Pope St. Gregory the Great fixed the order of the original 25 church stations in the sixth century, which were later expanded, before the practice waned in the 14th century.
Walking to the station churches today has brought the ambassador from the Ash Wednesday station church, the Basilica of Santa Sabina -- built in the year 432 A.D. and once home to St. Thomas Aquinas -- to the Basilica of the Holy Cross of Jerusalem, which contains the long-venerated relics of Christ’s cross brought to Rome by Empress Helena, the mother of Constantine.
“As an ambassador to the Holy See, you often go to events in churches, so I know a lot of the churches, but I’ve been surprised by how many are new to me as well,” Axworthy said.
“And I have discovered some great churches, like today’s was Santa Pudenziana, which I hadn’t actually been to, but it is the oldest place of worship in Rome. St. Peter is said to have celebrated the Eucharist there, and they still have a bit of the table on which he celebrated the Eucharist, so that is very exciting, and a very exciting church to discover.”
The ambassador said that her favorite churches are those in which “you get a sense of the antiquity of the place,” such as St. George in the Velabrum and the Papal Basilica of St. Lawrence outside the Walls.
The early Christian liturgical stational church tradition has had a bit of an Anglophonic revival in the last three decades, spearheaded by the Pontifical North American College, which in recent years offered a 7 a.m. Mass in English at the station churches each day of Lent.
In its modern form, the station church itinerary brings pilgrims to just over 40 churches between Ash Wednesday and the end of the Easter Octave, with repeated visits to some of the major and minor basilicas.
Axworthy’s days are packed with meetings, speeches, and events, so she usually visits the churches either before or after work.
“Although it is becoming a bit of an obsession, I try not to let it interfere too much with my working days,” she said.
“Luckily in Rome, there hasn’t been too much rain, so it makes for a lovely walk every morning or evening to go see a different church,” she added.
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Axworthy has also shared much of her Roman Station Church experience on social media, posting photos and facts about the church of each particular day.
Axworthy said: “I have found as ambassador that my social media followers are very interested in everything about life in Rome. And often if I tweet about a work meeting that they are obviously not so excited about that, but they do like to hear about what goes on in the Vatican and the life of the Holy See, really.”
“I know in the U.K. … people are suffering lockdown, so they are not allowed to go out very much, and so I thought, well, this is something that I can do. I can share what I’ve been doing with the station churches and hopefully, that will provide a little glimmer of hope every day or something of interest when people are really suffering some quite difficult circumstances.”
While the latest round of coronavirus restrictions in Rome, introduced on March 15, has forced Axworthy to suspend some of her station church visits on their designated day, she plans to visit the churches that she missed as soon as Rome’s “red-zone” restrictions have lifted.
She will end her term as the British ambassador to the Holy See later this year after five years of service in Rome.