Journeying together toward spiritual perfection

Australian seminarian reflects upon ancient tradition of visiting station churches

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By Ann Schneible

ROME, MARCH 1, 2012 ( The city of Rome, filled with churches and monuments dedicated to Catholic saints and martyrs, offers a reminder to all Christians that they are united in faith to each and every Christian throughout the world, and throughout the entirety of Catholic history.

On Ash Wednesday, ZENIT spoke with a priest of the Pontifical North American College about the history and spiritual significance of the station church pilgrimage, a pilgrimage which goes back to the early Church. Seminarians and priests from the North American College each year visit these churches as part of their Lenten tradition.

This week, ZENIT spoke with Michael Cornell, a seminarian for the Archdiocese of Perth, Australia, who is in his third year of theology at the PNAC in Rome. 

ZENIT: It is often the case that Americans and Australians, coming from fairly young countries, can feel somewhat disconnected from the culture and history of Rome. How is it for you, as an Australian, participating in this ancient tradition of visiting the station churches?

Cornell: When I was a young boy in the parish where my grandmother was the sacristan, the holy relics in the altar are bones of the early church martyrs. She explained that to me, and I’ve always had this fascination with it. And just for me, this is rekindling part of my childhood, and bringing back pleasant memories of my grandmother. 

But unfortunately for us, as Australians, there is a real disconnection, a geographical disconnection [from Rome] because it’s not on our doorstep, and we are a new country in many respects. So it’s something fascinating to walk around and to explore and to learn so much about the faith from which we have come. 

ZENIT: You have been participating in this station church pilgrimage every year since you’ve been in Rome. How has this contributed to your formation as a Catholic, as a seminarian, especially during this Lenten season?

Cornell: It’s made the faith real in many respects. It’s not just this abstract idea, this abstract concept. Every church we visit is dedicated to someone different: to early Church martyrs, or people that are saints of the early Church. It shows this historical continuity. This is something which we have inherited, and this is something which we live just as they did. They received the Gospel, and then even today we’re still living out this Gospel. That’s one of the amazing things in that you realize it’s not just about me: it’s about everyone else. As one of the professors at university said, the difference between our faith and these New Age religions is that, ours is not focused on ourselves; it’s focused on our neighbor. And this brings that whole dynamic into place, to be able to go to all these Churches. 

ZENIT: This week, you have been visiting churches such as St. Peter in Chains, Saint Anastasia, Saint Mary Major. What have you received from visiting these churches?

Cornell: St. Peter in Chains… is just absolutely amazing because you’ve got amazing things historically. You have Michelangelo’s depiction of Moses off to the right, and then also you’ve got St. Peter’s chains there. And that’s one of the really amazing things; there you are kneeling down and you think: hang on, here is St. Peter, he was put into chains. It goes back to that line from the Gospel: «You will stretch out your hands, and another will gird you and carry you where you do not wish to go.» I suppose that’s the experience of us in the future Church …. So it’s interesting to see those chains, in many respects, popping up again. 

ZENIT: Why is it important to visit these station churches during the Lenten season, and what kind of preparation does it offer you and those who are participating in these visits?

Cornell: Lent is, in many respects, a journey. And so with this, each day we make a journey. Each day, we spend time in prayer. Each day, we visit new churches. And that causes us to visit ourselves in order to visit the faith anew every single day. Every church you go to, a different person has changed their life, a different person has spent time in their own Lent to focus on what is God calling [him] to be. It’s important to do this during Lent because you visit all these churches and you realize, you know what? I’m not alone. I’m on this journey with everyone else. We’re all going toward the same thing, which is spiritual perfection.

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