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An Easter Memory
Easter Vigil Mass at Saint Joseph's College
By Bill Wall, R'63

    This is not a funny story this time.  This is the story of a very symbolic and dramatic ceremony that took place at St Joseph’s the first year I was there.  I like and respect the ritual in the Catholic Church, but I am not overly into it. However, this ceremony was so meaningful and beautiful, that it has stayed in my mind all these years.

   This incident takes place at the beginning of a Midnight Mass on Easter Sunday morning in early April 1958, my first year at the Seminary. If you are interested in this sort of thing, read on.

   Easter was the only Midnight Mass we went to at St Joseph’s because we were home on vacation on Christmas Day. Here was the schedule for Easter Services at St Joes. We would go to bed at 9:05 PM on Saturday night as we always did, and then they would get us up at 11:30 for Midnight Mass. We wouldn’t get back to bed till 2 or 2:30 AM, then they would get us back up again at 5:55AM as they always did, for us to go to regular Morning Mass. They never varied that almighty, daily schedule that I described in my Seminary Letter. There were some sleepy-eyed guys at breakfast on Easter Morning at St Joes, but we were happy because we knew we were going home that day for a one week Easter break. They loaded us on busses after breakfast.

   Well, I woke up to the bell at 11:30PM on Holy Saturday Night. It was a little weird to wake up in the middle of the night. I wasn’t used to that. The instruction was to get your regular clothes on and put on your Cassock and Surplice (Altar Boy Suit) and get down to Chapel. A bell rang at 11:40PM, which meant it was time to leave your room, and you were to be in your seat in Chapel at 11:45PM. You were not to be late.  All this takes place in absolute silence because we are under the Grand Silence at this time.  I am sure you remember the “Grand Silence.” I don’t know if any of you ever visited the Chapel when you were at St Joes, but it was something to see.  The Chapel would easily seat 600 people. There was a lot of intricate woodcarving and wood paneling in the Chapel, and a lot of mosaics up by the altar. The floor was a beautiful marble. But what else would you expect for a major Catholic Seminary in the United States. This is the old days, so everything is still in Latin in Chapel and the altar faced forward, not toward the congregation as it does today.

   As I entered Chapel that evening, I noticed that the house lights were on very low. There was just enough light so that you could see where you were going and not run into the guy ahead of you.  Normally, when we went to morning Mass, the lights were on brighter. You went to your pre-assigned seat in Chapel. We sat by Class, so the freshmen were in the front. I noticed something as I sat down. There was a candle in my seat as there was for everybody else.  There was a little pie tin at the bases of the candle so when you lit the candle, you didn’t get candle wax on the pew. This was odd because we had never used candles in Chapel before. As soon as everybody was in their place in Chapel, they turned off all of the lights and it was absolutely dark. You couldn’t see anything.  This had been a rainy and cloudy day and there was a thick cloud cover, so there was no light from the moon or stars. It is a strange feeling to sit in total darkness and in silence and you know that there are over 400 guys in close proximity to you. You couldn’t see a thing.  All you heard was an occasional cough or the shuffling of someone’s feet. A lot of thoughts can go through your mind at a time like this, and a few were going through my mind.

   Right at the stroke of midnight, or fifteen minutes later, it seemed like a lot longer; they opened the back door of the Chapel just a little and a faint beam of light was coming through the crack in the door. Naturally all eyes turned toward the rear of the Chapel and the faint light. They had just lit the Pascal Candle outside the backdoor and the light was from the Pascal Candle. There were no artificial lights on anywhere. Next, both backdoors were opened and the Pascal Candle started to move into the rear of the Chapel and the light from the Candle got a little brighter.  At that point in time, we heard the booming voice of Fr Russell chanting out “Lumen Christi,” the Light of Christ. Fr Russell was carrying the Pascal Candle, which was about four feet high, and he was followed by a procession of thirty Priests. I am sure you understand the symbolism here. The light on the Pascal Candle symbolizes the risen life of Christ, and the darkened Chapel is the world before the Resurrection.  As the Pascal Candle moved down the center aisle of the Chapel, Fr Russell stopped at the rear-most pew and lit the candle held by the Seminarian in the first seat on the left hand side of the aisle and then he lit the candle on the right hand side. Fr Russell was still chanting “Lumen Christi” in a loud voice. The Pascal Candle stayed at that last pew until all the seminarians in that pew had lit their candle from the person next to them. The candlelight spread from the center aisle to outer part of the pew on each side of the aisle. Then Fr Russell moved up to the next pew and stayed there until all the candles were lit in that pew and so on. It took about 20 minutes to light every Seminarian’s candle in that Chapel and reach the altar. Then Fr Russell took the Pascal Candle up on the altar and lit all the candles there, which were numerous. When all the candles were all lit, the entire Chapel was bathed in the most beautiful light imaginable. I have never seen anything like it either before or since in my life. There were no artificial lights on anywhere at this time Of course, when every candle was lit in Chapel: the symbolism was the Light of Christ had reached everyone on earth. Next, we started to sing this ancient Gregorian Chant and it was very moving. When we finished the singing, Fr Russell gave the signal for everyone in Chapel to blow out their candle. I noticed as we did, that someone was very gradually turning up the lights in the Chapel, so that there was no lapse in light or darkness. It was very well orchestrated.

   Well, this candle light ceremony took a good half hour and the High Mass took over an hour and a half, so we were there for a while.  All during the High Mass, I couldn’t get it out of my head how beautiful and meaningful that candle ceremony was.  It really stayed with me. They did the candle ceremony the second Easter I was at St Joes, and it was very beautiful, but it didn’t have the same impact on me as the ceremony of the first year.

   I hope you enjoyed this. It is a nice memory to have. Maybe the next time somebody tells you about a bad memory they have, try to get them to remember a “Good” memory. It is a lot better for them and for you.

Bill, Son of St Joseph’s

(From the Bill Wall Archives, November 3, 1999)