ROME, MARCH 4, 2003 (Zenit.org).- Countless parish churches around the world have their Stations of the Cross. Rome has its station churches.
Visiting these station churches has been a central feature of Christian life for at least 15 centuries.
The faithful make their way to a different church each of the 40 days of Lent for Mass and the singing of the Litany of the Saints. The pilgrimage to the shrines of the apostles and martyrs is an opportunity to pray for the Church through the intercession of the saints.
The practice of visiting the particular station churches dates back to the pontificate of Pope St. Gregory the Great (590-604).
Since the early days of the Church, Christians in Rome and other places such as Jerusalem and Constantinople had been practicing the fast of “statio,” a Roman military term meaning to stand guard. St. Ambrose in the fourth century noted this practice in Sermon XXV, saying that, “Our fasts are our encampments against the attacks of the devil.”
Christians used the word “station” to mean a vigilant commitment to conversion and prayer. The fast of “station” occurred when the faithful walked in procession to or within a particular church, venerating the apostles and martyrs on particular holy days.
While originating in the cult of the martyrs, the practice eventually evolved into the gathering of the local clergy around the bishop, patriarch or even the Pope, and processing to the place where the Eucharist was to be celebrated.
Pope St. Gregory standardized the churches throughout Rome that would be used for the “statio,” or stations, during the liturgical year. With time, the stations were moved to the Lenten season, but the list of churches has mostly remained the same since the time of Gregory.
The practice of the Lenten stations declined in the late Middle Ages and was revived after the Council of Trent in the 16th century. They became popular again in the past century, even though the Popes have ceased to preside over the daily stations.
Since John XXIII, however, the Popes have traveled to Santa Sabina on the Aventine, the first of the station churches, to distribute the ashes on Ash Wednesday, symbolizing the beginning of the Lenten journey. This year, John Paul II will continue this tradition on Ash Wednesday.
In the penitential nature of the season, many pilgrims walk early in the morning to the stations. Masses are said in various languages at the stations throughout the day, along with a procession and the Litany of the Saints.
Some of the churches display various relics and artistic treasures that are only brought out for veneration once a year. In addition, the station pilgrimages are an opportunity to see the most ancient churches in Rome, including some that are rarely open to the public.
The schedule for the next day’s events is posted on the current day’s station church.
In the stations pilgrims encounter the suffering, crucified and risen Lord Jesus Christ, and contemplate how the paschal mystery has been made present throughout the history of the Church in the lives of the saints and martyrs.
Whether one can make the station pilgrimages throughout this Lenten season, the prayers of the faithful around the world are joined to the prayers of the pilgrims in a spirit of penitence and conversion for the Church and the world.
The Pontifical Academy Cultorum Martyrum Web site (http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/pontifical_academies/cult-martyrum/index.htm) has a complete listing of this year’s station churches.