One of the Lenten activities at Saint Gabriel in Gray’s Ferry was to have the entire school participate in the Stations of the Cross each Friday. It was always a welcome event, not necessarily because we enjoyed the Stations of the Cross, but because it reprieved us of an hour or so of classes on a Friday afternoon. Regardless of how any student likes or dislikes school, a break on cold Friday afternoons during Lent were welcome.
During the Stations of the Cross we were in the pews, laden down with coats, scarfs and books in anticipation of dismissal immediately following the Stations from Church. Most of the time, the Church was well heated and comfortable.Combined with the collective body heat from all of the other students, compacted six or eight to a pew like Lenten sardines, it was not always easy to kneel, stand, kneel and stand while following the priest around the side aisles of Saint Gabriel Church. However, we did it and patiently waited for our usually early dismissal through Benediction of the Most Blessed Sacrament…then off to our own weekend vices!
Today, Stations of the Cross have become diluted with secular humanism and meaningless little platitudes of political correctness that diminish the great sacrifice of Jesus’ suffering and death on the Cross. They talk about being sorry for not helping to wash the dishes, or not being attentive in school or not always being kind to others. All valuable tasks and necessary for the proper observance of daily life and human civility and even the essential premises of our Catholicism. However, The Stations of the Cross as written by Saint Alphonsus Ligouri. His prayers transcend our everyday activities and transport us back to the journey to Calvary. He inserts us spiritually and metaphysically into walking with Christ to, “…that gibbet of shame!”
Despite our most cognitive efforts to understand the Paschal Mysteries, Saint Alphonsus’ rendition of the Via Crucis makes us participants in the journey, sensory participation of that transcendent event that provides salvation for all peoples through the suffering, death and ultimately the resurrection of Jesus, vindication over death and proof of the Father’s love and mercy.
While I was a grade school student in Gray’s Ferry, I honestly can’t say I had these thoughts during the weekly ritual of Stations and Benediction of the Most Blessed Sacrament. Time, education and life experiences have made me more reflective, nostalgic and thankful for the rituals of faith we experienced as Catholic school students. Then, I remember the magnificence of Saint Gabriel Church, the vaulted ceilings, the fragrances of incense that carried our collective prayers to God the Father while singing the great, Tantum ergo…before the Sacred Species in the resplendent monstrance on the altar. It was then as it is now, the bloodless sacrifice that in substance is the bloody sacrifice at Calvary we were venerating and ritually adoring….how magnificent, how sublime and ultimately how faithful we were.
One of the greatest gifts we collectively have as Catholics is the Most Blessed Sacrament, the Real Presence that waits for us in every church in all of the tabernacles of the world for us to seek Him out in prayer and meditation. Stations of the Cross and Benediction are vehicles that ritually assists us in a participation of Jesus’ greatest gift to the world…Himself. Whenever, I participate in these sacred rituals during Lent, I am today taken back to those days of primary school, in the oak pews…reciting the Divine Praises with a great thankfulness for having been part of the Catholic educational process at Saint Gabriel School in Gray’s Ferry.
Today, my parish church which was built in 1976 still has the same Lenten rituals that we had at Saint Gabriel Parish. I am always refreshed and restored by those Lenten rituals…and think of the great sacrifices made by the priests, Sisters Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary and the great Norbertine Fathers that provided us with not only an enduring Catholic faith, but with the mystery of our Catholic faith that sustains us in our daily lives, through the Eucharist with the collective memories of everyone of the souls that made Gray’s Ferry their home. We are and were indeed very blessed…with faith and friends and with faith.