John Gayford examines the Passion and Death of the Lord in Catholic history


How does the Church mourn the Crucified in Holy Week on Good Friday? We can enact the anniversary of our Blessed Lord’s death on the Cross. The liturgy of the day brings us together to ponder his suffering and death. It is the hour of deep darkness when the enemies of Jesus seem to conquer. This can also be called by Orthodox Churches the Great Friday or the Long Friday. In Latin it is Feria VI in Passione Domini and has been celebrated with a day of fasting and abstinence from early Christian times.

The earliest account of what happened in Jerusalem on Good Friday was given by Egeria, a Western European woman who made pilgrimages to the Holy Land between 381 and 386 and sent back accounts of her travels. After a long vigil in the night after Holy Thursday, the people returned at dawn to where Christ had been scourged and relived his passion. This was followed with veneration of the Cross. She says a table was placed in front of the bishop on which there was a chest containing a relic of the cross on which Jesus was crucified. The chest was opened so that the faithful could come and venerate the cross, many wanting to kiss it. It is said that the bishop and the cross were guarded by two deacons as somebody had tried to bite off a piece of the relic to take away. The pattern of Catholic worship for Good Friday was set by Egeria’s account. The order of the liturgy changed through the years and continues to change with special variations, including one intended for children where the Stations of the Cross may be helpful. Outdoor dramatic enactments of the Passion started in the Middle Ages and still continue, and are very important in some cultures. 

The first day of the Sacred Paschal Triduum starts with the evening eucharist of the Institution of the Lord’s Supper (Holy Thursday) after which the sacrament is taken in procession and reserved on an altar of repose overnight, surrounded by lit candles. A watch may be kept there, to signify our desire to watch an hour with Christ before his Passion, as he requested of his disciples. When the watch is finished, any remaining Reserved Sacrament is removed to a safe place, and the lights are extinguished including the light to show the presence of the Sacrament in the Tabernacle. 

On the next day, Good Friday, unfortunately Anti-Semitic activity developed in some cities during the Middle-Ages. The judgement, condemnation and crucifixion of Christ were blamed on the Jews rather than Pontius Pilot and the Roman authorities. This resulted in violent scenes on Good Friday. History has deplored this and the tone has been changed of the liturgical words and meaning of the Reproaches and the Solemn Intercessions. The Good Friday liturgy now places the blame on the failings of humanity in general and we are urged to accept our part.

Before the 1955 Roman reforms, the liturgy took place in the morning, and the afternoon was devoted to Stations of the Cross and possibly a Three-hour Devotion as devised by the Jesuit Alphonsus Messia in the 18th century. Papal approval was given and a Devotion was used by a number of denominations including Anglicans, often based on the words of Jesus from the Cross. This is now less frequently used.

The Reformation led to the loss of liturgical veneration of the Cross which did not return in Catholic Anglican liturgy until the second half of the 19th century, when little modification of the Roman Rite was used. There is now a form of Veneration of the Cross in most Churches of the Reformation, sometimes more private devotion than a public liturgy.

In 1955, Pope Pius XII promulgated reforms to the Holy Week liturgy including Good Friday which now appear in the contemporary Roman Missals both Latin and English. These were the first reforms since the publication of the Tridentine Missal of 1570. The English Missal follows the old rite with some modifications; whereas there were two readings before the Passion. Hosea 6.1-6, and Exodus 12.1-11, they are now replaced with Isaiah 52.13-53.12 (the Suffering Servant) followed by a Responsorial Psalm and Collect. For Gregorian chant enthusiasts there is the long Tract Domine exaudi which can be heard on-line or in some monastic settings. After the second lesson, formerly Hosea 6.1-6, there is now Hebrews 4.14-16; 5.7-9 (Jesus as our High priest). Before the reading of the Passion there is now a Gospel Acclamation. 

The Liturgy of the Passion of the Lord is normally celebrated at about 3.00pm unless there are good pastoral reasons for it to be at another time this day. With the main liturgy in the afternoon, the Office of Readings held in the morning can become a fully choral celebration with cantors in red copes. This liturgy can be extended with a Gospel and a homily. Those attending the Liturgy of the Passion of the Lord in the afternoon are excused Evening Prayer. 

Thereafter, the altar is left bare without cloth, candle or cross; the empty tabernacle and the extinguished sanctuary lamp express the character of the day. These all signify the stripping of Our Lord before the Crucifixion. Today, red Mass vestments are worn by priest and deacon where formerly the liturgy was celebrated in black. A deacon may celebrate this liturgy as there is no consecration. 

