Thoughts on visiting seven churches on Holy Thursday

Preparing for the Holy Thursday washing of the feet at Saint Catherine of Siena

By Robert Gillis


Published in the Foxboro Reporter and the Boston City paper, 5/2011.

While Easter has passed and elections have been in full swing here in Foxboro, we are still in the Easter season, so perhaps my message is still timely.

There is an old tradition of visiting seven churches on Holy Thursday (the day before Good Friday). The practice probably dates back to in ancient Rome, when early Christian pilgrims visited the seven major churches as an act of penance.

My Mom told us about the tradition as kids, when it was customary to visit seven churches on Good Friday.

As something of an (admittedly) “cafeteria” Catholic, I still do value the traditions and customs of my faith very much, and when I learned that Holy Thursday is the actual day millions around the world practice this mini-pilgrimage, I decided to make my sixth round of church visits on the right day, having previously done so on Good Friday five times before.

For me, it was never about plenary indulgences or what I sometimes call “Catholic bonus points.” This isn’t a contest or quest — it’s something that feels good when you do it. You feel it in your heart.

What I like most about the visits is the opportunity to see places of worship that are new to me, and to actually make some quiet time in this insane 24/7 chaos to sit in a quiet church, read the Passion play, pray, say the Stations of the Cross, or just shut up and listen.

Each outing is planned the same way — local churches first — my beloved Saint Mary’s here in Foxboro, the beautiful wooden ceilings of Saint Mary’s Mansfield, and the small but inviting Our Lady of Sorrows in Sharon. La Salette’s airy worker’s church is also always on the list.

Picking the other three is usually a matter of nostalgia (Dorchester churches, some sadly closed), or several churches being located near each other in the same general area (Quincy). This year, I relied on my not-so reliable car navigation system. A search of “Catholic Church” on my quirky Garmand directed me to one church that closed years ago, as the rather nervous looking resident of the church-shaped apartment complex explained to me, trusty cane/weapon at his side as I tried to look harmless.

The Passion of our Lord from the Gospel of Saint John

But I found a few new ones: Saint John the Evangelist in Attleboro, and Saint James in Stoughton. It was very nice to see the impressive architecture in each. While there, I remembered our visit to Italy 15 years ago, and the opportunity to see so many churches and elegant designs that made such an impression on me.

Number seven, actually the first I visited that windy Thursday, was the gorgeous Saint Catherine in Norwood, where I was a sponsor at a recent confirmation. Being there brought back warm memories of a glorious day. It felt good being there.

But…

Well, before I say this, let me emphasize I am not in any way playing down this tradition; millions of people do it (and should) and I will likely do so again. It is a spiritual renewal and “good” feeling to visit seven churches, and I would encourage anyone of any faith to try it at least once.

But…

This time, this year, it felt a little less special. It felt like a task — a list of tasks. A common theme I noticed this year was that I spent too much of Holy Thursday DRIVING to get to the church and (thanks to my primitive Garmand with the out-of-date software), getting lost once or twice.

I spent too much time fighting traffic following directions, routing around detours, and once I got to the church, no matter how hard I tried, it felt like checking off an item on a list — three down, four to go. At each church my mind was racing as it always does (my mind’s wiring rarely lets me “decompress”) and I know it shouldn’t be like that. It should be special.

And I got to thinking, honestly, that as lovely as the tradition is, perhaps a better tradition would be to select a church you’ve never visited, and stay there a while for a meaningful visit, and then go to your own church, and stay there a while for an equally “quality” visit. And at each, do what you need to do — sit quietly, pray, read the Gospels, or just listen. But don’t rush. It’s not a marathon, scavenger hunt or shopping list. It’s visiting church. Don’t rush. Remember what happened on Holy Thursday. The Last Supper. The Garden. The Betrayal.

For me, while I’ll likely do the mini-pilgrimage again on future Holy Thursdays, I think for the next few years Holy Thursday will be a time to visit just two churches and make each visit longer, and more meaningful. Maybe Saint Mary’s and one new church. Make it count.

Again, not to put down a lovely tradition, but just to share my thoughts and recent experience — I’m thinking that it’s the quality of the time in church, not number of churches visited. I think that’s what we should be focusing on.

And on that note, happy spring to all.

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