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Roman Pilgrimage: The Station Churches

By Jennifer Gregory Miller (bio - articles - email) | Apr 04, 2014

I don't keep a written bucket list, but I do have a mental list of things I would like to do some day (with most of the restrictions being lack of funds). One item on the list is to travel to Rome with my family. I have been been blessed to have visited Rome twice, the second time with my husband, but there is always a longing to return. Even my 10-year-old son remarked this week how he just feels pulled to go to Rome. On his dream list is to be an altar server for the Pope.

At times my husband and I have even toyed with the idea of moving to Rome, or at least stay an extended period of time. For years we have watched Dr. Timothy O'Donnell's series Rome's Hidden Churches: A Lenten Pilgrimage on EWTN, which has really fed our ideal dream is to be in Rome during Lent and Easter, attend all the Roman station churches and the Triduum at St. Peter's Basilica.

Why is there such a pull to go to Rome? For Catholics, our eyes turn to Rome because it's our patria in Faith. All Catholics have this tie to Rome--we are connected and our eyes turn to the seat of Our Holy Father (with the exception of the Avignon papacy). The liturgy of Roman or Latin rite has its roots from Rome. Desiring to visit the "Eternal City" is almost like tracing your family's genealogy and wanting to experience in person the family's place of heritage. Just as the Jews pilgrim to the Holy Land, Catholics return to their home in Rome. In Rome we can walk in the centuries-old paths of our brothers and sisters.

In my opinion, one of the best ways to walk in their steps is to follow the Roman Stations.

I remember the first time I saw references of the station church of the day. There was a line under the Mass of the day in Pius Parsch's The Year of Grace with the simple words "Station at _____" (such as today is "Station at St. Eusebius"). It took me a while to understand what that small subtitle in the pre-Vatican II missals and books meant. And even after understanding the ancient practice, I kept wondering, does this apply today?

What are the Stations?

The Latin word "statio" was originally a military referral to a sentinel's post, but by the 3rd century became a Church usage for an assembly of the faithful with the Pope, their pastor. On these station days, the Pope or bishop would meet at a place (ecclesia collecta) with the community, and after the collect prayer they would solemnly process to the station church (I mentioned about the origin of the collecta during Advent.). There are 89 references of stational churches in the Liturgical Year, with Lent having a station for every day of Lent. Easter was the primordial feast day, and the Lenten season developed in preparation for this highest feast. Pius Parsch explains:

The ancient Roman Church wished to sanctify this season [of Lent], which was so important in the life of the Christian community, by instituting the celebrations of frequent, if not daily Mass, and in order to heighten the efficacy of the divine service, she assembled the whole community together for the station procession to the station church. Baptism, penance, conversion, these were things which concerned the whole community. As the newly baptized and penitents and the faithful walked through the streets chanting and praying, their zeal would inspire the rest; the first fervour of the neophytes would edify them all. Then the holiness of the place, the church of the station Saint, had its part to play. The example of the Saint, his word, his person, were vividly present to the community. These were the means which the early Church used for her apostolate (Parsch, The Liturgy of the Mass, p. 99).

The practice began more formalized in the 400s, and under St. Gregory the Great (c. 600) most of the stations were established, all connected with the missal and Divine Office. There were a few final additions made under Gregory II in the early part of the 8th century, and then the practice started to decline and then ceased completely by the time of the Avignon papacy which began in 1307. The missal still continued to bear the names of the Stational church for the day, but it wasn't until the Liturgical Movement during the 20th century that there was a revival of this practice, but then it again waned over the decades.

What is the significance of the stations? What does it bear for us? Again, Pius Parsch has a beautiful summary:

...[T]he station feasts are important because they lay stress on the community. It is precisely on these liturgically important days that we Christians should realize that we are one great family, that we belong to the Mystical Body of Christ, and that the Masses in our parishes and churches are one and the same with the Sacrifice of Christ. The rite of the station church is an admirable expression of this truth. Our own parish church is enlarged, as it were, and becomes the station church in Rome, where the whole Roman family of God is assembled with the Pope, the high priest and vicegerent of Christ, for the celebration of Mass. There is only one Mass, liturgically speaking. It is important for us to foster this intimate union with one another in Christ, living and praying together in the one Church where we are all assembled.

...[T]he station observance is a special form of reverence paid to the Saints in the spirit of the liturgy. On these days of the stations the station Saints become closely associated with us, as our models, our fellow-workers and fellow-warriors, as also our leaders in the celebration of the Holy Sacrifice. While we offer the Mass we may think of them as standing before us as in life, a mystical bond uniting us together, as in them and with them we go forth to meet Christ (Parsch, The Liturgy of the Mass,  pp. 98-99).

The Stations for Contemporary Christians

All the references I have read about the station churches were from books before Vatican II. I have wondered if the stations apply today, and George Weigel's latest book, Roman Pilgrimage: The Station Churches answers this question. It is a book I have been hoping would be written for contemporary Catholics.

Although he has attended some stations in the past, in 2011 George Weigel attended all the Lenten stations, providing the inspiration for this book. He provides reflections on the current Lectionary and Divine Office, integrating the statio with his Lenten meditations. His son Stephen Weigel provides all the photography, both color and black and white, and Elizabeth Lev, art historian, gives a glimpse into art history and architecture of the station church.

