There is a daily ritual in the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre which for 700 years has marked the life and prayer of the Franciscan friars, the custodians of this holy place: it is a ritual that is greatly loved and shared by the faithful, religious and pilgrims of all nationalities.
We are talking about the procession that every day, since 1336, has taken place in the Basilica and which, on a circular route marked by hymns, antiphons and chants, goes by the main stations of the Passion, death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. Without interruption over the centuries, this tradition has remained alive in the place that is dearest to Christianity, accompanying the numerous pilgrims who have the privilege of joining in prayer and devotion this special and unique procession in the most important places of the story of the Son of God.
Fr. Stéphane Milovitch, today President of the Holy Sepulchre, worked on the history of the procession for years, looking for the sources and analysing this ritual in its historical and liturgical development in detail (the result of his research is the book Quotidianamente da prima del 1336).
The origins of the Procession
“The afternoon procession was not a liturgy or an exercise of devotion,” fr. Stéphane explains, “but a way of visiting the shrine. According to the sources, while the faithful proceeded in the visit of the Basilica, the clergy of the different religious communities present in the Holy Sepulchre, indicated in a ritual way the things to see: when they arrived at a specific altar or holy place, the priests who were acting as guides explained the mysteries of the redemption that had taken place and then read the corresponding Biblical text. The individual stopping places (“stations”) were consequently moments of meditation on particular episodes of the Passion, from the flagellation to the meeting of Jesus risen with his Mother, via Golgotha and the empty tomb.”
The first accounts of the procession date back to the first half of the 14th century, i.e. at the very beginning of the Franciscan presence in the Holy Sepulchre. From as early as the end of the 15th century, there is a list of the various “shrines” in the building: it corresponds to what was later to become the order of the procession. With the passing of the centuries, the procession was to begin to lose its character of a “visit” and through a slow metamorphosis, which was to reach its peak with the Council of Trento, the procession was to become a defined ritual with strict established procedures, which the faithful are “invited” to join.
Description of the daily procession
The official name of the daily procession is Ordo Processionis Quae Hierosolymis In Basilica Sancti Sepulcri Domini Nostri Iesu Christi A Fratribus Minoribus Peragitur Custodia Terrae Sanctae. This text, over the centuries, was innovated and added to, until the final reform curated by the Custos of the Holy Land, fr. Tommaso Obicini, whose Ordo Processionalis (of 1623) remained in use until 1925. A new version of the procession came into force that year, when changes were made to the hymns to adapt them to the official edition of the Roman Antiphonary.
The procession, which takes place at 4 p.m. in the winter (or 5 p.m. in the summer), starts in the chapel of the Blessed Sacrament (also called “Of the apparition”) and ends in the same chapel, after a long circular route around the whole of the Basilica. Like the Via Crucis, it is made up of 14 stations, but its peculiarity lies in the fact that the stations in the Basilica follow the Passion of Christ culminating in the historic places of his crucifixion, burial, Resurrection and the apparitions to Mary Magdalene and to his Mother.
The procession is presided by an ebdomadario (the friar for the celebration of the worship in a specific week), two assistants and the turifer who is responsible for the incensation. The friars of the community take part in the procession always aligned in two rows, while the pilgrims and the faithful follow the procession, each holding a lit candle given to them by the sacristans. At the stations, each altar is incensed and then a song suitable for the place, a hymn, the antiphon is recited or sung, followed by a collection. Lastly, to obtain indulgences, the Pater-Ave-Gloria is recited at eery station.
The procession as an expression of the Universal Catholic Church
The office is recited in full in Latin to show that the Holy Places are not the exclusive heritage of the local Arab-speaking Palestinian Church nor of the Italian Church (Italian is the official language of the Custody of the Holy Land), but are the heritage of the Universal Catholic Church.
The procession fits into the wider context of the daily liturgies of the Franciscan community that lives in the convent of the Basilica,” underlines fr. Stéphane. “The fraternity of the Holy Sepulchre is before the eyes of all: liturgies and paraliturgies take place with decorum and devotion because they bear witness to the presence of the Catholic Church in this place, bearing witness of the resurrection of the Lord.”With the daily procession, the Friars Minor of the Holy Land perpetuate their mission of highlighting the sacred nature of the evangelical and biblical places and bearing witness there to the special presence of God. Through this ritual, the mystery of the Passion, death and Resurrection of Jesus can still today accompany pilgrims in the very places where they took place and following in the footsteps of all the pilgrims who have preceded them over the centuries.
The procession follows the itinerary given below:
I. Altar of the Blessed Sacrament
II. Column of the Flagellation
III. Prison of Christ
IV. Altar of the Division of the Holy Robes
V. Crypt of the Finding of the Cross
VI. Chapel of St. Helena
VII. Chapel of Derision
VIII. the site of the Crucifixion on Calvary
IX. the site where Christ died on the Cross
X. Altar of Our Lady of Sorrows
XI. Stone of the Anointing
XII. the glorious Tomb of Our Lord Jesus Christ
XIII. the site of the appearance of Jesus to Mary Magdalene
XIV. Chapel of the Apparition of the risen Jesus to his Mother