Friday, May 7, 2010


For the non-Catholic there are many events surrounding Easter that seem mysterious in the sense of being unfathomable at first. One of these is the practice of visiting seven churches during the evening of holy Thursday (Maundy Thursday). Why 7 churches? What are you to do while in the church? In P√°tzcuaro it is very easy to visit 7 churches in a reasonable time as you can find them within about a 5 minute walk of each other. As a result, come 7 PM, the whole town appears to be on the move giving a friendly neighborhood atmosphere. The streets are a gentle flow of people going in all directions, often making vehicle traffic difficult. There are one or two food stalls outside each church but the focus appears to be on family gatherings, talking as they approach the next church. So many people are engaged that there are lines at each church and you are usually funneled in and out quite quickly. In many, the majority of the pews have been removed to give room to move and stand for a few minutes, but some people do manage to get to the remaining pews and appear to sit for awhile. We managed to enter two churches before deciding the lines too long. On returning from diner around 10:00 PM there were still substantial lines, so I have no idea when the flow eased. OK, what is this about?

The term Maundy appears to come from the Latin word at the base of the Spanish term “mandar”, meaning to command or order. Now we need to remember that Thursday was the day of the Last Supper and at this event Jesus is thought to have said: “Love one another, as I have loved you”. So the whole evening is a commemoration of the Last Supper. Although practice may vary from place to place, earlier in the day there may have been a Last Supper mass where the sacraments (the bread and wine) were used. After that mass the sacraments are removed and placed in the “alter of repose”, which may well be just a cabinet. (At this mass there may also be a blessing of the oil which will be used in religious events throughout the year and as many priests as possible are encouraged to attend to symbolize the disciples of Jesus). There will not be another mass until the day of resurrection.

So when one visits the 7 churches you are thought to be doing a number of things. Commemorating the Last Supper, but perhaps more importantly spending time with the “alter of repose” which I think now stands for Jesus. Perhaps we are declaring that we are disciples of Jesus. So we are sharing time with each other and also with Jesus prior to the dreadful events of the Friday to come. In previous centuries, and even today, these visits were also a way to obtain an “Indulgence”, which is a payment for the debt one owes to God. For this to count one must spend one hour in devotion to God and take communion earlier in the day or within the next week. This might help explain why so many participate in the activities of Holy Thursday.

So why 7 churches? This is unclear to me but in the book of revelations there are 7 churches mentioned which are now located in Turkey. These churches date from the first century and were a significant part of Christian history. Each of these carries a distinctive personality characteristics, also thought to be characteristics of people. For example, there is the church that falls asleep, the church that is neither hot nor cold, the church of brotherly love and so on. There are now 7 churches in Rome, identified by Papal order, to be the 7 that followers should visit. So in every city and town the 7 churches you visit must stand for those churches of the pilgrim route. If well informed each church gives you a moment to reflect on the features of your own personality.

As a non-Catholic I find it very hard to understand the conceptual language of Catholicism so it is very possible I have this story very wrong.

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