A Priest’s Perspective on Holy Thursday

By Fr. Boniface Hicks, OSB

john bergsma, priesthood biblicalThe Eucharist, The Last Supper, Perfect Virtue, Lawrence Feingold

One of my favorite parts of Holy Thursday is the extended period of adoration after the Mass of the Lord’s Supper at the altar of repose.  That time is the commemoration of Jesus’s prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane where the Apostles join Him and He asks Peter, James and John to stay awake with Him one hour.  It is the original “holy hour” and so it is a beautifully rich time for us to enter into.  It is a time that is liturgical, because it is governed by the rubrics of the liturgy and it is an extension of the end of the Mass of the Lord’s Supper.  It is also a time that is devotional, with no particular structure to it and so each can enter into it in his own way.

I try to keep vigil until midnight every year and it is always a time of prayer that I look forward to and am grateful for afterwards.  It is also always a very hard time of prayer for me.  I do not think I have ever had any spiritual consolation during those hours of adoration.  I am generally fighting off sleep or repeatedly waking up.  I have tried different ways of entering into that time.  For many years I have chosen to do lectio divina with parts of the Farewell Discourse of Jesus (John 13-17).  I focus on that portion of Scripture because it is so rich and also because I imagine that those words of Jesus were lingering somewhere in the Apostles’ immediate memory as they went with Him into the Garden of Gethsemane.

Since becoming Catholic in 1997, I have spent those hours of Vigil primarily at Saint Vincent Basilica.  The Church is dim and there are people spread throughout.  Some monks remain in the shadows of the choir stalls.  Others come into chairs or kneel near the Blessed Sacrament.  Some people remain at a distance in the pews and pray.  The quiet shuffling of someone adjusting her position or the faint clacking of Rosary beads are the only sounds that accompany that time of prayer together.

Another feature of that night are groups that come through periodically.  As I struggle to pray or to focus at all, I am always moved by the small groups that come in, presumably making a seven-Church pilgrimage.  Young and old, men and women, they come near to the Lord and visit Him, saying a devotional prayer together or simply adoring Him in silence.

The closest I come to spiritual consolation during that time of adoration is a little movement of tenderness and gratitude for these generous signs of devotion from the faithful.  Seeing people keep vigil with Jesus, adore Him and thank Him, moves my heart.  There is still faith on earth!  And this is the kind of sentimentality that directs my thoughts and prayer during the whole vigil.  I see that Jesus is being consoled in His Agony.  And I am grateful that I can take part in that, however dry and difficult it might be for me.

The final portion of that time of adoration, that I always want to stay for, is the arrest of Jesus.  At Saint Vincent, those who are adoring pray Compline and then the priest comes in cope and humeral veil to remove the Blessed Sacrament and leave the Church so painfully empty.  Since the first time I kept the vigil, I have always let some indignation rise up in my heart at that priest, representing the soldiers, who was taking Jesus away from me.  I try to feel the pain of the Apostles who were experiencing this dramatic rupture in their relationship with Jesus and the terrible injustice that was taking place.  Then I am left with the empty tabernacle which generates all its own feelings as I have to walk away from it without genuflecting.

It was one more memorable stage in my journey the first time that I became that priest whom I had resented.  I was now the one who was representing the soldiers and taking Jesus away from the faithful who love Him so much that they stayed awake with Him in prayer.

All these moments make Holy Thursday very special for me every year.  They draw me into the extended time of prayer as I try to keep watch with Jesus in the garden and feel the poignant pain of his arrest and imprisonment.  Even through all the dryness and difficulty in prayer, I simply make an offering of myself and include the various intentions that I am carrying in my heart for all the people that need the grace of His Passion.  I choose to stay with Him and I never regret it.

Fr. Boniface Hicks, OSB, is a Benedictine monk of Saint Vincent Archabbey in Latrobe, Pennsylvania. He has provided spiritual direction for many men and women, including married couples, seminarians, consecrated religious and priests, even while completing his Ph.D. in computer science at Penn State University. He is the programming manager and an on-air contributor for We Are One Body Catholic Radio and has recorded thousands of radio programs on theology and the spiritual life. He has extensive experience as a retreat master for laity, consecrated religious, and priests. He is the Director for Spiritual Formation for Saint Vincent Seminary and Director of the Institute for Ministry Formation and has offered numerous courses on the spiritual life. Fr. Hicks is the author of Through the Heart of St. Joseph and co-author, along with Fr. Thomas Acklin, of the books Spiritual Direction and Personal Prayer.

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