Holy Sunday? That’s right, ‘Santo Domingo’ means just that: ‘Holy Sunday’. When you come to think of it, this could be the reason why even the week days seems to be like a weekend here!
But joking apart, the capital and the country are really named after a Saint: Saint Dominic of Guzmán, who lived from 1170 to 1221, and founded an Order of Friars. Even nowadays you’ll find his friars here, in “El Convento” in the Colonial Zone, and in several other parishes throughout the country.
For the average Dominican, the idea of his country being named after a Saint is the most natural thing in the world. The presence of God is a palpable fact of everyday life, and it is unusual to find a home that has no “Sacred Heart of Jesus” hung prominently where everybody can see it. There could also be an illustration of “Our Lady of ‘Altagracia’ ”, and perhaps even a big, family bible left open at today’s reading.
It is well worth the effort to try and understand the importance of the Church among the people here in the Dominican Republic.
The last couple of years have seen an ‘open season’ on Christopher Columbus. All sorts of cheap shots have been taken at this remarkable man. However, it is doubtful if any of his critics spend even half the amount of time that Christopher Columbus spent in prayer, every day of his life.
He was a man of his times, and thus a man of deep and convincing faith. He believed in and trusted God, and surrounded himself with men of faith. These were the inheritors and victors of an eight hundred year war of the “reconquista’ against the Arabs in the south of Spain, which explains something of their ambivalent behavior. That they expected to recover their investment in the same way that they had done in the south of Spain doesn’t detract from their profound religious feelings, and its expression in the evangelization of the native population, and the construction of churches, monasteries and hospitals.
From Colony to Independence
The history of the Dominican Republic is as tortured and painful as most of the “New World” countries. But a ‘constant’ can be observed throughout the five hundred years of strife, bloodshed, heroics and humiliations: the deep and abiding faith of the common people. The Dominicans are a deeply religious people.
The feeling of respect for their parents and grandparents is only equaled by their ingrained feelings for religious traditions. There is hardly a Dominican alive, wherever he might be, who doesn’t feel the annual call, pulling him back to his family at Christmas time, to that walk down to the parish church, with the whole family from grandparents through to grand-children, to celebrate the midnight Mass, the “Christ Mass”.
It is no accident that this is the only country in the world that displays an open bible at the center of its national flag. (Dominican tradition tells us that it is open at John 8, 20: “And the truth will make you free”).
It is no accident that there are more vocations to be priests and nuns than ever before. The Seminaries are absolutely full, and new buildings are being constructed to house the overflow.
It is no accident that His Holiness John Paul II has visited the Republic three times. Because this is where it all started. This is where the evangelization of America was conceived and organized. More than a hundred years before the Pilgrim Fathers arrived in Plymouth, Massachusetts (1620).
At the same time that England was still catholic, under Henry VII (1485 - 1509), here in the island of Hispaniola plans were being laid for the evangelization of the whole continent. Plans that, five hundred years later, have given the Church almost half the practicing Catholics in the world.
Even today the local religious congregations are still sending out missionaries. The difference is that now a days they are going to USA and Europe.
[The latest figures tell us that, with conversions and baptisms, there are a million new Catholics in the USA every year. Another set of figures tell us that half of all the people who go to church in England every Sunday, are going to a catholic church.]
This is a country where faith is an experience in which most people participate.
This is a country where the Church may be loved or criticized (and no one loves criticizing the Church more than the Catholics themselves), but no one can ignore it.
Most countries have an avocation of Our Lady as their Patron. Cuba has Our Lady of Charity of “Cobre”, Haiti has Our Lady of “Perpetual Help”, Puerto Rico has Our Lady of “Divine Providence”, but the Dominicans have two: Our Lady of “Mercedes” is the Patron, and Our Lady of the “Altagracia” is the Protector.
As in every other Christian country, Holy Week is a holiday, usually from midday Thursday through to Sunday night. Of course a large number of people take the opportunity to visit their folks “up country”, or in other towns. And of course, people go to the beach as well (The Dominicans don’t go to the beach in winter-time ... it’s too cold for them!).
But the surprise is that a large and ever growing number of Dominicans go to church, not just once, but also every day throughout Holy Week. In fact, the official police figures tell us that in the last five years, the numbers of cars going to beach resorts seems to drop year after year.
Meanwhile, all the television channels turn their programming over to religion, as more and more Dominicans take time out to stop, reflect, pray and listen to the voice of God’s love calling to them, inviting them to make that step in faith which will take them to salvation and eternal life.
Holy Week Programme in Santo Domingo
Palms are distributed at Sunday Mass, and are blessed by the parish priest. The palms are in memory of those that were laid under the feet of Jesus when he entered Jerusalem, triumphantly and for the last time before his passion.
