There’s a neat tradition in Rome during Lent that, now that I’m back home, I wish I had participated more fully in when I lived there. It’s called the station church pilgrimage, and it’s been happening for well over 1,500 years. Every day, the seminarians would rise before the crack of dawn and walk to one of the more ancient churches in the city for daily Mass. Ash Wednesday, for example, is celebrated at Santa Sabina on the Aventine Hill; to get there in time for a 6:45 Mass, one needed to leave the seminary by 5:55. My aversion to all things morning made this a very sacrificial day, indeed. Thankfully, the pilgrimage was optional.
But why do it at all? It wasn’t just so we could get to see some churches that we otherwise wouldn’t; the custom is deeply rooted in prayer. In the second and third centuries, the popes made it a priority to celebrate Mass in different parts of the city each day to help unify the community. By the fifth century, once Christianity became legal the political situation in Rome had stabilized, the schedule became more or less set for these visits. In the days before Lent started, the pope would celebrate Mass at the three major basilicas outside the walls of the city, thus forming a ring of prayer around Rome; his daily visits to different neighborhoods were meant to sanctify that part of the city, to prepare it for the coming feasts of the Triduum and Easter. The community would gather with the pope at one church, called the collectum, and after saying some prayers, they would then go in solemn procession to the statio, or station, church for Mass. And if the statio was in your neighborhood, it was a fast day for you. The people understood their responsibility on that day to be like that of a soldier on guard duty, and took it seriously. They were protecting their homes from vice and temptation; from evil.
Now that our Lent is a few days old, we should ask ourselves how well we’re doing at resisting temptations and vices. What are we doing to sanctify our neighborhoods? Our schools? Our homes? It’s not an easy task, and we won’t be successful without relying on prayer, fasting, and almsgiving – but, with the grace of God, it can be done.
Oremus pro invicem!