc.) have either been removed or covered in a purple cloth. Monsignor Elliott in Celebrations of the Liturgical Year remarks, "The custom of veiling crosses and images ... has much to commend it in terms of religious psychology, because it helps us to concentrate on the great essentials of Christ's work of Redemption." ¹

Ways to Celebrate:

-Cover the sacred images in your home with purple cloth

-Process around your home (or your church) with the palms

-Wear red in remembrance of the Lord’s Passion

Chrism Mass

During Holy Week, bishops bless sacred oils in the cathedral at a special liturgy called the Chrism Mass. Three types of oils are blessed during this mass and are afterwards distributed to the parishes for sacramental celebrations throughout the year.

The oil of chrism is used during baptisms, confirmation, ordination and the consecration of altars. The oil of the sick is used to anoint people during the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick. And of course, the oil of catechumens is used at the Easter Vigil to welcome the newest members of the body of Christ. 

Traditionally this mass took place on Thursday morning during Holy Week but now many dioceses opt to off the mass on an evening earlier in the week to accommodate more attendees. Check with your diocesan cathedral to determine the schedule for this year’s mass. 

Spy Wednesday

The Wednesday of Holy Week is often referred to as “Spy Wednesday” because on this day, Judas betrayed Jesus to the Sanhedrin for thirty pieces of silver. Matthew’s Gospel says of Judas: “And from that moment he sought an opportunity to betray him.” 

Traditionally many churches offer a Tenebrae service on this day, though similar to the Chrism Mass it may be moved for the convenience of the laity. Tenebrae combines the chanted prayers of Matins and Lauds from the Divine Office, as well as a centuries-old mourning ritual.

During this liturgy, fifteen candles are placed on the altar and slowly extinguished until the church is in complete darkness. Then, there is a loud clash symbolizing Jesus’ death and the earthquake that followed the Crucifixion.

Ways to Celebrate:

-Attend a Tenebrae Service (or perform one at home)

Holy Thursday

Holy Thursday kicks off the Triduum, or the three most sacred days of the Liturgical calendar, with the Mass of the Lord’s Supper. On this day, we remember Christ instituting the Eucharist during the Last Supper with His disciples. We also remember His agony in Gethsemane and the betrayal of Judas. 

The priest, in imitation of Christ at the Passover, washes the feet of twelve parishioners. At the conclusion of the Mass, instead of the traditional recessional, the Eucharist is carried in solemn procession to the Altar of Repose, where it will remain 'entombed' until the communion service on Good Friday². You are invited to continue Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament here, just as the disciples were invited to stay up with the Lord during His agony.

Ways to Celebrate:

-Receive the Eucharist at Holy Thursday Mass

-Chant or listen to the Pange Lingua Gloriosi

-Spend an hour (or more) in front of the Blessed Sacrament

-Complete the traditional Seven Church Pilgrimage

Good Friday

On Good Friday, we remember Christ’s Passion and Death on the Cross. It’s a solemn day on which the Church tells us fast and to abstain from meat.

No sacraments are celebrated on this day; however, many parishes offer a communion service for the faithful to receive the Eucharist consecrated in the night before as well as an opportunity to venerate the cross. 

Ways to Celebrate:

-Attend the Good Friday service at your parish

-Pray the Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary

-Pray a Divine Mercy Chaplet at 3pm (Good Friday also begins the Divine Mercy Novena!)

-Pray the Stations of the Cross

Holy Saturday

On Holy Saturday, “...the Church is, as it were, at the Lord's tomb, meditating on his passion and death, and on his descent into hell, and awaiting his resurrection with prayer and fasting.³”  It is a day of quiet meditation. No morning or daytime masses take place and the faithful spend the day looking in anticipation toward the Mother of All Masses–the Easter Vigil. 

Ways to Celebrate:

-Observe silence

-Fast from social media or other distractions

-Pray Morning Prayer and the Office of Readings

-Meditate on a image of the Sorrowful Virgin Mary

-Prepare your home to avoid unnecessary work on Easter Sunday

Easter Vigil 

The entire liturgical year culminates in the Easter Vigil. Through his Death, Christ frees us from our bondage to sin; through His Resurrection, He brings us the promise of new and eternal life. 

This mass consists of four unique parts that differ slightly from the formula of an ordinary mass. 

The first part is called “The Service of Light.” For the Vigil, the Church begins in darkness and the priest begins outside by a large fire. From this fire, the Paschal candle is lit and processed into the Church. Slowly, the light is passed to each member of the congregation by the lighting of their individual candles. 

The second part is of course, the Liturgy of the Word but instead of the standard amount of readings your Mass may have up to nine readings from Scripture. The Gloria is sung just before reading the Epistle, and just before the Gospel, the Alleluia is sung for the first time in forty days. 

The third part is the Liturgy of Baptism. If your parish has any new members coming into the Church this is the point of the mass where the sacraments of initiation occur. You will also renew your baptismal promises and chant the Litany of Saints before finally reaching the Liturgy of the Eucharist. 

Ways to Celebrate:

-If possible, attend the Easter Vigil at your parish. 

-If you are unable to attend, consider doing your own “Vigil” at home. Light a candle, read from the Scriptures, and sing the Alleluia. 

-Host a Resurrection Party after mass to celebrate Christ’s victory over death (and the newly baptized Catholics)

Easter Sunday

Easter is the high feast of the liturgical year; it is at the very heart of our faith as Catholic Christians. Easter Sunday kicks off the fifty-day season of Easter as well as the Easter Octave, 8 days of solemnities to keep the party going. 

Ways to Celebrate:

-Go to Mass, if you didn’t go to the vigil. 


-Don’t forget Easter Sunday is just the beginning of the celebration. Click here for suggestions on how to drink fully of the joy of the Resurrection.

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