Ah, Holy Week. The most centered, holiest week of the year.
Unless you work or volunteer for a Catholic parish.
For the last 10+ years, Holy Week has been, well, a little less than holy for me, largely due to my parish responsibilities. Don’t get me wrong – I loved working for my parish, but for parish workers and volunteers, Holy Week is just a marathon of Masses and services that never seem to end and require lots of planning, coordination, and working with others, all for very little thanks and no breaks.
Apparently Jesus wasn't thinking of the liturgical consequences of having all of the major events of His public ministry happen in one week.
Personally, I’ve been behind the scenes for just about every part of Holy Week over the last decade: organizing the youth group Passion Play (and trying not to have nightmares about the kids dropping “Jesus”); handling the technical end of a concert Stations of the Cross; setting up and decorating the church for processions and simultaneously-occurring Masses in the main church, chapel, and social hall; coordinating all liturgical ministers (and priests) for all of the Masses we do once a year and can never remember the order of; and so on. So for the last few years, my favorite part of Holy Week has been when it was over.
So, if you work or volunteer for a parish, how can you make this Holy Week a holy experience, not just for the parishioners, but also for yourself?
First, take time to pray - and probably not at the parish. Whether it's participating in Lectio Divina, spending a few moments in the Adoration Chapel before heading to work, or even praying in the car as you drive to the store for lighter fluid for the Easter Vigil fire, taking time for personal prayer outside of your parish responsibilities will allow you to connect with the Lord one-on-one this week. If you feel like there's no time to pray this week, take some advice from my friend Amy over at Prayer Wine Chocolate.
Even better, consider praying as a staff or group. It's always blown my mind how few churches actually start out their days with a staff prayer. It’s a great way to center everyone, and remember the common goal that you’re all working towards. If you don’t work for the parish, take the initiative to ask the priest for a quick moment of prayer with the other volunteers before you begin your task or Mass, or lead one yourself. Here's one for each day of Holy Week.
Second, consider an extra sacrifice for Holy Week. I know what you're thinking - giving all of this time to the church isn't a sacrifice enough? No, and here's why: It's easy to forget why we are putting in all of this effort for Holy Week - to give glory to God and to hopefully inspire a few "Easter Catholics" to come back to Mass even after the season. In the midst of the chaos of planning and execution however (especially when it goes unappreciated), it is so easy to lose sight of the real reason for our work. So, during the week, when you desire whatever you're giving up (perhaps sweets or meat), you can remember all of those for whom you are doing this work, and the real reason for your labors. Here are some unique ideas for Holy Week tweaks from my friend Sara of To Jesus, Sincerely.
Third, take a peek at the readings for the liturgy before attending Mass. Chances are that you'll be distracted during the Holy Week liturgies, so reading the readings beforehand will allow them to resonate with you even if you end up getting pulled in other directions (plus it's great practice for when you get "drafted" last minute to take one of the Good Friday spots).
Fourth, pray a small prayer when someone gets on your nerves (trust me, they'll be plenty of opportunities!). Just because you are working at a parish doesn't mean that everyone you interact with will be pleasant. Try to keep in mind (I know it's hard) that the priests are highly stressed about remembering all the parts of these difficult liturgies, the parish workers and volunteers have been laboring for days and just want to sleep, and the parishioners oftentimes are dealing with stressful family situations around the holidays. So when someone lashes out at you for there not being room in the main church for Mass or for the parking lot being too crowded, try to say a quick Hail Mary for their intentions instead of hiding in the sacristy plotting their demise. If Jesus could forgive those killing Him, then I suppose I can forgive the grumpy old lady who couldn't hear the homily. Here's a quick prayer to try.
Finally, try to keep your expectations for yourself low. Holy Thursday has been my favorite day of the year since I was little, but I found that once I started altar serving and then later coordinating the Mass of the Lord's Supper, it lost its specialness. Each year, I would be full of anticipation about how beautiful the Mass would be, and then I would end up missing most of it because of my responsibilities. There were a few years I didn't even get to receive because I had to be over at the repository across the street finalizing the procession. Recognize that Jesus knows your heart, so relish the moments you do get to be engaged in the liturgy and let everything else go.
If you want more, keep reading below for a day by day guide to get through Holy Week as a parish worker or volunteer!
