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We Reenact the Gospel


    Why Palms?

    Q: Why do we receive palms on Palm Sunday? What do they mean?

    A: In general, the palm is a symbol of victory and triumph. It is associated with the rejoicing that comes with victory. Thus saints, especially martyrs, are often depicted carrying the palm of victory—they have triumphed over sin and won the victory of heaven.

    All the Gospels recall the triumphant entry of Jesus into Jerusalem before his passion and death. The Gospels tell us that the crowds lined the road welcoming Jesus to the city. And they laid branches from the trees or reeds on the road before Jesus. John recalls, "...they took palm branches and went out to meet him, and cried out, ‘Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord...’"(12:13).

    In the first part of the liturgy on Passion (Palm) Sunday we commemorate and reenact Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem. Palms are blessed and given to those present to carry in procession.

    In the blessing of palms the priest prays, "Today we honor Christ our triumphant King by carrying these branches. May we honor you every day by living always in him."

    Some of the palms blessed on Passion Sunday will later be burned to provide ashes for use in the Ash Wednesday liturgy the following year.



    Who Washes the Feet?

    Q: In our parish, a young priest insists that a staff person must assist with the washing of the feet of parishioners on Holy Thursday. My research indicates that the priest has always represented Christ, who did not ask the servants to assist him in washing the apostles’ feet, nor did he tell Peter to help him so he could get the job done faster. My feeling is that, if he wants to have staff help, he should first wash the feet of two or three of the staff, then have them go out to wash the feet of others. Am I right or is there a new interpretation of this Holy Thursday action?


    A: You are correct in that the washing of feet in the Mass of Holy Thursday reminds us of the service Jesus did for his disciples on the first Holy Thursday (at the Last Supper). It has a long and varied history in the ceremonies of the Church and was part of an early baptismal rite. It was also an act performed by monastics in service of the poor and each other. The Council of Toledo in 694 required the washing of feet on Holy Thursday, directing that every bishop and priest was to wash the feet of his subjects. In the Missal of Pius V (1570) the washing of feet was placed at the end of the Holy Thursday Mass.

    Our present Sacramentary puts the washing of feet after the Gospel telling how Jesus washed the feet of the apostles (John 13:1-15) and the homily.

    The rubric in the Sacramentary states that those who have been chosen for footwashing are led by the ministers to chairs prepared in a suitable place. Then the priest goes to each and with the help of the ministers pours water over each one’s feet and dries them.

    In other words, the priest performs the washing of the feet with the assistance of other ministers. That does not seem unreasonable if there is a basin and towels as well as a pitcher of water to handle. The deacon and servers are at the altar to assist the celebrant.

    The rubric does not envision several people going around washing feet apart from the priest.



    Who Were the Thieves?

    Q: I have been searching without success for the names of the two thieves crucified with Christ.


    A: The Gospel of St. Luke (23:33-43) tells us that Jesus was crucified between two thieves. Luke does not give the name of either one.

    Three different collections of the lives of the saints, however, give their names as Dismas, traditionally the "good thief," and Gestas, the unrepentant thief.

    They use as their source for this information an Arabic Gospel of the Infancy. This book was very popular in the West during the Middle Ages. It contains a legend or myth that two thieves waylaid the Holy Family on their flight into Egypt.

    In character, Dismas paid Gestas 40 drachmas to leave the family unharmed. At this point the infant Jesus predicted the two would be crucified with him in Jerusalem and he would take Dismas with him into paradise.

    Rosary at Mass?

    Q: Many times while I’m in church I see people—including nuns—reciting the rosary and continuing to pray it during the celebration of Mass. Is it all right to continue this practice or should all your attention be focused on the Mass once it has begun?

    A: The rosary is a beautiful form of prayer, combining both vocal and meditative prayer. Many people have grown rich in the spiritual life by praying the rosary.

    The Church’s documents on the liturgy, however, do not support the practice of reciting (in a group or privately) the rosary during the celebration of the Eucharist.

    The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (#30) states: "To promote active participation, the people should be encouraged to take part by means of acclamations, responses, psalms, antiphons, hymns, as well as by actions, gestures and bodily attitudes. And at the proper time a reverent silence should be observed."

    The Instruction on Music in the Liturgy says: "The faithful fulfill their liturgical role by making that full, conscious and active participation, which is demanded by the nature of the liturgy itself and which is by reason of Baptism, the right and duty of the Christian people. This participation a) should be above all internal, in the sense that by it the faithful join their mind to what they pronounce or hear, and cooperate with heavenly grace, b) must be, on the other hand, external also, that is, such as to show the internal participation by gestures and bodily attitudes, by the acclamations, responses and singing."

    In other words, the Church expects us to take part as much as we can in the prayers and ceremonies of the Mass. That is rather difficult to do while continuing to say the rosary or some other unrelated prayers.

    Old Testament Saints

    Q: I have researched in The Catholic Encyclopedia and Lives of the Saints, but cannot find what I wish to know. Are the holy men and women of the Old Testament, for example, Aaron, Moses, Daniel, David, Abraham, Samuel, Sarah, Rebecca, Ruth, etc., considered saints? Are feast days assigned to them and, if so, what days are they?

    A: Some of the Old Testament names you mention can be found in The Book of Saints compiled by the Benedictine monks of St. Augustine’s, Ramsgate, published by Macmillan Company. Some of these names may also be found in lists of Christian names—without any notation of sanctity or a cult. In other dictionaries of the saints, there simply are no listings for these biblical figures.

    In The Book of Saints the Ramsgate monks use three different designations: 1) R.M., listed in the Roman Martyrology, 2) A.C., Approved Cult (there is positive evidence the person was venerated as a saint) and 3) P.C., Popular Cult (the person was referred to as a saint by ancient writers).

    At the same time, remember there was no formal process of canonization until 993. Earlier than that, people were accepted as saints by common opinion.

    The Ramsgate book tells us of the feast days of Abraham (October 9), David (December 29), Moses (September 9) and Samuel (August 20), which are to be found listed in the Roman Martyrology. The Greeks celebrate a feast of David and all the ancestors of Jesus on December 19. Adam and Eve, December 24, are listed as having an approved cult.

    Please remember this book of saints was published before the 1969 revision of the calendar and the revision of the Martyrology still under way.

    Do Priests Wear Skullcaps?

    Q: Jewish rabbis wear a skullcap. But I have never noticed Catholic priests or bishops wear any. Do they? If so, did this come from the Jewish people?

    A: Any Catholic priest may wear a skullcap. This head covering goes by different names. It is sometimes called a solideo, calotte, pilleolus or sub-mitrale. It is most often spoken of as a zucchetto.

    Originally, it had a very practical purpose. Clerics wore a hairstyle called the tonsure. The hair on the crown of the head was cut and shaved. A skullcap was then often worn to keep the head warm.

    While some priests may continue to use a skullcap for utilitarian reasons, members of the hierarchy must use the zucchetto as a liturgical vestment. Its color will tell you the person’s office.

    The pope wears a white zucchetto; cardinals, red; bishops, purple; and abbots and other clergy, black. Prelates must remove the zucchetto from the Sanctus of Mass until after Communion and whenever the Blessed Sacrament is exposed.

    According to James-Charles Noonan, Jr., in The Church Visible (Viking), the zucchetto did not develop from the Jewish yarmulke, but has a development all its own.




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