Unique observances include reflection, fasting, and Easter eggs
By Agnieszka Krawczynski
Photo: Three Franciscan Sisters of the Eucharist kneel in their chapel in their Vancouver convent. They live Holy Week in a unique way. (Credit: Agnieszka Krawczynski / The B.C. Catholic)
When the Franciscan Sisters of the Eucharist celebrate the holiest time of the year, they put their own unique stamp on it. For them, Holy Week includes fasting, but also feasting and even Easter eggs.
The sisters, who have communities in Rome, the Holy Land, and throughout the U.S., also have a cozy home in Vancouver where they’re preparing to mark Holy Week with daily reflections, extravagant meals, liturgies, and days of silence.
“Holy Week is an intense week in which you really reflect and enter into those mysteries of passion, death, and resurrection,” said Sister John Mary Sullivan, FSE, one of three Vancouver sisters. “It’s a profound, profound experience.”
Although the Franciscan Sisters of the Eucharist are spread around the globe, they unite in their unique way of preparing for Easter, which they’ve been doing since their founding in 1973, said Sister Sullivan.
“It’s a constant deepening,” said Sister Janet Siepker, FSE, who is participating for her 39th time. Her congregation’s daily practices during Holy Week are a reminder that being “united with Christ in the Eucharist is a great strength.”
That’s important to remember in times of trial. “You’re not alone in the suffering you need to face, in the death of family or a friend, or in a struggle you’re facing.”
Sister Sullivan has participated in the Holy Week reflections for 14 years and said although the structure is the same each year, the experience varies depending on what’s happening in your life.
“Each year is so unique depending on what you’re living. The year my father died, it was so present to me in that process of passion, death, and resurrection.”
Anyone who wants to follow the sisters’ Holy Week practices is invited to do so by simply participating in each day’s acts of prayer and service.
Each day’s theme is based on the Gospel reading of the day, starting with:
The theme of commitment comes from “the notion of Jesus setting his face like flint, ready to do his mission,” Sister Sullivan said.
On this day, the sisters make commitments in their communities and personal lives, and many of them make their first or final vows.
Sister Sullivan offered examples of commitments, such as a work project or improving a relationship with a difficult family member. “What do you personally need to commit to in a renewed way to live this Holy Week more profoundly?”
Procession Sunday (Palm Sunday)
For the sisters, the day Jesus rode into Jerusalem is not only Palm Sunday but also Procession Sunday. “It means being willing to go out there, and being a public witness of our faith,” Sister Sullivan said.
For the sisters, dressed head to toe in brown habits, black veils, and crosses made of real nails, a simple walk in a public park might do the trick. She also suggested visibly praying before a meal in a restaurant or wearing a religious medal.
“It’s usually a day of celebration as well. All the crowds were rejoicing, so this is a time to rejoice in the commitments we just made.”
On this joyful day, the Gospel tells of the woman who poured expensive oils on Jesus’ feet.
In that spirit, the sisters feast on foods they wouldn’t normally buy and spend extra time decorating the table, preparing several courses, and enjoying it all together.
Sister Sullivan suggested treating a family member to a meal or participating in extravagant prayer by praying the Rosary, going to Mass, and making a confession all in one day.
Compulsion to Completion Tuesday
In this day’s Gospel, Jesus tells Judas to be quick about what he is going to do. The Franciscans reflect on this while working on some task they have been putting off. Examples include finishing a project, writing a paper, or stop postponing a difficult conversation.
“It’s that strong thrust into what you’re being called to at that moment,” said Sister Sullivan.
This is a day of silence. The sisters say as little to each other as possible while reflecting on Christ’s aloneness as he prepared to meet the cross. They also reflect on Judas’ aloneness in his sin.
Jesus gave his body at the Last Supper, so the theme for this day is “body given.”
“Whatever you’re called into that day, you give almost to the point where it hurts,” said Sister Sullivan. “If I have to give myself to a particular relationship that’s hard, I give myself fully to that relationship the way Christ did. He emptied himself fully.”
The sisters begin the day with a Tenebrae service, which takes its name from the Latin word for “shadows” or “darkness.” Following a sombre and ancient tradition, the sisters rise before dawn, pray, sing psalms, and extinguish candles.
Sister Siepker said it’s one of her favourite Holy Week experiences. “It’s beautiful.”
On this day of fasting, the sisters reflect on the theme: “There is no law.”
“There was no law to protect Jesus from his passion and death,” said Sister Siepker.
The sisters attend a Tenebrae service, go to church, and decorate Easter eggs on this day. “The symbol of the egg being dipped is a sign of Jesus entering the tomb,” said Sister Siepker.
This is the day “you feel the emptiness, the night, the darkness in the tomb,” said Sister Sullivan.
The sisters observe another day of silence and spend time reflecting on Jesus’ death as they clean sacred vessels and tabernacles and prepare for the Easter vigil.
On the holiest day of the year, the sisters celebrate the Resurrection with a feast and much rejoicing. And since miracles sometimes take place “through giving yourself in prayer,” the sisters may share those as well, said Sister Sullivan.