Holy Week Tradition: Visiting Seven Churches

By Father Joseph Marcello

One of the cherished customs of Holy Week, which many people cite as one of the highlights of their whole year, is the custom of visiting Christ in the Blessed Sacrament at seven churches on the night of Holy Thursday. In recent years, many people have discovered or rediscovered this ancient and beautiful custom, one which speaks deeply to the heart on a most holy night which is filled with graces and blessings.

Every year on Holy Thursday, at the conclusion of the evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper, the Mass does not end as usual; instead, the celebrant, servers, and the assembled faithful process with the Blessed Sacrament from the altar to a beautifully decorated repository usually located outside the church’s sanctuary—either at a side shrine, in the lower church, or elsewhere.

This movement from the altar to the repository is an entering into the moment at which Jesus and the Apostles left the Upper Room, crossed the Kidron Valley, and made their way into the Garden of Gethsemane, where Christ underwent his agony of anguished prayer.

During his time in the Garden of Gethsemane, an additional suffering for Christ was that he found his disciples asleep during his hour of need. “He said to Peter, ‘So you could not keep watch with me for one hour? Watch and pray that you may not undergo the test. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak’” (Mt 26:40-41).

Through the centuries, generations of Catholics, moved by this haunting and poignant question of Christ, have responded to him from their own time and place, accompanying him in his agony in the Garden by maintaining a vigil of prayer and presence with him at the repository, which represents the Garden of Gethsemane, on Holy Thursday night. There they are present before the same Christ, now in the Eucharist, who suffered in the Garden on Holy Thursday.

Some people prefer to remain in prayer at one repository, perhaps in the same church where they attended the Mass of the Lord’s Supper. Others visit the Blessed Sacrament at and pray in up to seven churches. The practice of visiting seven churches on Holy Thursday seems to trace its origins to St. Philip Neri (1515- 1595) who, to foster the faith and devotion of the people of Rome, organized pilgrimages to visit Christ in the Eucharist in churches around the City on Holy Thursday.

As they walked from church to church, the group would sing and pray while fasting, uniting themselves with Christ in his agony. St. Philip Neri’s pilgrimage itinerary included the four major basilicas of Rome: St. Peter’s, St. John Lateran, St. Mary Major, and St. Paul Outside the Walls, as well as three of its minor basilicas: St. Lawrence Outside the Walls, Holy Cross in Jerusalem, and St. Sebastian Outside the Walls.

In St. Philip’s time, and until the Holy Week reforms of Pope Pius XII in 1955, the Holy Thursday Mass of the Lord’s Supper was celebrated in the morning, so this pilgrimage extended through the remainder of the day.

In our own time, the Mass of the Lord’s Supper is fittingly celebrated in the evening, and adoration at the repositories is maintained for a prolonged period after Mass, with many parishes extending it until midnight.

College student John Esteves observes: “The tradition of visiting the seven churches is spiritually moving as you stay awake with Christ before his Passion; something even many of the Apostles were not able to do.”

Parishioner Lisa Palmieri echoes this: “I have gone to seven churches on Holy Thursday for several years now. By intentionally taking time to visit Christ, and meditate on His own night in the garden, I have been able to enter into the holiest time of the year in a way I never would have thought possible. Over the course of my life, I have sincerely found that every time I have put more effort into my faith, the more I have gotten out of it. Visiting seven churches—or as many as I can get to—on Holy Thursday has been no exception.

High school student Siena Tristine describes her experience: “I like being a part of the Eucharistic Procession on Holy Thursday since I feel more a part of the Mass and it helps me feel closer to God. I feel like I’m with Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, praying with him there like he did the day before he died for us.”

Parishioner Carol Mahar observes: “The first time I realized that the tabernacle in every Catholic church in the world was empty from the afternoon of Holy Thursday until the Easter Vigil on Saturday night, I cried. I think I took it for granted that Jesus was always present there. So I allowed the weight of that to sink in: No Lord in the tabernacle. And how full of despair life would be without Jesus. So on Holy Thursday night I try to spend as much time as possible sitting with Jesus in the Garden. Some years I make the seven churches pilgrimage and it’s great to see the beauty of the different Altars and pass fellow pilgrims along the way, while other years I like to stay put in my home parish and just watch and pray. Either way, I try to spend as much time as I can with him before they take away the Lord— and Good Friday is upon us.”

Father Marcello is pastor of St. Catherine of Siena Parish in Trumbull.