Priests and seminarians of the Pontifical North American College (PNAC) in Rome made their way early this morning to the ancient Basilica of Santa Sabina to celebrate Ash Wednesday Mass, there commencing a Lenten tradition that goes back centuries.
The “station church” pilgrimage, hosted every year by PNAC seminarians, follows the ancient tradition of visiting a different Church every day throughout the liturgical season of Lent. The visitation of each station church begins with 7am Mass, celebrated in English. The Churches visited by the PNAC is based on a list established in the late 5th century, although a few changes were made in the 1500s. The practice of visiting the Station churches during Lent was formalized by Pope Gregory the Great in the 6th century.
The tradition has its roots in the ancient practice where the reigning pope, as bishop of Rome, would make a pastoral visit to the various Churches in the city. In remembrance of this practice, Pope Benedict XVI would celebrate Ash Wednesday with Mass at Santa Sabina; in light of his forthcoming resignation, however, the Holy Father celebrated this year’s Ash Wednesday Mass at Saint Peter’s Basilica to make accommodation for the crowds expected to attend.
Monsignor Anthony Figueiredo, an adjunct spiritual advisor at the PNAC, spoke with ZENIT about the significance of the station church pilgrimage within the context of the Lenten season.
“This whole period of Lent is really the time when we move towards Easter,” he said. “It is significant that we are moving towards a goal during these days. And to help us along that journey the Church has given us what are called the “station churches,” a great tradition in Rome. Its origins go back to the very earliest time of the Church when the Popes would visit different Churches in order to visit the faithful of their diocese.”
Msgr. Figueiredo explained how the practice of visiting these Churches during Lent “is very significant in terms of our own spiritual lives. They would gather at a particular spot, maybe of some Church, and they would then walk in procession to one of the station churches. Those station churches were usually very much linked to the martyrs of Rome on which the Church of Rome is built. These pilgrims would go in procession, singing the litany of the saints and the psalms, and there they would greet the Holy Father, his clergy, who would arrive there from the Lateran palace.”
“There are three points important for us,” he explained, “the past, the present, and the future. We see that this is a pilgrimage, and that reminds us that our life is a pilgrimage. We are going towards Heaven, and Easter is the Night of nights when we would experience Heaven as fully as we can on this earth.”
The station church pilgrimage, he continued, “also reminds us of the past, that our faith is built on others who have given their lives. They strengthen us [by helping is know that] others won the good fight.”
“We also find ourselves now in the interim period,” Msgr. Figueiredo said. ” It is always a beautiful experience for me to see that there are others who are on this journey. To see them when we walk together. We pray together. And there are others who help us make this journey. We are not alone.”
The First Station Church: Santa Sabina
Santa Sabina was built on the spot of a Domus Ecclesia – a house where Christians who were under persecution would celebrate the Sacraments. Saint Sabina was a Roman matron who was converted to Christianity through one of her servants. Martyred in Umbria, the saint’s remains were brought back to the site of the current basilica, where they rest today.
Pope Gregory the Great, who formalized the Lenten station church pilgrimage, referred to Santa Sabina as the “gem” of the Aventine, having fled there during a time of plague.
The basilica also holds significance for the Dominican order. Pope Honorius III gave the basilica to Saint Dominic 1222 as a friary for his burgeoning order.
Msgr. Figueiredo noted it is significant that of Santa Sabina, the first of the station churches to be visited in Lent, is located on the Aventine Hill. “To get to Santa Sabina is really quite difficult, and it reminds that this life is a battle. Faith is a battle. The spiritual life is a battle. To begin in this way – uphill – reminds us that these days of Lent won’t be easy. That’s why we’re given spiritual helps by the Church – prayer, fasting, and almsgiving – to help us in this battle.”