Palm Sunday is often the prime day for live Stations, in addition to the long liturgy. Do your best to pace yourself today. You're going to feel the rush of energy that comes with the beginning of Holy Week, but you're going to have to sustain that for an entire week. Say the Rosary with your family as a quiet meditation before bed, with the intention of blessing the fruits of your labors this coming week.
I used to always joke that I wanted to go to confessions about 15 minutes before the Easter Vigil, because any time before that, and I'd still have to go again before Mass. However, the great thing about the Sacrament of Reconciliation is that it also gives you the strength to keep from sinning, and going earlier in the week might help as you deal with the variety of different personalities you're going to face. This year, Reconciliation Monday is during Holy Week, and I think that's for a reason. Consider availing yourself of the Sacrament of Reconciliation today to help you make it through the rest of the week.
Tuesday is probably the "quietest" day of Holy Week for parish workers and volunteers. Take some time for your own spirituality today by attending daily Mass and mentally preparing yourself for the week ahead. Don't forget to catch up on your sleep and maybe even take care of the other major tasks of the week like meal planning, laundry, and grocery shopping, so that it's out of the way for the long weekend.
This is the day you’re “finalizing” everything as best you can and having rehearsals for all of the liturgical ministers, so the best way to stay holy today is to do the best you can in your labors for the Lord. Try praying this prayer to St. Joseph the Worker for inspiration. If you have to deal with people who perhaps aren’t as pleasant as they could be, unite yourself to Jesus as He was mocked and persecuted by those who watched Him die and offer up a smile in response.
For me, Holy Thursday was always just as chaotic as the Easter Vigil. With a Eucharistic procession, washing of the feet, and semi-constant incense refills, it was always a circus that night.
There is a tradition to visit with Jesus at multiple churches after attending the Holy Thursday Mass. If you can, visit a few neighboring churches’ repositories after the Holy Thursday Mass to take some time for personal prayer. Don't spend a lot of time at your own parish - you'll just end up critiquing where you placed that one flower pot or starting a to do list of things to take care of tomorrow. (Totally hypothetical.) Instead, carve out the time for yourself to spend the hour watching with Jesus, enjoying the fruit of other parishes' labors and taking time to harvest your own spirituality for a few moments.
Ah, Good Friday. It’s always fun combining already high tensions for Holy Week with fasting – it’s sure to make everyone pleasant. (Insert eye roll here.)
Try to put everything away between the hours of noon-3. Even if you are going to be serving at the service or need to finalize last minute details for Stations, make an effort to spend some time in contemplation from noon-3. Also, consider attending Stations of the Cross or Tenebrae at another parish after the Good Friday service (if you aren’t running them at your own!) to help you connect with the day.
Easter Vigil (Saturday):
If you are participating in the Easter Vigil - may God be with you.
Seriously, the Easter Vigil is stressful and hectic. Everyone's tensions are high because that liturgy is only celebrated once a year, and there are a lot of moving parts. The Easter Vigil is a great time to reflect on John, the beloved disciple. The Gospel tells us that he went along quietly as Jesus was being crucified, the only disciple to stick around. As a result, Jesus entrusted him with the greatest of gifts, the protection of Mary. Try uniting yourself to John by doing little things for those around you today - saying a prayer with the nervous RCIA catechumens, having a bottle of water ready for the parish priests or choir members, and simply standing by to help with last minute details.
You made it! Congratulations and Happy Easter!
Even if you already attended the Easter Vigil, go to Mass with your family, and sneak in at the last minute so you won't be "drafted" to help out (or express to your priest beforehand your need to just attend the liturgy). It's hard to really attend Mass if you're involved in a ministry of some sort, and of all the Masses to really be attentive to, it's definitely Easter! Fair warning: It will be the absolute LAST thing you feel like doing, but trust me - it'll be worth it, and you'll feel so much more in the Easter mood afterwards.
Above all, as a parish worker or volunteer during Holy Week, the most important thing to remember is why we are doing all of this. For many folks, this is the one time of year that they actually invest in their faith. As a result, we may have to sacrifice a bit of our own spiritual connectedness to have the chance to bring someone fully back into the faith. If nothing else, in the midst of the craziness, try to take a moment to thank God for your own faith and that you have the opportunity sacrifice a bit of your own spiritual fulfillment to feed others'.
Prayers for a blessed and holy Holy Week!