La Settimana Santa
In the week before Easter (Pasqua) pilgrims from around the world travel to Italy to commemorate the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ (passione, morte e resurrezione di Gesù Cristo). Every region celebrates with rituals that are a rich blend of faith, folklore, tradition and community.
Palm Sunday (La Domenica delle Palme)
In the massive piazza of St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican, tens of thousands gather to re-enact Christ’s triumphant entrance into Jerusalem. Chants of “Osanna!” echo through the vast square as the Pope blesses the palms and sends a special message to the youth of the world. Throughout Italy worshipers carry crosses made from palm fronds (foglie di palma intrecciate a forma di croce) and olive branches (ramoscelli di ulivo) as they leave church.
Holy Monday (Lunedì Santo)
In Castelsardo in Sardinia, famous for its elaborate Holy Week celebrations, an evocative ritual called Lunissanti begins at dawn and continues into the night. The Confraternita di Santa Croce (brotherhood of the Holy Cross), wearing long white hooded tunics and carrying religious symbols, marches in procession and sings medieval songs in a unique style called faburden or fauxbourdon (French for false bass). Similar ceremonies are held in other Sardinian villages throughout la settimana santa.
Holy Thursday (Giovedì Santo)
The faithful gather in the late afternoon or early evening for the Mass of the Last Supper (La Messa del’Ultima Cena), when Christ created the sacrament of the Holy Eucharist (il sacramento dell'Eucarestia). In a gesture of humility and Christian brotherhood, priests (including the Pope himself) recreate Christ’s bathing of the feet (la cerimonia della lavanda dei piedi) of the Apostles by washing the feet of twelve parishioners.
Church bells, including handheld altar bells, are silenced until the Easter vigil Mass on Holy Saturday. In some places parents tell children, "Tutte le campanelle volano a Roma." (All the bells are flying to Rome.)
Good Friday (Venerdì Santo)
Some villages in Italy stage dramatic processions or re-creations of the Stations of the Cross (le Stazioni della Via Crucis). In Trapani, a Sicilian town, the solemn procession, pictured above, lasts for 24 hours. The oldest Good Friday procession in Italy, held in Chieti in the Abruzzi, features 100 violinists playing Selecchi's Miserere.
In Sorrento there are two Good Friday processions: the white procession (processione bianca) in the morning, with participants wearing white, symbolic of Mary’s hope as she searches for her son, and the black procession (processione nera) in the evening, where black represents Mary’s sorrow as she beholds his dead body.
In Rome the Pope leads a procession through the Stages of the Cross in and around the torch-lit Colosseum. As thousands of worshipers clutch candles in the dark, professional actors read dramatic interpretations of Christ’s suffering — one of the most moving religious experiences I’ve ever had.
Holy Saturday (Sabato Santo)
Mass is not celebrated during this day of silence and prayer in honor of the dead Christ, and the tabernacle, which usually contains Communion hosts, is left empty and open. After sundown the solemn Easter vigil (Veglia pasquale) begins with the liturgy of fire (la liturgia del fuoco) and the lighting of the Easter candle (il cero pasquale), which represents the “Light of Christ” (la luce di Cristo).
Readings from the gospels (vangeli) recount the appearance of the angels to the women who came to the tomb in search of Christ. During the liturgy of the baptism (la liturgia battesimale), the faithful (i fedeli) renew their baptismal vows.
Words and Expressons
Via Crucis — Stations of the Cross, a difficult time or challenge
Avere la propria croce — to have one’s cross or troubles
Mettere qualcuno in croce — to put someone on the cross, to crucify or torment someone
A occhio e croce — more or less
Dianne Hales is author of MONA LISA: A Life Discovered and La Bella Lingua: My Love Affair with Italian, the World's Most Enchanting Language.