The Good Friday liturgy is divided into three parts: the liturgy of the Word, the Veneration of the Cross, and Holy Communion from the Reserved Sacrament. There can be no celebration of the Eucharist, nor other sacrament except penance or anointing of the sick on this most solemn day. The Veneration of the Cross was also called the Medieval term the Creeping of the Cross, when the cross was approached bare footed, slowly and devoutly on knees. 

The entry of the ministers is in silence and after approaching the altar and pausing to reverence it they prostrate themselves or if this is not possible make an appropriate reverence and remain in silence. All others kneel. The presiding minister goes to his chair facing the congregation and extending his hands says the opening prayer. All sit for the first reading, followed by the long tract Domine exaudi orationem meum (Lord hear my prayer), or more likely a responsorial Psalm. The second reading is from Hebrews on the saving character of the death of Jesus. The Gradual Christus factus est (Christ became obedient) may be sung or a Gospel acclamation taken from Philippians 2.8 and 9. Where possible all stand for the reading of the Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ according to John (18.1 to 19.42). This long passion narrative may be spoken in parts with a narrator, a priest as Christus and other parts. At the point where Jesus dies it is customary for there to be a pause and all who can kneel. After the reading of the Passion there may be a short homily. 

Now follow the Solemn Intercessions which may be sung to a simple tone or said. After the introduction to each, before the changes made after Second Vatican Council, all were invited to kneel but this has now been replaced with a pause for silent prayer before a Collect may be said or sung. There are now ten intercessions instead of nine but the content has changed little. Two voices may be used for each intercession. The sixth intercession is still for the Jews but has changed from being derogatory and praying for their conversion to praying for their wellbeing.

The veneration of the cross has now become the central part of the liturgy. From the back of the church a veiled cross is carried accompanied by two acolytes with lighted candles. There is still debate if this should be a simple cross or a crucifix. The cross is unveiled in three stages with the words ‘Behold the wood of the cross’ sung in successive higher pitch with all responding ‘Come, let us adore’. The cross is raised and there is a brief pause for adoration which may include kneeling or a profound bow. The clergy and minsters come one by one to make a personal act of adoration which may vary from kneeling before the cross to kissing the cross, the faithful follow one by one with bow or genuflection perhaps touching the cross or kissing the wood of the cross. The kissing of the cross has understandably become less popular since the pandemic. During the Veneration of the cross there is traditional music that may be sung in Latin or English. The Improperia (Reproaches) are an address by Christ from the cross reproaching his people for their ingratitude. They come from the Book of Micah (6.3-4) first preached this day by St Cyril of Jerusalem (c.313-386). The first three verses were known to be old, due to the use of both Latin and Greek possibly going back to the 7th century, but it was not until the 10th or 11th C that the full text was sung as the Reproaches. The Gregorian chant version has a haunting sad melody very appropriate to the occasion. There are elaborate polyphonic versions by famous composers but there are also simplified Gregorian chant versions in the New English Hymnal (516). Some have used alternatives such as the Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater. Due to lack of choral resources each may be replaced with hymns.

The last part of the liturgy is that of receiving Holy Communion from the Reserved Sacrament from the Mass of the Lord’s Supper of the day before. This was not introduced in Rome until the late seventh century. The Blessed Sacrament is now brought to the altar by a priest or deacon wearing a humeral veil accompanied by acolytes with lighted candles. At first it was only the priest who received communion in one kind but this later spread to it being offered to all qualified to receive. Communion is missing from many of the ancient rites such as the pre-Charlemagne Gallican Rite and continues to be absent from the Mozarabic Rite and Ambrosian Rite. There is no Good Friday Eucharistic Communion in the Orthodox Churches. This was considered permissible also by the Church of England Liturgical Commission. There is the argument that Good Friday itself is the real commemoration of the Lord’s sacrifice. 

The altar is prepared with a cloth spread and the corporal and Missal put in place. After a very brief prayer said by the celebrant in a quiet voice all join in the Lord’s Prayer. The celebrant presents the Sacrament with ‘Behold the lamb of God’ and all respond. Holy Communion is then distributed in the usual way. After another short prayer all genuflect to the Cross and depart in silence. The altar is again stripped and remains bare except for the Cross until the First Mass of Easter on the night of Holy Saturday within the Easter ceremonies.


Further reading:

Gregorian Missal St. Peter’s Solesmes 1990

Martimort, A.G. The Church at Prayer (Volume IV the Liturgy and Time) Translated by O’Connell, M.J. The Liturgical Press Collegeville Minnesota 1986.

The Divine Office (Volume II Lent and Easter) Collins London 1974

The English Missal W. Knott & Son Limited London 1958.

The Roman Missal Catholic Truth Society London 2013.