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Ash Wednesday in Rome

Half an hour before sunrise on Ash Wednesday, hundreds of English-speakers from all over Rome will begin walking to the ancient basilica of St. Sabina on the Aventine Hill. They’ll start from student residences, from embassies to Italy and the Holy See, and from the Vatican. The Schwerpunkt, or focal point, for all this activity is the Pontifical North American College: more than 250 seminarians, student-priests, priest-faculty, and staff, having walked from the Janiculum Hill to the Aventine, will form the largest single contingent at St. Sabina on Ash Wednesday.

That is as it should be. For St. Sabina is the first “station” in the Roman station church pilgrimage of Lent, a tradition dating back to the middle centuries of the first Christian millennium. And the station church pilgrimage, which extends throughout Lent and involves some 40 churches, has become, today, a predominantly Anglophone—indeed, a predominantly American—phenomenon, having been revived for the third millennium by the North American College.

I got a sense of just how American this venerable custom has become when I spent all of Lent 2011 in Rome, making the station church pilgrimage in full with my son Stephen and my friend Elizabeth Lev, as we prepared our book on this unique spiritual, historical, and aesthetic journey, Roman Pilgrimage: The Station Churches (Basic Books).

On the Thursday after Ash Wednesday 2011, at 7 a.m., perhaps 250 English-speakers crowded into the small basilica of St. George in Velabro for the second Mass of Lent. Forty-five minutes later, a brave group of Germans came to honor the station church tradition by celebrating a beautifully chanted Mass together; there were seven of them. The next day, the same large English-speaking congregation climbed the Caelian Hill at dawn, to the station church of Sts. John and Paul. Stephen and I came back to the basilica later that afternoon to do some more photography and accidentally found ourselves in the midst of the stational Mass sponsored by the Vicariate of Rome, the local diocese: there were about 12 concelebrants, and perhaps another dozen people.

All of which explained the answer I got when I asked my friend Hanna Suchocka, the Polish ambassador to the Vatican, why she regularly attended the 7 a.m. English-language station church Mass rather than the more convenient 5:30 p.m. Vicariate of Rome Mass at the station church of the day: “Because I found a living Church here [i.e., at the American-sponsored Mass].”

St. Sabina is a splendid place to begin the station church pilgrimage. As Liz Lev puts it in Roman Pilgrimage, “The Basilica of St. Sabina crystallized Roman Christianity’s vision of the perfect church” with its remarkable “synergy of light, space, and decoration.” St. Sabina is also home to the oldest known depiction of the crucifixion, on the cypress doors of its porch: an image caught beautifully in one of Stephen’s Roman Pilgrimage photographs and a reminder that Lent is a journey with the Lord “up to Jerusalem,” where Jesus will meet his messianic destiny in the Paschal Mystery.

Liz’s, Stephen’s, and my intention in Roman Pilgrimage was to put readers “inside” the station church pilgrimage experience. Liz’s brilliant descriptions of each church’s architecture and decoration give the reader a sense of “being there” and understanding what, in fact, is “there.” Stephen’s striking photographs are not modeled on high-end architectural magazines, where places lack people; the photos in Roman Pilgrimage, either in the hardback or the e-book (where all the photos are in color and can be “zoomed” out by tapping on them), literally put you “inside” the stational basilica of the day, with the “living Church” of which Hanna Suchocka spoke. My meditations on the daily Mass and Divine Office texts suggest something of what that “living Church” is pondering, day by day, as it walks through Rome while, imaginatively, walking up to Calvary and the Empty Tomb.

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Americans in Rome have revived an ancient Catholic tradition that had lain dormant for centuries. That’s the happy fact to which Roman Pilgrimage: The Station Churches bears witness; that’s an experience readers can now share.

George Weigel
George Weigel
George Weigel is a Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. His column is distributed by the Denver Catholic.

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