Weigel begins by explaining the practice of pilgrimage, and the history of the stations. The early Roman Christians visited the tombs of martyrs, making that the location for gathering together for the Eucharist. This became a more formal pilgrimage by the 5th century to the churches that were built over tombs of martyrs, and this developed into the statio, especially of Lent. He notes:

...the station appointed for each day was not the church building (many of which had evolved from Roman house churches), but the martyr buried at that site. Thus, the Mass of he day was always identified as, for example, "Station at St. Lawrence in Panisperna," not "Station at the Basilica of St. Lawrence in Panisperna." (p. 5)

The oldest surviving Latin lectionary shows the "reciprocal relationship" between the day's Mass readings and prayers and the statio for that day. To answer the question of whether this practice is relevant to modern Catholics, Blessed Pope John XXIII on Ash Wednesday in 1959 went to St. Sabina for the ashes of Lent, and

[h]is successor, Pope Paul VI, went to the station at St. Eusebius in 1967, thereby signaling that the Lenten station church tradition had not been superseded by the liturgical reforms mandated by the Second Vatican Council -- although the Concilium that implemented those reforms relied far less on the station church/Lenten liturgy nexus in fashioning the Roman Missal of 1970 than had the Missal of Pope St. Pius V, the product of the sixteenth-century Council of Trent.

Beginning in the mid-1970s, the Lenten station pilgrimage was revived by the the Pontifical North American College, which is the residence of American and other English speaking seminarians. The pilgrimage has grown, and now hundreds of English-speaking people gather from all walks of life join in this pilgrimage.

The book is more than just about Roman station churches. This is a book for all Christians as Lenten pilgrims working our way to Easter. Weigel introduces Lent with its "Itinerary of Conversion." The restoration of the Easter Vigil by Pius XII was a rediscovery of the baptismal character of Lent. It had fallen into a completely penitential time, focusing only on what Catholics should not do, instead of "a season focused on the heart of the Christian vocation and mission--conversion to Jesus Christ and the deepening of our friendship with him." This is the time for the catechumenate, but for us that are already baptized, this a season for conversion, and preparation for a "second baptism." He points to two other major themes of Lent, the "adventure of God" which is the unfolding of salvation history and the coming of the kingdom in Jesus and the "invitation for a deeper friendship with Christ."

Lent is a time set apart. We become pilgrims at Ash Wednesday. The ashes are the beginning indicator of the "grittiness of Lent". Lent is gritty. We are pilgrims. Climbing up our way to Calvary is gritty business. Even more so when one walks the streets of Rome one deals with the actual Roman grittiness. Weigel points out this imagery throughout the Lenten meditations.

He has some wonderful insights throughout the season. He shares straight-forward and succinct thoughts that can propel us to deeper contemplation and examination, such as his passage on Sundays:

Sundays in Lent remain Sundays: the day on which the Church marks history's axial point, the Resurrection of the Lord. Even in Lent, Sundays are the Easter of every week, and on each of those days the Church celebrates Christ's victory over sin and death. Thus fasting on Sundays is generally unknown in Christian penitential practice; some scholars suggest that Sunday fasts were actually forbidden on occasion by Church authorities concerned with a too-rigorous asceticism.

The station churches of the Sundays of Lent reflect the grandeur that is always Sunday and include both major and minor basilicas... (p. 55)

This book is one that can be read for daily meditations throughout Lent and the first week of Easter. (But be aware, the book is large and not conducive as pocket or purse-sized meditations.) Although I'm writing this is close to the end of Lent, I have found this is not hard to enter mid-point and benefit from the richness of the meditations and be that pilgrim. There is a section for every day of Lent through the Easter Octave, ending at Divine Mercy Sunday (there are stations for the octave, also). Every day includes the references for the Mass readings and the readings from the Divine Office of the day. While the current Lectionary is not as connected with the stations as the earlier Roman Missal, the author does point out some of the connections that are there, illustrating that the Roman Stations are still applicable for the modern Christian.

The meditations vary in subject and length, but underlying are the themes of Lent as mentioned above, plus insights into the lives of the stational saint, church history and spiritual applications. Each statio has a section written by Elizabeth Lev which delves a bit more into the architecture and art history of the stational church and also interesting tidbits on the history of these churches. It would have been helpful to have in an appendix a short dictionary of church art and architectural terms (and maybe a diagram or two) to visualize better the descriptions of the churches. But there are some very helpful maps that cover all the stational churches in Rome.

Roman Pilgrimage: The Station Churches does not cover every aspect on the Roman stations, which gives the invitation to go further and deeper. I'm thrilled to find meditations that connect with the current Lectionary and Divine Office with the ancient statio of Rome. With the beautiful photographs and descriptions, there is enough presented to make one desire to visit Rome and be an actual pilgrim that experiences firsthand the grittiness of Lent and the grittiness of Rome.

I think I need to put that Roman trip during Lent at the top of my bucket list.

For further photographs and information on the Stations of Rome, see:

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