An invitation to a Roman Lent

It’s hard to believe that it’s been five years since my son, Stephen, and I spent two months in Rome – all of Lent and Easter Week – preparing a book that would allow readers to make the city’s ancient Lenten station church pilgrimage at home. But so it goes; tempus indeed fugit.  Yet the memory of those two months lingers as the best Lent of my life.

There were many reasons for that.

Working on a serious project with Stephen and the great Roman art-and-architecture guide, Elizabeth Lev, was a constant pleasure, despite those 0515 wake-up calls for the walk across the city to the “station church” of the day.

Battling civil and ecclesiastical bureaucracy in order to get the job done was an unremitting pain in the neck, but winning out in the end, with the help of Italian political and clerical friends, was very satisfying. (I note for the record that the bureaucrats ecclesiastical were much worse than the bureaucrats political. And I salute Cardinal Camillo Ruini, former Vicar of Rome, for getting the Roman diocesan bureaucracy to understand that the book we were preparing could be an asset in the New Evangelization, so that cooperation, not the usual obstruction, was in order.)

Our timing was fortunate. Rome really is best seen at sunrise, when the motorini have yet to gun their engines and the locals haven’t begun Demolition Derby on the city’s winding streets. But when Lent is early, like this year, the first weeks’ walks to the stational church of the day are in darkness. Lent began late in 2011, so we often started our daily trek at dawn or just afterwards, when the city was backlit by a gold-and-pink glow that Stephen captured in some of his most memorable photographs.

Then there were the station churches themselves – many of them gems off the beaten tourist track – and the hospitality of the men of the North American College, where Stephen and I lived.

But above all, it was the best Lent of my life because my contribution to what became Roman Pilgrimage: The Station Churches (Basic Books) – a commentary on the liturgical texts of each day – required me to follow, strictly, an admonition in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, and to “read, mark, and inwardly digest” the daily Mass scriptures and the texts in the breviary’s Office of Readings. And there’s no better way to appreciate the riches of literature, including biblical passages and sermons from the Fathers of the Church, than having to absorb carefully what you’ve read and then write about it.

The project also taught me that Lent divides rather readily into two parts. Ash Wednesday, the days immediately following, and the first two weeks of the season have a penitential character and invite us to a daily examination of conscience: Am I living as a witness to the Kingdom of God now among us? How well have I fulfilled the commission as a missionary disciple that I received at my baptism? What needs purification within me, if I am to deepen what Pope Benedict XVI always insisted was the essence of Christianity – friendship with Jesus Christ?

The third, four, and fifth weeks of Lent have a baptismal character: they’re a kind of annual catechumenate, in which all Christians are called to live more fully in the imitation of Christ. The three great Johannine gospel passages of this period – Jesus and the women at the well, Jesus and the man born blind, Jesus and the raising of Lazarus – all summon us to live today, now, in the new life of the Kingdom, through prayer, mission and service, and confidence in Christ’s power to conquer sin and death.

And thus we are prepared to enter the drama of Holy Week and fully experience the joy of Easter, which extends throughout its octave until Divine Mercy Sunday.

Roman Pilgrimage: The Station Churches invites you to “do Lent in Rome at home.” The e-book is especially good at conveying the texture of the station church pilgrimage; all the photos are in color and can be zoomed so that the art and architecture are seen in glorious detail. To one and all, as we say in Rome, Buona Quaresima!

COMING UP: Q&A: USCCB clarifies intent behind bishops’ Eucharist document

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Last week, the U.S. bishop concluded their annual Spring meeting, during which much about the Church in the U.S was discussed. In particular, the bishops voted to draft a document on the meaning of Eucharistic life in the Church, which was approved by an overwhelming majority.

Since then, speculation about the nature of the document has run rampant, the chief of which is that it was drafted specifically to instigate a policy aimed directly at Catholic politicians and public figures whose outward political expressions and policy enactment do not align with Church teaching.

The USCCB has issued a brief Q&A clarifying the intent of the document, and they have emphasized that “the question of whether or not to deny any individual or groups Holy Communion was not on the ballot.”

“The Eucharist is the source and summit of Christian life,” the USCCB said. “The importance of nurturing an ever
deeper understanding of the beauty and mystery of the Eucharist in our lives is not a new topic for the bishops. The document being drafted is not meant to be disciplinary in nature, nor is it targeted at any one individual or class of persons. It will include a section on the Church’s teaching on the responsibility of every Catholic, including bishops, to live in accordance with the truth, goodness and beauty of the Eucharist we celebrate.”

Below are a few commonly asked questions about last week’s meeting and the document on the Eucharist.

Why are the bishops doing this now?

For some time now, a major concern of the bishops has been the declining belief and understanding of the Eucharist among the Catholic faithful. This was a deep enough concern that the theme of the bishops’ strategic plan for 2021-2024 is Created Anew by the Body and Blood of Christ: Source of Our Healing and Hope. This important document on the Eucharist will serve as a foundation for the multi-year Eucharistic Revival Project, a major national effort to reignite Eucharistic faith in our country. It was clear from the intensity and passion expressed in the individual interventions made by the bishops during last week’s meeting that each bishop deeply loves the Eucharist.

Did the bishops vote to ban politicians from receiving Holy Communion?

No, this was not up for vote or debate. The bishops made no decision about barring anyone from receiving Holy Communion. Each Catholic — regardless of whether they hold public office or not — is called to continual conversion, and the U.S. bishops have repeatedly emphasized the obligation of all Catholics to support human life and dignity and other fundamental principles of Catholic moral and social teaching.

Are the bishops going to issue a national policy on withholding Communion from politicians?

No. There will be no national policy on withholding Communion from politicians. The intent is to present a clear understanding of the Church’s teachings to bring heightened awareness among the faithful of how the Eucharist can transform our lives and bring us closer to our creator and the life he wants for us.

Did the Vatican tell the bishops not to move forward on drafting the document?

No. The Holy See did encourage the bishops to engage in dialogue and broad consultation. Last week’s meeting was the first part of that process. It is important to note that collaboration and consultation among the bishops will be key in the drafting of this document.


Featured photo by Eric Mok on Unsplash