Aventine meditations

Rome’s Aventine Hill has seen a lot.

Legend has it that a dispute over the hill led to the fratricidal conflict between the city’s founders, Romulus and Remus. During the Roman Republic the Aventine was a working class neighborhood, high above the city’s most important port. In imperial Rome the Aventine was gentrified, becoming the neighborhood-of-choice for knights and senators. Later still, great palaces were built on the Aventine, which offers an unparalleled city vista.

In the fourth century, St. Jerome lived there with a circle of admirers until decamping for Jerusalem to translate the Bible into Latin. In Jerome’s day, Peter of Illyria built a great basilica dedicated to St. Sabina on the Aventine — patristic Rome’s concept of the perfect church. Today, the Aventine is a posh residential neighborhood, home to the headquarters of the Knights of Malta (with its famous keyhole view of St. Peter’s dome) and that spiky asparagus patch of liturgical crankiness, the Pontifical Atheneum of Sant’Anselmo.

For all that it’s witnessed over the centuries, however, the Aventine hadn’t previously seen what’s happened there on the past 25 years or so of Ash Wednesdays. Then, as on Ash Wednesday 2020, hundreds of English speakers climb the Aventine before dawn to receive penitential ashes and celebrate the first Mass of Lent. That “stational Mass” at St. Sabina is the first stop in a Lenten tradition that dates back to the mid-first millennium — and that’s been revivified in our time by Americans.

In the mid-centuries of the first millennium, the Bishop of Rome, his clergy, and his choir would gather every day of Lent at a starting-point church (the collecta) and process to the statio, the “station church” of the day; there, Mass was solemnly celebrated before the congregation broke its Lenten fast. Both the collecta and the station church were often outgrowths of house churches commemorating Roman martyrs. Thus the stational church pilgrimage was an itinerary of sanctity, reminding Lenten penitents that the whole point of penance is purification for sanctification and Christian witness.

In the late sixth century, Pope St. Gregory the Great standardized the station church itinerary, which was subsequently expanded a bit but retained its essential Gregorian form. If you have an old daily missal at hand, you can find an echo of this pilgrimage tradition at the beginning of each Lenten day’s Mass. There, you’ll see a notation like “Ash Wednesday: Station at St. Sabina” or “Thursday after Ash Wednesday: Station at St. George.” Those notations continue throughout Easter Week, as the traditional pilgrimage lasted until the Octave of Easter (which we know as Divine Mercy Sunday).

The Roman station church pilgrimage of Lent began to disappear in the late first millennium. But its memory remained in all those missals, germinating. And in the mid-1970s, that memory bore fruit: American seminarians in Rome began to walk the ancient paths of the stational pilgrimage, to participate in Mass at the traditional station church of the day. By the early 1990s, the station church pilgrimage had become a major feature of the pastoral activity of the Pontifical North American College. Now, seminarians, students from the Rome campuses of Anglophone universities, diplomats, English-speaking members of the Roman Curia, and alert tourists all participate in this striking contemporary revival of a venerable tradition. The North American College organizes the entire pilgrimage and takes up a daily collection at the station churches for the relief of hard-pressed Christians in some part of the world.

To offer others the opportunity to experience something of the texture of this pilgrimage from home, I spent two months in the Eternal City in 2011, making the entire station church pilgrimage with my friend Elizabeth Lev, Rome’s pre-eminent art-and-architecture guide, and my son Stephen, a gifted architectural photographer. The result was the book Roman Pilgrimage: The Station Churches, which includes Liz’s brilliant descriptions of the churches, Stephen’s superb photography, and my commentaries on the liturgical texts of each day of Lent. If you’ve got a tablet, I recommend the eBook; every photograph is in color and a zoom function allows closer study of each image.

I once asked another friend, Hannah Suchocka, then the Polish ambassador to the Holy See, why she regularly attended the English-language station church Mass at 7 a.m.; surely the evening stational Mass sponsored by the Diocese of Rome would be more convenient? “I found a living church here,” Ambassador Suchocka replied.

