On Preparing and Celebrating the Paschal Feasts (1988)



1. The Easter Solemnity, revised and restored by Pius XII in 1951, and then the Order of Holy Week in 1955 were favourably received by the Church of the Roman Rite. [1]

The Second Vatican Council, especially in the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, repeatedly drawing upon tradition, called attention to Christ's paschal mystery and pointed out that it is the font from which all sacraments and sacramentals draw their power. [2]

2. Just as the week has its beginning and climax in the celebration of Sunday, which always has a paschal character, so the summit of the whole liturgical year is in the sacred Easter Triduum of the passion and resurrection of the Lord, [3] which is prepared for by the period of Lent and prolonged for fifty days.

3. In many parts of the Christian world, the faithful followers of Christ, with their pastors, attach great importance to the celebration of this rite and participate in it with great spiritual gain.

However, in some areas where initially the reform of the Easter Vigil was received enthusiastically, it would appear that with the passage of time this enthusiasm has begun to wane. The very concept of the Vigil has almost come to be forgotten in some places, with the result that it is celebrated as if it were an evening Mass, in the same way and at the same time as the Mass celebrated on Saturday evening in anticipation of the Sunday.

It also happens that the celebrations of the Triduum are not held at the correct times. This is because certain devotions and pious exercises are held at more convenient times and so the faithful participate in them rather than in the liturgical celebrations.

Without any doubt, one of the principal reasons for this state of affairs is the inadequate formation given to the clergy and the faithful regarding the paschal mystery as the centre of the liturgical year and of Christian life. [4]

4. The holiday period which, in many places today, coincides with Holy Week and certain attitudes held by present day society concur to present difficulties for the faithful to participate in these celebrations.

5. With these points in mind, the Congregation for Divine Worship, after due consideration, thinks that it is a fitting moment to recall certain elements, doctrinal and pastoral, and various norms that have already been published concerning Holy Week. All those details that are given in the liturgical books concerning Lent, Holy Week, the Easter Triduum, and Paschal time retain their full force, unless otherwise stated in this document.

It is the aim of this document that the great mystery of our redemption be celebrated in the best possible way, so that the faithful may participate in it with ever greater spiritual advantage. [5]

I. Lenten Season

6. "The annual Lenten season is the fitting time to climb the holy mountain of Easter.

"The Lenten season has a double character, namely, to prepare both catechumens and faithful to celebrate the paschal mystery. The catechumens both with the rite of election and scrutinies, and by catechesis, are prepared for the celebration of the sacraments of Christian initiation; the faithful ever more attentive to the word of God and prayer, prepare themselves by penance for the renewal of their baptismal promises." [6]

A. Concerning the Rite of Christian Initiation

7. The whole rite of Christian initiation has a markedly paschal character, since it is therein that the sacramental participation in the death and resurrection of Christ takes place for the first time. Therefore, Lent should have its full character as a time of purification and enlightenment, especially through the scrutinies and by the presentations; naturally the paschal Vigil should be regarded as the proper time to celebrate the sacraments of initiation. [7]

8. Communities that do not have any catechumens should not, however, fail to pray for those who in the forthcoming paschal Vigil will receive the sacraments of Christian initiation. Pastors should draw the attention of the faithful to those moments of significant importance in their spiritual life, which are nourished by their baptismal profession of faith, and which they will be invited to renew in the Easter Vigil - "the fullness of the Lenten observance." [8]

9. In Lent, there should be catechesis for those adults who, although baptized when infants, were not brought up in the faith and, consequently, have not been confirmed nor have they received the Eucharist. During this period, penitential services should be arranged to help prepare them for the sacrament of reconciliation. [9]

10. The Lenten season is also an appropriate time for the celebration of penitential rites on the model of the scrutinies for unbaptized children who are at an age to be catechized and also for children already baptized, before being admitted to the sacrament of penance. [10]

The bishop should have particular care to foster the catechumenate of both adults and children and, according to circumstances, to preside at the prescribed rites, with the devout participation of the local community. [11]

B. Celebrations during the Lenten Season

11. The Sundays of Lent take precedence over all feasts and all solemnities. Solemnities occurring on these Sundays are observed on the preceding Saturday. [12] The weekdays of Lent have precedence over obligatory memorials. [13]

12. The catechesis on the paschal mystery and the sacraments should be should be given a special place in the Sunday homilies. The text of the Lectionary should be carefully explained, particularly the passages of the Gospel that illustrate the diverse aspects of baptism and the other sacraments and the mercy of God.

