Entering the church during Holy Week

The Piazza del Duomo—Cathedral Square—is the heart of Milan. Here crowds gather, locals rush through, tourists stop to gape at the magnificent facade of the cathedral and snap their selfies against this gleaming backdrop. Here beggars and street artists and tricksters work for euros as they worked before for lire and florins and ducats. Here parents laugh as their innocent children feed flocks of pigeons, snapping pictures as the birds land on little outstretched arms.

My first real encounter with the piazza and the cathedral was unforgettable. It was dark, not long before 9 p.m. I had arrived in Milan early that afternoon and gotten off the Metro at the Duomo stop. It was jammed with sports fans cheering on bicyclists who were ending a long race. I quickly slipped across the street and made my way to the nearby Jesuit community at San Fedele.

After supper that evening, a Jesuit friend suggested a walk, and we headed in the direction of the cathedral, which I'd hardly glimpsed before. But the piazza was dark and empty except for police and guards, with thousands of young people straining at the barricades that surrounded it. They were waiting for a liturgy that takes place here on the eve of Palm Sunday, the Traditio Symboli, when the Creed is handed out to those who will be baptized a week later at the Easter Vigil. This liturgy had developed into a testimony to faith for young people, and they came from parishes all over the archdiocese and beyond to give witness to their faith, encouraging the catechumens and strengthening their own faith.

At about 8:45 p.m., the portals of the cathedral with their massive bronze doors swung open, light flooded out and the guards opened the barricades. And the sight was incredible. These thousands of young people (some guide books claim the cathedral can hold 40,000—I doubt it's that many, but a few thousand sounds right) were rushing, running, streaming—with polite determination—to get inside! My friend and I waited until the crowd went by and then entered and squeezed into the back of the packed church.

The liturgy was devised for the occasion, with music, testimonials, readings and a homily by Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, archbishop of Milan. The highlight came at the end, when the candidates for baptism the following Saturday evening were entrusted with a copy of the Creed, which the whole assembly then recited with them.

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My friend and I slipped out onto the piazza, where more crowds were following the events inside via large-screen monitors. At the very end of the liturgy a special tribute took place when the young people acknowledged Cardinal Martini's 20 years as archbishop of Milan. My friend whispered to me in total surprise, "He's smiling! He never smiles! But he just did!" This very professional archbishop had a real interest in ministry to young people, and they knew it. And they treated him like a rock star. The cardinal soon emerged and greeted the crowds outside. I determined that the next year I would come to Milan for this event and stay for all of Holy Week.

I have been back a number of times. The Traditio Symboli is always a little different, highlighting various themes and testimonials of faith, sometimes with short dramas. But it always includes literally passing on the Creed, entrusting it to the candidates for baptism. At the Traditio this year, 160 catechumens from 31 countries on 4 continents received our Creed.

The theme this year was mercy, as we could expect. The publicity posters announced in Italian, "Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy." And the participants went home with a tag that resembled those that hang on hotel doors and warn "Do not disturb." But the tags we received this year have a different message, a welcome, highlighting next summer's World Youth Day and welcoming people to the journey.

The world is very different from when I first encountered the Traditio and saw thousands rushing into the cathedral. Security is intense now with long lines undergoing questioning and body scans and handbag scrutiny. But the young people still arrive and join the catechumens to share a faith that is, to steal from St. Augustine, ever ancient, ever new. The door still opens and faith grows strong by being shared. This entry into Holy Week is powerful testament to that faith.

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