On Ash Wednesday, earlier than usual, more solemn than usual, with anticipation, excitement, and perhaps some dread, the seminarians of the North American College in Rome awoke to prepare for their annual Lenten pilgrimage. Groggy but determined, the men prepared themselves, perhaps choosing a pair of shoes a bit more accustomed to the cobble of the ancient streets, selecting a jacket that could protect from the inevitable rain, palming their familiar rosary. They assembled just before 6 a.m. to recite an ancient litany invoking the help of Christ the Lord. Quietly and intently, they began their long walk.
New men—those in their first year at the college—were of divided reaction: what was the meaning of this abrupt change to their schedule? Where were we going? Why did we leave so early? Old men were remembering Ash Wednesdays past: perhaps with joy, perhaps with a bit of fatigued distress. Across the city they marched, past the swirling brine of the river, past Trastevere, the earliest Christian quarter in Rome, founded in the early 40s A.D., past Tiber Island where a humble church contains the relics of St. Bartholomew, around the back of the Palatine Hill, overlooking the prison of Peter and Paul and the site of so many early martyrdoms, through the shadow of the great Coliseum, site of the gladiatorial games and the gruesome slaughter of not a few Christians, past the Circus Maximus—that bastion of barbarianism where hundreds were sometimes killed at once. The seminarians ascended the Aventine Hill, passing ancient walls, narrow streets, and countless graves. They entered into the Church of Santa Sabina, named for a widow who converted to the Christian faith and was martyred under the emperor Hadrian (117-138 A.D.). A few minutes later, Mass began, and the seminarians found themselves meditating on their impending death and the fact that they were being called to repentance.
Santa Sabina is the first of the Lenten Station Churches in Rome. Station Churches are part of a tradition that has uncertain roots, but, by some estimates, dates to the 3rd Century A.D. In early Christian Rome, the Eucharist was normally celebrated by a bishop. As such, the faithful would process to the site of the celebration to be in union with the other faithful in the city. It is not known with certainty which of the churches in Rome constituted the first of the station churches (from statio or stare—a standing together, a gathering). But, after the Edict of Milan (313 A.D.) which ended the persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire, the stations in Rome began to be more defined.
Today, the tradition has developed into a Lenten pilgrimage. For each of the days of Lent, there is a station church somewhere in the city. Almost all of the Churches are on the seven ancient hills, and most contain important relics of our faith. Some are the burial places of important martyrs, those early witnesses to the faith.
The North American College offers a Mass in the station church of the day, so each morning, seminarians arise early and march across the city praying rosaries or meditating on the Christian mysteries, braving the miserably cold rainy season which seems to continually dump buckets of water during the walk to the church. Then we celebrate Mass in a place where it has been celebrated for centuries—the very places that have shaped the tenor of our faith over the years.
One who attends all of the station Churches will see quite a bit of history: relics of the apostles Peter, Paul, James the Lesser, Philip, Bartholomew, Simon, Jude, Andrew, Matthias, Thomas, St. Timothy, St. Mark the Evangelist, the entire list of martyrs in the Roman Canon, the chains that held St. Peter, pieces of the Holy Cross, the thorns from Jesus’ crown, the notice Pilate affixed to the cross, the manger in which Jesus was lain after his birth, the table upon which the Last Supper was celebrated, countless Popes, saints, not to mention numerous priceless works of art and beautiful Churches. It is a pilgrimage through the history of our faith—a history that lives and continues with us.
Going to the Station Churches is really an amazing experience. The North American College has a very informative website on the tradition, and I recommend you visit it to familiarize yourself with this venerable tradition of celebrating Lent with the early martyrs of the Church.
It is difficult to wake up early every morning—especially knowing that for 90% of the stations, it will be cold and raining the entire time of the walk. I usually arrive with cold and soaking feet. The church is almost never heated, and there are never enough seats. Afterward, we have to rush off to school for the day, which will be particularly unpleasant, because as anyone knows, it takes much longer for shoes to dry than they do to get wet.
Despite all of this, I have noticed that the seminarians who attend the station Masses—especially those that brave the foulest weather—spend their Lent constantly smiling. I find myself joyful with an uplifted spirit, even though it can be difficult to stay attentive in my first class or so. And it’s not just me. I see it in all the men who make the daily pilgrimage. We constantly hear that Lent is supposed to be a “joyful season” (which seems sort of logical paradoxical to me), but I generally find that the more faithful I am to penances and to self-mortification—even in something as simple as walking across this magnificent city every morning in the rain—the more joyful I am.
I suppose the reason is simple. If we actually follow the command of Ash Wednesday to repent and believe in the Gospel, we really can do nothing but grow more joyful, since to grow closer to God is to grow closer to joy itself. Joy is not the natural product of penance. However the fact that penance makes us become holier brings us closer to Christ, the source of our joy.
So I wish you a joyful Lent. I pray your penances bring you closer to God, and I hope that each of you will take a moment in Lent to remember those glorious martyrs who assured our faith with their lives.