The Vicariate of Rome organizes a Lenten tradition called the Stazioni Quaresimali, the “Lenten Stations.” In the romance languages, the word for Lent is often related to the word for 40 — “quaranta” in Italian. We English speakers usually refer to the tradition as the “station churches.”
Each day for Lent, pilgrims gather in one of the scores of churches in Rome for a special Mass, which often includes the litany of the saints, exposition of relics or artworks otherwise kept under lock and key, and prayers dedicated to the “way of conversion” which is always a part of our annual preparation for Easter. The Pontifical North American College has a tradition of hosting a 7 a.m. Mass each morning in English, to which many of their community members walk before the start of the day — and that’s a serious commitment, as some of these are in quite far-flung corners of the city.
The Italian Masses and processions, which I prefer simply because of the mellifluous sound of praying in the local language, tend to be in the evenings. Even though I go to daily Mass, I simply cannot make it to all of them with my schedule, but I have been to a few per week so far and found them very inspirational.
The tradition, which dates back well over a thousand years when the popes themselves were believed to have made these rounds through the city each day for the season, always opens on Ash Wednesday at the Dominican-run church of Santa Sabina. The modern Holy Fathers can no longer attend them all with their other commitments, but they always kick off the tradition before following up its culmination with the famous Holy Week liturgies. Pope Francis inaugurated the celebrations as usual this year on the first day of Lent, encouraging the faithful to dedicate their spiritual journey to the eradication of hypocrisy and to ask the Lord for “the gift of tears.”
I recently attended the ceremonies in our local parish, the Navicella, officially named Santa Maria in Domnica, a church with beautiful ancient mosaics and strong ties to the Medici family, as well as in the nearby Lateran, the pope’s cathedral of Rome, and San Clemente, what some call the “liturgical layer cake” with various levels of churches built one upon the other over the centuries. These are familiar places of worship to me at this point. But the tradition becomes more interesting when the station church for the day leads you to a previously unexplored hidden gem here.
I contemplated Caravaggio’s Our Lady of Loreto with its famous “dirty feet” pilgrims and prayed at the tomb of St. Monica in the Basilica of Sant’Agostino (St. Augustine himself is strangely enough interred in Pavia). I processed behind a relic of the True Cross on Via Merulana outside the church of SS. Marcellino e Pietro, exorcists beheaded during the Diocletian persecutions. I knelt silently in Cardinal Egan’s titular church SS. Giovanni e Paolo, days before the recent unexpected death of the former New York archbishop, under the Waterford chandeliers he famously used to inform everyone originally hung in the Waldorf-Astoria.
There are a number of books written about the pilgrimage, both from the “beni culturali” angle (a catch-all term for the cultural heritage of the church in art, architecture, literature, city planning, etc.) and from more devotional ones. I’ve often been referencing one published through the NAC — those tireless 7 a.m. guys.
So many theological themes coincide in this tradition. The need for ongoing, life-long conversion and faith-formation, a deepening relationship with the communion of saints, an appreciation for the sacrificial and obediential quality of Christ’s saving passion. If we are careful to distinguish reverence from superstition (in the case of relics for instance), such elements of Catholicism help us move closer to God in new and exciting ways.
People in Rome constantly ask one another “Where is today’s station church?” is truly a tradition unlike any other, even more so than the upcoming golf tournament which describes itself with that phrase and is another sign that spring is around the corner.
Collingswood native Michael M. Canaris, Ph.D., Pontifical University of St. Thomas (Angelicum), Rome.