Something to ponder, this Lent, amidst so many concerns about the problems of U.S. Catholicism. We do get some things right. And they’re important things.

COMING UP: Beyond Amazonia

Sign up for a digital subscription to Denver Catholic!

The post-synodal apostolic exhortation Querida Amazonia [Dear Amazonia] did not accept or endorse the 2019 Amazonian synod’s proposal that viri probati — mature married men — be ordained priests in that region. So until the German Church’s “synodal path” comes up with a similar proposal (which seems more than likely), a period of pause has been created in which some non-hysterical reflection on the priesthood and celibacy can take place throughout the world Church. Several points might be usefully pondered in the course of that conversation.

The first involves celibacy and the Kingdom.

Christians live, or ought to live, in a different time-zone because the Kingdom of God is among us, by the Lord’s own declaration in the gospels. Different vocations in the Church bear radical witness to that truth and remind the rest of us of it. The vocations that live the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity, and obedience in a consecrated way do that. So should the celibate priesthood.

It was said openly during the Amazonian synod, and it’s often muttered in other contexts, that celibacy makes no sense to many people. Which is quite true — if those people are living in pagan societies that haven’t heard the Gospel or post-Christian societies that have abandoned the Gospel and haven’t been re-evangelized. Celibacy, a total gift of self to God, only makes sense in a Kingdom context. So if celibacy doesn’t make sense in Amazonia or Dusseldorf or Hamburg, that likely has something to do with a failure to preach the Gospel of the inbreaking Kingdom of God in Amazonia, Dusseldorf, and Hamburg.

All of which is to say that the failures of Catholic Lite and Catholic Zero aren’t going to be addressed by lighter Catholic Lite or less-than-zero Catholic Zero.

The second point to ponder involves celibacy and the broader reform of the priesthood.

The brutal assault on Pope Emeritus Benedict and Cardinal Robert Sarah over their book From the Depths of Our Hearts obscured one of the crucial points these two eminent churchmen were trying to make: namely, that the priesthood is in crisis throughout the world because priesthood is too often reduced to a set of functions, rather than being understood and lived as a unique vocational configuration to Jesus Christ, the eternal high priest of the New Covenant.       There were hints of this function-think at the Amazonian synod, where some bishops seemed to imagine ordained viri probati as a kind of Catholic variant on the local shaman: an elder who does magical things in the spirit world. But the dumbing down of priesthood — the reduction of priestly ministry to what was sometimes called in the 1970s “priestcraft” — is a problem throughout the world Church.

It is a problem in seminaries that are boot camps for a clerical caste system. It is a problem where priesthood is thought to be a step up the social ladder in poorer countries. And it can be a problem in pastoral settings where the priest is so overwhelmed by the many things he must do that he can be tempted to forget just what he is: an icon of the priesthood of Jesus Christ.

So any serious discussion about the reform of the priesthood must begin with a deep dive into the Church’s theology of Holy Orders, rather than with debates about how to “make things work better.” Those debates are important. But they are secondary to the authentic Catholic reform of priestly ministry.

Then there is the question of celibacy and clerical sexual abuse. It’s been said many times but it evidently it needs saying again: a married clergy is not the silver-bullet answer to clerical sexual abuse because marriage is not a crime-prevention program. That is an obvious sociological truth, in that most sexual abuse takes place within family settings, and denominations with a married clergy have their own serious problems of clerical sexual misbehavior and abuse. In a Catholic context, it should also be an obvious theological truth, given the Catholic understanding of the sacramentality of marriage. Thus it would help facilitate a real conversation about the reform of the priesthood in the Catholic Church if the nonsensical notion that abandoning celibacy would solve the crisis of clerical sexual abuse were taken off the board, permanently.

The reform of the priesthood, including a deepening of the Church’s commitment to the value of celibacy as a radical witness to the Kingdom, begins, as does all authentic Catholic reform, with deeper conversion to Jesus Christ and the Gospel.