ABSECON — Nothing makes Jackie Arena, of Galloway Township, happier on a Saturday than sitting in the pews of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton church.
Arena, who said it’s the highlight of her week, received her palms at the 5 p.m. Mass. In the Roman Catholic religion, churchgoers can attend an afternoon or evening Saturday service to fulfill their Palm Sunday obligation.
At St. Elizabeth church, parishioners received their palms before they took their seats.
“With Saturday services originally, it was convenient to come from work. The church, the priest and the Mass seems especially spiritual to me on a Saturday,” said Arena, 70, who has been coming to the St. Elizabeth church for the past 20 years.
Arena keeps her palms near her holy pictures in her house. Because they were blessed, Arena will not just throw out her old palms. Arena will burn the old ones and put the new ones in their place.
The distribution of palms goes back to the gospel account of Jesus entering Jerusalem triumphantly about a week before his resurrection, said the Rev. Nick Dudo, pastor of Our Lady of Perpetual Help parish in Galloway Township and Egg Harbor City. At the time of the gospels, a person holding palm branches was the sign of an individual who had money, who was royalty or who had some kind of power, Dudo said.
A palm branch is one of many tangible or tactile items in the Roman Catholic faith to help followers stay connected with Christ, Dudo said. The fact that Holy Week starts with Christ being welcomed, and within a week’s time, he is on the cross, shows the fragility of man’s faithfulness, Dudo said.
At Our Lady of Perpetual Help, the palms are blessed during the service and given out at the end of the mass, Dudo said.
Michele Fairweather, 43, who lives in Absecon, fell into the habit of attending the Saturday Mass because she already was out doing things on that day.
Fairweather makes crosses out of her palms and puts a palm cross above the doorway to each bedroom in her home. One palm cross sits to the doorway of the bedroom she shares with her husband of 16 years, Joe. Fairweather places the other palms over the doorways to the bedrooms of her teenage sons, John and Danny.
On the Saturday before Ash Wednesday, Fairweather brought last year’s palms to the church to be burned for the ashes used on Ash Wednesday.
“My parents are both Catholic. My dad is Italian. My mother is Irish. My mother’s sister is a nun,” said Fairweather, who planned to switch for Easter Sunday to attend a Sunday service, because she hoped her whole family would make it.
Richard Dunn, 72, of Galloway Township, likes his Sunday mornings to be free, so he attends the Saturday afternoon service at the St. Elizabeth church.
“They have a good choir, which is nice for celebrating the Mass,” said Dunn, who added he planned to hang the new palms inside his home.
The palms are blessed and distributed at the beginning of the service at Our Lady of Sorrows in Linwood, said Father Paul D. Harte, the church’s pastor. The palms are purchased from a Pennsylvania company and prestripped off the tree. The palms are blessed with holy water. The ushers and congregants distribute the palms to the first person in the pew, who will take one and pass the rest down in the row, Harte said.
Our Lady of Sorrows holds five Masses — one on Saturday and four on Sunday. At least 1,100 people are expected in total, Harte said.
“Palm Sunday ... is a very large turnout for people who want to come. Even if they don’t come at other times of the year, they like to get their ashes on Ash Wednesday and their palms on Palm Sunday,” said Harte, who added this community is very faithful to its church because it has been around for almost 50 years.
When Harte preaches at 8 and 9:30 a.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sunday, he said, his theme will be to encourage people to consider how solemn this week is when they head back to school or work and to give special time to their spiritual reflection during Holy Week, to evaluate the love that God has for them, trying to be more meditative and subdued during the week.
“There is a general understanding that Easter is more significant in our church’s calendar than Christmas because it represents the redemptive suffering of Jesus and the glory of the Resurrection, so it’s the promise of new life that inspires us all,” Harte said.
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