13. Pastors should frequently and as fully as possible explain the word of God in homilies on weekdays, in celebrations of the word of God, in penitential celebrations, [14] in various reunions, in visiting families, or on the occasion of blessing families. The faithful should try and attend weekday Mass and where this is not possible they should at least be encouraged to read the lessons, either with their family or in private.

14. "The Lenten season should retain something of its penitential character." [15] "As regards catechesis, it is important to impress on the minds of the faithful not only the social consequences of sin but also that aspect of the virtue of penance, which involves the detestation of sin as an offence against God." [16]

The virtue and practice of penance form a necessary part of the preparation for Easter. From that inner conversion of heart should spring the practice of penance, both for the individual Christian and the whole community; which while being adapted to the conditions of the present time should nevertheless witness to the evangelical spirit of penance and also be to the advantage of others.

The role of the Church in penitential practices is not to be neglected and encouragement is to be given to pray for sinners. This intention should be included in the prayer of the faithful. [17]

15. "The faithful are to be encouraged to participate in an ever more intense and fruitful way in the Lenten liturgy and in penitential celebrations. They are to be clearly reminded that both according to the law and tradition, they should approach the sacrament of penance during this season, so that with purified heart they may participate in the paschal mysteries. It is appropriate that during Lent the sacrament of penance be celebrated according to the rite for the reconciliation of several penitents with individual confession and absolution, as given in the Roman Ritual." [18]

Pastors should devote themselves to the ministry of reconciliation and provide sufficient time for the faithful to avail themselves of this sacrament.

16. "All Lenten observances should be of such a nature that they also witness to the life of the local Church and foster it. The Roman tradition of the 'stational' churches can be recommended as a model for gathering the faithful in one place. In this way, the faithful can assemble in larger numbers, especially under the leadership of the bishop of the diocese, or at the tombs of the saints, or in the principle churches of the city or sanctuaries, or some place of pilgrimage which has a special significance for the diocese." [19]

17. "In Lent, the altar should not be decorated with flowers, and musical instruments may be played only to give necessary support to the singing." [20] This is in order that the penitential character of the season be preserved.

18. Likewise, from the beginning of Lent until the Paschal Vigil, "Alleluia" is to be omitted in all celebrations, even on solemnities and feasts. [21]

19. The chants to be sung in celebrations, especially of the Eucharist, and also at devotional exercises should be in harmony with the spirit of the season and the liturgical texts.

20. Devotional exercises that harmonize with the Lenten season are to be encouraged, for example, "The Stations of the Cross." They should help foster the liturgical spirit with which the faithful can prepare themselves for the celebration of Christ's paschal mystery.

C. Particular Details Concerning the Days of Lent

21. "On the Wednesday before the first Sunday of Lent, the faithful receive the ashes, thus entering into the time established for the purification of their souls. This sign of penance, a traditionally biblical one, has been preserved among the Church's customs until the present day. It signifies the human condition of the sinner, who seeks to express his guilt before the Lord in an exterior manner, and by so doing express his interior conversion, led on by the confident hope that the Lord will be merciful. This same sign marks the beginning of the way of conversion, which is developed through the celebration of the sacraments of penance during the days before Easter." [22]

The blessing and imposition of ashes should take place either in the Mass or outside of the Mass. In the latter case, it is to be part of a liturgy of the word and conclude with the prayer of the faithful. [23]

22. Ash Wednesday is to be observed as a day of penance in the whole Church, one of both abstinence and fasting. [24]

23. The first Sunday of Lent marks the beginning of the annual Lenten observance. [25] In the Mass of this Sunday, there should be some distinctive elements that underline this important moment (e.g., the entrance procession with litanies of the saints). [26] During the Mass of the first Sunday in Lent, the bishop should celebrate the rite of election in the cathedral or in some other church, as seems appropriate. [27]

