How Do Catholics Celebrate Good Friday?

by Benna Crawford

Good Friday, the day Jesus Christ was crucified on Calvary, is the most solemn day of the year in the Catholic Church. The Passion of Christ as he was arrested, condemned, beaten and forced to carry his own cross up the steep hill is called the Stations of the Cross, the Via Crucis or the Via Dolorosa. On this occasion each year, the Church is officially in mourning, and subdued services recall the sacrifice Christ made to redeem the souls of all mankind.

Traditional Prayers and Processions

Good Friday is a day of fasting and reflection for much of the Catholic world. No Mass is celebrated on Good Friday but a traditional service includes a three-part church ceremony to venerate the crucifix and a prayerful walk around the Stations of the Cross. The Stations are visual representations of Christ's journey carrying a heavy wooden cross to the Hill of Golgotha, or Calvary, where he was crucified. During the journey, gospel accounts say he encountered his mother, was lashed repeatedly, stumbled and fell several times, called out to his father in heaven, and forgave his tormentors before he was nailed to the cross, suffered and died. Each of these instances is a stop on the Way of the Cross. From noon to 3 p.m., the time frame believed to correspond to the historic event, Catholics move slowly around the stations, saying the rosary or silent personal prayers.

Church Liturgy

Just before 3 p.m., the traditional hour of Christ's death, a priest may lead a formal procession around the Stations of the Cross inside the church, singing the hymn "Stabat Mater" -- the lament of Christ's mother, Mary -- along with the congregation. After 3 p.m., priests conduct a prayer service, the day's only formal liturgy. No instruments are played, no bells rung and the altar is bare; the door of the sacred tabernacle that holds consecrated hosts hangs open. Priests read the Passion of St. John from the Gospel and offer prayers for the Church and the entire world. The Veneration of the Crucifix, a simple ceremony that honors a cross, covered or uncovered, precedes distribution of Communion hosts. These are white disks of unleavened bread, consecrated in a Mass the day before, believed to be the body and blood of Christ, and symbolically consumed.

Vatican Good Friday

Vatican City in Rome, the seat of the Catholic Church, observes the time leading up to Good Friday and Easter as the holiest time of the year. The statues and crucifixes in Saint Peter's Basilica are covered in purple or black cloth and the Pope presides over a liturgical service early in the evening. There is no Mass but a traditional procession from the Colosseum, through the streets of Rome up to the Palatine Hill, commemorates the Via Crucis, the Way of the Cross. Pilgrims carry a real wooden cross for stages of the journey, pausing for call and response prayers at the 14 stations depicting the events on the road to crucifixion. The Pope concludes the re-enactment with a speech or brief homily and gives a formal papal blessing to the assembled crowd.

Local Customs

Good Friday is observed in local communities with colorful processions through the streets, re-enactments of the Passion of Christ and other customs. In Cincinnati, Ohio, a Catholic church built by the city's first archbishop in gratitude for his delivery from a storm at sea, has hosted "Praying the Steps" for more than a century. The tradition began as parishioners gathered each Good Friday to climb the steep hill up to the church as it was under construction. Gradually, wooden steps were added and then permanent concrete steps. Thousands of people from all over the world assemble as early as midnight to begin climbing the long staircase to the church, meditating on Christ's journey to his crucifixion, silently reading the Gospel of Luke that chronicles the sad events of Good Friday, or repeating a favorite invocation on each step. At the top, some sit in the church and pray, some walk around the interior of the church saying the Stations of the Cross and all are welcome to attend late-day liturgy of the Passion and Veneration of the Cross services.

Orthodox Observance

The Eastern Orthodox Churches observe Good Friday as Holy Friday with services and ceremonies similar to those of the Roman Catholic Church. Processions reliving the passion of Christ carrying the cross are annual traditions in many communities. Fasting, prayer, readings from the gospels, abstinence from household chores and other daily activities are some ways people choose to remember the sacrifice of Christ and rededicate themselves to their faith. A lengthy, solemn church service includes readings from the twelve gospels that chronicle Christ's passion and death. As in the Roman Catholic Church, Mass and the consecration of the hosts are not celebrated because the faithful are in mourning, acknowledging the interruption in Christ's earthly ministry occasioned by his crucifixion.

About the Author

Benna Crawford has been a journalist and New York-based writer since 1997. Her work has appeared in USA Today, the San Francisco Chronicle, The New York Times, and in professional journals and trade publications. Crawford has a degree in theater, is a certified Prana Yoga instructor, and writes about fitness, performing and decorative arts, culture, sports, business and education .

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