Catholic Transcript Magazine of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Hartford Connecticut

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Holy Week, as well as Lent in general, revives so many good memories for me, memories from my altar boy service at St. Charles Borromeo Church within Bridgeport’s East Side; memories, too, of Tenebrae at the old Cathedral of St. Joseph, when I was in the first two years of college at St. Thomas Seminary in Bloomfield; memories of my years as Master of Ceremonies at historic St. Bernard’s Seminary, Rochester, during the theologate there; memories of my earliest years leading the Easter Vigil while I was fourth Assistant at St. Augustine Church in Hartford’s South End; memories of solemn ceremonies with Archbishop Henry J. O’Brien, or Archbishop John F. Whealon or Bishop John Hackett during the Easter Vigil at the old House of the Good Shepherd in Hartford; memories of ministry during Holy Week at St. Augustine’s in South Glastonbury; memories of my 10 years as Pastor of St. Catherine of Siena in Broad Brook in northern Connecticut; and currently memories of ministry in Holy Week concelebrated with Archbishop Henry J. Mansell at the Cathedral of St. Joseph.


One of the distant recollections literally etched in my soul is that of the Improperia of the pre-Vatican II Liturgy of Good Friday. Improperia is a Latin word for the series of “Reproaches” recited by the priest with the Deacon and Subdeacon. Voiced in Greek, in Latinized Greek and in Latin, they reflect Scriptural themes emphasizing the essential innocence of the Lamb of God. The central theme, spoken as if Christ were looking down from the Cross, reads: “My People, what have I done to thee? …Answer me.”


The responses to such “Reproaches” were assigned primarily to the Deacon and Subdeacon; and they were all said in Latin: Sanctus Deus, Sanctus Fortis, and Sanctus Immortalis, Miserere nobis. (“Holy God”; “Holy Mighty One”; and “Holy Immortal One,” “Have mercy on us.”) 


Back in St. Charles Church in the ’30s and early ’40s, there were few if any Deacons or Subdeacons in parish ministry, so it fell to other priests or to the altar servers to respond. Hence we had to learn the Improperia. Many, many Catholics today actually learn some of them because they are key phrases in the Divine Mercy Devotion as encouraged by Sister Faustina, canonized by Pope John Paul II. The only modification is that the Divine Mercy Chaplet adds the phrase, “and on the whole world,” after the response, “Have mercy on us.”


This prayer, from the Improperia, is quite ancient, and quite beloved by Catholics in general. In the Ritual Churches which have their roots in the Middle East and beyond, such as the Maronite, Melkite, Ukrainian, etc., the oration is known and said in the original Greek, the Latinized form of which reads:


Hágios o Theós,…


Hágiós Ischyrós…


Hágios Athánatos,


Eléison hymás.


In English, this reads:


Holy God,


Holy Mighty One,


Holy Immortal One,


Have mercy on us.


Several years ago, largely because of the Mercy of God Devotion as popularized by St. Faustina, I recalled this prayer and began to pray it almost daily. During every Holy Week since then, I recall it with a sense of renewed appreciation of what the prayer means. Once, while delivering a benediction after a ceremony honoring a high-ranking bishop of one of the great Ritual Churches sui juris, I closed with this prayer, only to hear more than half the congregation in the church join with me simultaneously; in fact, I repeated it with them.


There are so many other “Lenten memories” that never fade away. For obvious examples, there is the incomparably beautiful hymn chanted during the “Transfer” of the Blessed Sacrament to the Altar of Reposition following the Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday: the Pange lingua, written by St. Thomas Aquinas, the hymn which closes with the familiar Tantum ergo. And during the Easter Vigil, beginning on Holy Saturday, there is the haunting Praeconium Paschale, usually described by its opening word, Exsultet, chanted before the newly lit Easter Candle, an ancient symbol of the risen Lord. The melody for this hymn is unique, but unforgettable.


Finally, is there a Catholic who doesn’t thank the Lord profoundly when he or she hears again the heraldic triple intonation of the Alleluia, just before the Gospel of the first Easter Mass, which in Latin begins: Vespere autem sabbati (“After the Sabbath…”)? The narrative records the pilgrimage to the empty tomb by Mary Magdalen and the women that First Easter morning.


Msgr. David Q. Liptak is Executive Editor of The Catholic Transcript, and censor librorum for the Archdiocese of Hartford.