One of the highlights of this week’s station Church pilgrimage is San Lorenzo in Damaso, one of many Churches dedicated in honor of Saint Lawrence, deacon and martyr of the third century and one of the patrons of Rome.
For each day of Lent (except on Sundays), priests and seminarians from the Pontifical North American College, followed by a company of priests, religious, and laypeople, can be found making their way through the city in the early hours to one of the many station Churches. This Lenten pilgrimage has its roots in the early days of the Church, when the pope, as bishop of Rome, would pay a pastoral visit to the parishes of his diocese.
Donald Prudlo, Ph.D., associate professor of ancient and medieval Church history for Jacksonville State University, is currently in Rome conducting research. He told ZENIT that, although massive in size and located in the active city center of Rome, San Lorenzo in Damaso is often overlooked because “it lacks one of the fine Baroque facades which are one of the glories of this eternal city.”
The church stands just nearby Campo Dei Fiori and was built on what was once the site of stables for horses used in the chariot races in Circus Maximus. The site eventually went to the family of Pope Damasus (366-383) where Pope Damasus would later convert the family home into a church, which became one of 25 original parishes in Rome, and one of the oldest titular churches.
Extensive renovations were made to the church in the 15th century, including the construction of the Papal Chancery where: “Still today, many of the most important legal offices of the Church are to be found,” Prudlo said.
“It is not clear who the architect was who reordered the building,” he continued, “but he left a magnificent renaissance creation that is a delightful find. The church has been periodically restored through the centuries, most recently after a fire in 1944, and most notoriously after Napoleon requisitioned it for horse stalls during his occupation of Rome in 1798.”
“There are other sad memories here too,” he went on, “including the tomb of Pellegrino Rossi, the last interior minister of the Papal States, whose murder in the Cancelleria in 1848 led to Blessed Pius IX’s flight from Rome, and began the process which would lead to the loss of the temporal power in 1870.”
A Lenten station Church
The Church of San Lorenzo in Damaso, Prudlo said, is an ideal site for pilgrimage. “Within the Church one can make several mini-pilgrimages. Under the stunning high altar, built by Bramante (of St. Peter’s fame) one can venerate the remains of Pope St. Damasus himself, one of the greatest of popes, holy and politically savvy at the same time. There one also encounters the relics of St. Hippolytus, the only anti-pope to be venerated as a saint, and also one of the earliest brilliant lights of Latin theology. In the rear of the Church is a marvelous Byzantine Black Madonna, and a Crucifix reputed to have spoken to St. Bridget of Sweden.”
“The basilica is a refuge of quiet in the heart of one of the busiest areas of Rome,” Prudlo said. “In it one can come into contact with silence that is often absent in many of the other famous churches of the city, making it an ideal stational church for Lent.”