Francis of Assisi and his friars came to the Holy Land with the wish to be able to “breathe” in these Places that had been sanctified by the presence of the man Jesus. The daily procession at the Holy Sepulchre, which passes through the places of the passion-death-resurrection of Christ, is a way of recalling to pilgrims the need to constantly meditate on the humanity of Jesus, who in these places suffered his Passion and manifested himself in his Resurrection. In a similar manner to the Way of the Cross, the daily procession commemorates the importance of the devotion to the cross, a cherished theme for the Saint from Assisi and Franciscan spirituality.
The procession was not created as a practical ritual for the community of friars at the Holy Sepulchre, nor is it a “liturgy” for worship only by local Christians, but it is instead intended for all Christian pilgrims who come to the church. This aspect has helped to preserve the origin of the sanctuaries as a heritage of the Universal Catholic Church. This is also testified to by the patient and persevering presence of the community of Friars Minor at the Tomb.
The structure of the procession has undergone a series of changes and variations over the course of the various historical periods which have allowed the practice of the daily Procession to survive to the present day.
The procession can be seen as fulfilling a function strongly linked to the devotion to these places as “relics” of the passion-death-resurrection of Jesus Christ, while at the same time linked to the individual actors in these moments (Mary Mother of Jesus, John, Mary Magdalene, etc.). The Word of God appears as a fundamental element in this processional practice, and is frequently announced and re-read in a poetic manner.
Historical and liturgical tradition
The ancient custom described by Egeria of visiting all of the Holy Places of the passion-death-resurrection of Jesus has over the centuries become a tradition of great importance. According to Egeria’s testimony, the entire community was present during the procession, and formed a cortege to escort the Bishop who moved among the various sanctuaries in the city to celebrate the liturgy, reciting songs, psalms and hymns. Following the Islamic conquest of Jerusalem, external manifestations of Christian worship were forbidden, so that all services henceforth had to be carried out in the interior of churches.
The procession continued to be carried out during the Crusader era, in a similar and very simple manner, particularly after the Latins were given the right to freely move about the Tomb.
With the arrival of the Friars Minor at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (already present there for some time, they were formally recognized by the Pope in 1342), Christian worship was re-established in the Holy Places, which for a considerable period of time had been under Muslim control. The friars were entrusted with the tasks of guarding the sanctuaries and celebrating the liturgy. The oldest text concerning the procession dates from 1431, in the diary of Mariano da Siena. The community of friars welcomed pilgrims, guiding them through the Holy Places. After entering in the afternoon, pilgrims would complete their visit to the sanctuary by taking part in a procession; following a night of prayer in the church, the peregrinatio would conclude with a solemn and communal Eucharist celebrated by the Franciscan Guardian.
Beginning in the 16th century, with the increase in the number of religious residents at the Tomb, but above all due to the arrival of the Ottoman Empire, the procession began to become a daily practice of the community, rather than a ritual specifically linked to the arrival of pilgrims. In this manner, for historical reasons that are now apparent, it lost part of its pastoral character.
The procession was substantially revised in 1623 by Custos Thomas Obicini, under whose care an official processional, Ordo Processionalis, was published.
In 1924 the then Custos Father Ferdinando Diotallevi added an additional station to the daily procession, that of Our Lady of Sorrows on Calvary. The following year a new version of the procession was introduced in which modifications were made to the hymns to bring them into conformity with the official edition of the Roman Antiphonal.
At the sound of the bells, the community of friars comes to the choir to recite the Liturgy of the Hours. Immediately following this, they exit the choir and initiate the procession which consists of fourteen stations and terminates at its starting point, the Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament (also known as the Chapel of the Apparition of the risen Jesus to his Mother). Participating in the procession are the friars from the community as well as some coming from St. Saviour’s. At each station a hymn appropriate to the place is recited or sung, followed by an antiphon and the collect, and at the end a Pater, Ave e Gloria is recited. Until the seventh station the procession is recited recto tono, i.e., always using the same note, after which point it is sung.
In earlier days priests from other denominations also participated in the procession, but over time this practice fell into disuse.
The friars also have the right to incense and pray at altars of other Christian denominations.
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
On days of great solemnity in the church, the procession is eagerly anticipated and assumes a solemn nature. Participating alongside the Friars Minor is a prelate who is solemnly welcomed to the church.