The Dominicans usually makes a cross with their palms, and keeps it till the following Lent. (The ashes of the “Ash Wednesday” ceremony are made from burning last year’s palms).
The gospel for today is a reading of the whole account (usually shared by three readers) of the Passion of the Lord (Lucas 22, 14 - 23, 56). It is a fitting introduction to the solemnity of “Holy Week”.
Monday through Wednesday
There is an open retreat every night in the “Colegio Loyola”, on the “Abraham Lincoln” just before you get to the “Malecon”, given by the “Siervos de Cristo Vivo” community.
This is the day of the “Chrismal Mass”, when each bishop gathers all the priests of his Diocese around him in his Cathedral, and in the morning Mass, blesses the Chrism (the oil mingled with balm which will be used in all baptisms for the coming year) together with the oils that are used for anointing the sick.
In the afternoon every parish in the country celebrates the “Mass of the Last Supper”. This is the Mass where we remember the institution of the Sacred Eucharist and the institution of the Priesthood, and the Lord’s commandment to love one another, expressed in the ceremony of the washing of the feet of twelve men by the priest (as Jesus washed the feet of his disciples).
Afterwards the “Tabernacle” is emptied and left open.
Each church uses it own creativity to design a “monument” that commemorates the institution of the Eucharist.
These monuments are often very well done, and really bring home the reality of the presence of the living Christ Jesus in the Eucharist. It is the custom to “visit the monuments”, going from church to church, praying in each of them.
There is no Mass today. The altar should be left bare. No cross, no candle holders, no mantle ... nothing.
Instead, normally around three o’clock in the afternoon, there is the liturgy of the “Lord’s Passion”, with the solemn reading of the whole account (usually shared by three readers) of the Passion of the Lord (John 18, 1 - 19, 42).
This is followed by ten special prayers, the most interesting of which, on Good Friday, are the petitions for the unity of all Christians, for the redemption of the Jews, for those who don’t believe in Christ, and for those who don’t believe in God.
This is the liturgy in which the Cross is venerated, and Jesus is adored. The faithful are invited to make a reverence to the cross, bowing or kneeling before it, or perhaps kissing the foot of the cross, as a symbol of their faith in Jesus.
Although the Eucharist is not celebrated, there is an “Administration of Communion”.
Many churches and most Cathedrals conduct the ceremony of the reading of the “Seven Words”, in which each of the last seven words of Jesus are used as a starting point by a different preacher.
The ceremony of the “Seven Words” in the Cathedral of Santo Domingo is usually preached by seven outstanding preachers and is broadcast nationwide.
There is no Mass today.
Jesus is dead.
This is a day in which to stop, and reflect. Only the foolish run away from the silence of thought. Only a coward tries to avoid hearing the noise of the silence.
Easter Sunday Vigil
He is risen!
Easter starts with the Vigil on Saturday night.
First there is the blessing of a bonfire in the church grounds. Then a large, liturgical candle (with the sign of the Cross, the Greek letters “alpha” and “omega” and the year 1995) is blessed and lit from the bonfire. The faithful, in turn, light their candles from this Paschal Candle as a symbol of the “Light of the World” spreading to the far corners of the world, and proclaim that “Christ is risen!”. Then everyone enters the church in procession.
Liturgy of the Word
Secondly there is the “Liturgy of the Word”. On this very special night the Church meditates on the marvellous wonders performed by the Lord God, from the very beginning, on behalf of those who believed in His words and His promises.
This Liturgy can be nine readings long, seven from the Old Testament and two from the New Testament. Although in some cases a few of the Old Testament readings may be omitted. However, chapter 14 of Exodus is always included (the dramatic crossing of the Red Sea).
Liturgy of Baptism
The third part is the Liturgy of Baptism.
Traditionally this is the night when the “Catechumens” are received into the Church by way of the Sacrament of Baptism. Normally, in the Cathedral of Santo Domingo there are baptisms of adults in this vigil, celebrated by our Cardinal Archbishop, Nicolás de Jesús Cardenal López Rodríguez.
Finally the Eucharist is celebrated.
All of this Vigil should be over before dawn on Easter Sunday.
However, the Church allows us to receive the Eucharist again, at the Easter Sunday Mass which, as can be imagined, is a celebration incorporating all the local colour and imagination of the celebrating parishioners.
Today is the greatest festival of the whole year. Jesus lives! Today we celebrate the central miracle of our faith. If Jesus didn’t rise from the dead, then everything is a lie.
But if he did (although common sense tells us that it impossible), then... Jesus is God, because, for God, nothing is impossible!
This, of course, provokes further questions:
— If Jesus is God, then why did He come to earth?
— What does it mean for the world?
— What does it mean for me?
— Am I expected to do something about it?
— What am I expected to do about it?
— What does Jesus expect of me?
I wrote this for a local English language news weekly on tuesday, April 4, 1995