24. The Gospel periscopes of the Samaritan woman, of the man blind from birth, and the resurrection of Lazarus are assigned to the III, IV, and V Sundays of Lent of year A. Of particular significance in relation to Christian initiation, they can also be read in years B and C, especially in places where there are catechumens. [28]

On the fourth Sunday of Lent, Laetare, and in solemnities and feasts, musical instruments may be played and the altar decorated with flowers. Rose coloured vestments may be worn on this Sunday. [29]

26. The practice of covering the crosses and images in the church may be observed, if the episcopal conference should so decide. The crosses are to be covered until the end of the celebration of the Lord's passion on Good Friday. Images are to remain covered until the beginning of the Easter Vigil. [30]

II. Holy Week

27. During Holy Week, the Church celebrates the mysteries of salvation accomplished by Christ in the last days of his life on earth, beginning with his messianic entrance into Jerusalem.

The Lenten season lasts until the Thursday of this week. The Easter Triduum begins with the evening Mass of the Lord's Supper, is continued through Good Friday with the celebration of the passion of the Lord and Holy Saturday, to reach its summit in the Easter Vigil, and concludes with Vespers of Easter Sunday.

"The days of Holy Week, from Monday to Thursday inclusive, have precedence over all other celebrations." [31] It is not fitting that baptisms and confirmation be celebrated on these days.

A. Passion Sunday (Palm Sunday)

28. Holy Week begins on Passion (or Palm) Sunday, which joins the foretelling of Christ's regal triumph and the proclamation of the passion. The connection between both aspects of the paschal mystery should be shown and explained in the celebration and catechesis of this day. [32]

29. The commemoration of the entrance of the Lord into Jerusalem has, according to ancient custom, been celebrated with a solemn procession, in which the faithful in song and gesture imitate the Hebrew children who went to meet the Lord, singing "Hosanna." [33]

The procession may take place only once, before the Mass that has the largest attendance, even if this should be in the evening of either Saturday or Sunday. The congregation should assemble in a secondary church or chapel or in some other suitable place distinct from the church to which the procession will move.

In this procession, the faithful carry palm or other branches. The priest and the ministers, also carrying branches, precede the people. [34]

The palms or branches are blessed so that they can be carried in the procession. The palms should be taken home, where they will serve as a reminder of the victory of Christ, which they celebrated in the procession.

Pastors should make every effort to ensure that this procession in honour of Christ the King be so prepared and celebrated that it is of great spiritual significance in the life of the faithful.

The Missal, in order to commemorate the entrance of the Lord into Jerusalem, in addition to the solemn procession described above, gives two other forms, not simply for convenience, but to provide for those situations when it will not be possible to have the procession.

The second form is that of a solemn entrance, when the procession cannot take place outside of the church. The third form is a simple entrance such as is used at all Masses on this Sunday that do not have the solemn entrance. [35]

31. Where the Mass cannot be celebrated, there should be a celebration of the word of God on the theme of the Lord's messianic entrance and passion, either on Saturday evening or on Sunday at a convenient time. [36]

32. During the procession, the choir and people should sing the chants proposed in the Roman Missal, especially Psalms 23 and 46, as well as other appropriate songs in honour of Christ the King.

33. The passion narrative occupies a special place. It should be sung or read in the traditional way, that is, by three persons who take the part of Christ, the narrator, and the people. The passion is proclaimed by deacons or priests, or by lay readers. In the latter case, the part of the Christ should be reserved to the priest.

The proclamation of the passion should be without candles and incense; the greeting and the sings of the cross are omitted; and only a deacon asks for the blessing, as he does before the Gospel. [37] For the spiritual good of the faithful, the passion should be proclaimed in its entirety, and the readings that proceed it should not be omitted.

34. After the passion has been proclaimed, a homily is to be given.

B. The Chrism Mass

35. The Chrism Mass, which the bishop concelebrates with his presbyterium, and at which the Holy Chrism is consecrated and the oils blessed, manifests the communion of the priests with their bishop in the same priesthood and ministry of Christ. [38] The priests who concelebrate with the bishop should come to this Mass from different parts of the diocese, thus showing in the consecration of the Chrism to be his witnesses and cooperators, just as in their daily ministry, they are his helpers and counsellors.

The faithful are also to be encouraged to participate in this Mass and to receive the sacrament of the Eucharist.

