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Lent is often viewed as a journey where the faithful spiritually accompany Christ on his way through Calvary to the empty tomb of Easter.
But this pilgrimage is manifested in a rather physical way in Rome, where scores of English-speaking Catholics daily make their way through the streets to participate in an early morning Mass at the “station church” assigned to each day of Lent. (Pray the Stations of the Cross here)
This tradition is rooted in the early history of the Church. In the fourth and fifth centuries, the bishop of Rome began visiting his parish churches on a regular basis.
There are more station churches than there are days of Lent so some churches are assigned days during other parts of the liturgical year.
But Lent is a season where the station churches are given special attention.
The pope continues to celebrate Ash Wednesday Mass at the Basilica of Santa Sabina, the first of the station churches, and he will sometimes visit other parishes on the Sundays of Lent, as he did on Feb. 24.
Over the years, archdiocesan seminarians and priests studying in the Eternal City have participated in this devotion of visiting the station churches.
Seminarian Sean Danda is in his third year of studies at the Pontifical North American College in Rome (NAC), and came to value the station churches after his first Ash Wednesday visit to Santa Sabina.
“I began to see how the past touched upon the present, and just how our faith developed over the centuries like an acorn that grows into an oak tree,” he said in an e-mail interview. “Santa Sabina is part of a long and unbroken tradition. The beauty, the quiet and the prayer possible in that church drew me into the faith that existed past, present and future at that place.”
Although the tradition is in many ways unbroken, it hasn’t always been as strongly attended to as it is at present.
When Msgr. Frederick Easton, archdiocesan vicar judicial, was studying canon law in Rome during the late 1960s, it was more difficult to make it to the churches for Mass in English. But he at least made the effort to visit many of the churches sometime during the day.
“It was almost like a symbol of Lent,” Msgr. Easton said. “It linked me back to the earlier Church. And it gave me a sense of being connected back to the history of the whole Lenten praxis of the Church.”
By the early 1970s, however, the seminarians at the NAC had started to follow the tradition more closely.
Msgr. Mark Svarczkopf, pastor of Our Lady of the Greenwood Parish in Greenwood, was a seminarian there at the time.
“It wasn’t a time to go touring,” he recalled. “As a matter of fact, we were all in such a hurry to get to school, it was a rush to get there in time for Mass. So it was clearly a Lenten devotion. …”
The NAC seminarians usually walk together to the churches, some of which can take an hour to reach on foot.
“There is something about ‘making the journey’ together,” Danda said. “As Christians, we share the path of following Christ together. This builds brotherhood and charity.
“Plus, Rome is a different world before the Italians, the tourists, and the ragazzi [‘Italian children’] wake up. There is a peace and quiet to this eternal city which reminds us of God’s presence despite the inevitable sirens, motorinos and car fumes.”
Father James Bonke, defender of the bond in the archdiocesan Metropolitan Tribunal, studied canon law in Rome in the early 1990s.
He recalled that the early morning pilgrimages to the station churches had a penitential nature to them.
“It could be rainy and it could be cold,” Father Bonke said. “And the cold in Rome is a damp cold. It kind of seeps through you.
“And, of course, none of these churches had heating in them. So oftentimes, you’d be there bundled up in a heavy coat while trying to participate in Mass.”
Msgr. Svarczkopf had a particular memory of a puddle in front of Santa Sabina.
“When it rains, the pavement there has a puddle in front of the main steps,” he said. “It’s like eight inches deep. It goes right up over the tops of your shoes.”
Despite such hardships, often recalled with a chuckle or wry smile, Father Bonke fondly remembered being the celebrant for the English Mass at Santa Cecilia in Trastevere, the station church for the Wednesday of the second week of Lent.
“My mother had a great devotion to St. Cecilia,” he said. “And I was aware that Santa Cecilia was the church where [deceased archdiocesan priest] Msgr. Raymond Bosler celebrated his first Mass. Msgr. Bosler was someone that I kind of looked up to. So, in his honor, I celebrated Mass there.”
Msgr. Svarczkopf returned to the NAC as a member of its faculty from 2000-03. During that time, it was his responsibility to make sure the English-speaking community had an altar available in the station churches at which they could celebrate Mass.
By that point, various language groups in Rome were following the tradition closely.
“Somebody was always wanting to weasel in on that great time that we had just before school,” Msgr. Svarczkopf said. “We’d have to fight off the Germans. We’d have to tell our homilists that we only had 25 minutes so they couldn’t go long.”
As a seminarian, Danda isn’t bothered with such details. He has the time to appreciate the beauty of each station church and how they are a living testimony to so many who died for the faith and made the faith what it is today.
“These churches teach us that it is a beautiful faith and one worth dying for,” Danda said. “I think about the millions upon millions of pilgrims who have come to pray at these holy places.
“I also think of the parishioners who have poured their lives, hearts and souls into building up a proper place for worshiping the Triune God. And I think about us praying there today, who will be part of the remnant of those churches tomorrow.”
(For more information on Rome’s Lenten station churches, log on to www.pnac.org/station_churches/station_index.htm.)