Traditionally, the Chrism Mass is celebrated on the Thursday of Holy Week. If, however, it should prove to be difficult for the clergy and people to gather with the bishop, this rite can be transferred to another day, but one always close to Easter. [39] The Chrism and the oil of catechumens is to be used in the celebration of the sacraments of initiation on Easter night.

36. There should be only one celebration of the Chrism Mass, given its significance in the life of the diocese, and it should take place in the cathedral or, for pastoral reasons, in another church [40] that has a special significance.

The Holy oils can be brought to the individual parishes before the celebration of the evening Mass of the Lord's Supper, or at some other suitable time. This can be a means of catechizing the faithful about the use and effects of the Holy oils and Chrism in Christian life.

C. The Penitential Celebrations in Lent

37. It is fitting that the Lenten season should be concluded, both for the individual Christian as well as for the whole Christian community, with a penitential celebration, so that they may be helped to prepare to celebrate more fully the paschal mystery. [41]

These celebrations, however, should take place before the Easter Triduum and should not immediately precede the evening Mass of the Lord's Supper.


1. Cf. Sacred Congregation of Rites (=SCR), Decree Dominiae Resurrectionis (February 9, 1951) Acta Apostolicae Sedis (=AAS) 43 (1951): 128-137; SCR, Decree Maxima redemptionis nostrae mysteria (November 16, 1955) AAS 47 (1955): 838-847.

2. Cf. Second Vatican Council (=SVC), Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (Sacrosanctum Concilium =SC), nn. 5, 6, 61.

3. Cf. General Norms for the Liturgical Year and the Calendar (=GNLYC), n. 18.

4. Cf. SVC, Decree on the Bishops' Pastoral Office in the Church (Christus Dominus), n. 15.

5. Cf. Maxima redemptionis nostrae mysteria, AAS 47 (1955): 838-847.

6. Caeremoniale episcoporum (=CE), n. 249.

7. Cf. The Roman Ritual, "Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults" (=RCIA), n. 8; Code of Canon Law (=CIC), c. 856.

8. Roman Missal, "The Easter Vigil," n. 46.

9. Cf. RCIA, IV, esp. n. 303.

10. Cf. ibid., nn. 303-333.

11. Cf. CE, nn. 250, 406-407; RCIA, n. 41.

12. Cf. GNLYC, n. 5; also see GNLYC, n. 56f, in Notitiae 23 (1987): 397.

13. Ibid., n. 16b

14. See General Instruction of the Roman Missal (=GIRM), n. 42; "Rite of Penance," nn. 36-37.

15. Pope Paul VI, Apostolic Constitution Paenitemini, II, 1; AAS 58 (1966): 183.

16. CE, n. 251.

17. Cf. ibid.; SC, n. 109.

18. CE, n. 251.

19. CE, n. 260.

20. CE, n. 252.

21. Cf. GNLYC, n. 28.

22. CE, n.253.

23. Cf. Roman Missal, "Ash Wednesday."

24. Cf. Paenitemini, II, 1; AAS 58 (1966): 183.

25. Cf. Roman Missal, "First Sunday of Lent," Opening Prayer and Prayer over the Gifts.

26. Cf. CE, n. 261.

27. Cf. CE, nn. 408-410.

28. Cf. Roman Missal, "Lectionary for Mass," Second Edition (1981), Introduction, n. 97.

29. Cf. CE, n. 252.

30. Cf. Roman Missal, rubric "Saturday of the Fourth Week of Lent."

31. GNLYC, n. 16a.

32. Cf. CE, n. 263.

33. Cf. Roman Missal, "Passion Sunday (Palm Sunday)," n. 16.

34. Cf. CE, n. 270.

35. Cf. Roman Missal, "Passion Sunday," n. 16.

36. Cf. ibid., n. 19.

37. Cf. ibid., n. 22. For a Mass at which a bishop presides, cf. CE, n. 74.

38. Cf. SVC, Decree on the Ministry and Life of Priests (Presbyterorum Ordinis), n. 7.

39. Cf. CE, n. 275.

40. Cf. CE, n. 276.

41. Cf. Rite of Penance, "Appendix II," nn. 1, 7. Cf. supra n. 18.