Ancient Roman pilgrimage revs-up spiritual aspect of Lent

Ancient Roman pilgrimage revs-up spiritual aspect of Lent

Credit: coloneljohnbritt via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).
Credit: coloneljohnbritt via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

.- For pilgrims in Rome, Ash Wednesday marked not only the start of the Church’s Lenten season, but also a traditional Lenten pilgrimage that helps offer a more spiritual outlook on the journey toward Easter.

“It’s incredible. It’s an experience I never thought I would be able to have. It’s still hard to believe – I have to keep reminding myself that I’m not just back in the states, I’m not just going to a normal Mass. It’s in Rome and it’s a pilgrimage,” Sarah Maslow told CNA Feb. 18.

Maslow is originally from Burnsville, Minn., and is studying in Rome for a semester with the University of St. Mary. Like hundreds of others, she traveled to the Roman Church of Santa Sabina at 6:45 a.m. on Ash Wednesday for this year’s first Mass in the Station Church pilgrimage.

Organized by the Pontifical North American College, the Station Churches are part of an ancient custom dating back to the late second or early third century as a means of strengthening the Christian community while honoring the Roman martyrs after the legalization of Christianity in 313 A.D.

Faithful would journey through the streets of the city and visit various churches as they walked, praying the Litany of the Saints along the way. The Pope would participate, leading the group in prayer and celebrating Mass.

The seminarians at the NAC help keep the tradition alive today with the Station Churches pilgrimage, during which pilgrims are invited to travel to a different Roman parish for prayer and the celebration of Mass each of the 40 days of the Lenten season, excluding Sundays and the Easter Triduum.

Leon Griesbach, who serves as the North American College’s music director and organist, led the choir for the Ash Wednesday Mass, which took place at the minor basilica of Santa Sabina. Pope Francis himself celebrated Mass at the church later that day.

To participate in the event is “incredible,” Griesbach said, especially given the historical significance of both the event itself, and the parishes they visit, which often contain the bodies of saints.

“You just feel like a part of the tradition…its special. I have to keep pinching myself whenever I find myself in places like this,” he said.

“It’s such an honor to be in the same city as the Holy Father and to have access to him in the liturgies here. And to know that he’ll be treading on the same ground here later today underlines what it means for this pilgrimage and for the church.”

Griesbach and his family, who have lived in Rome for several years, have added morning and evening prayer from the Church’s Liturgy of the Hours to their daily devotions.

In addition, Griesbach said that he personally will be reading the Rule of St. Benedict and will try to be strict with fast days “if I can manage it.” He jested that “it’s always a work in progress.”

For Fr. James Platania, the pilgrimage also serves as a strong moment of community which provides the opportunity “to in a sense ‘spiritualize’ or make holy the city.”

Originally from Paterson, N.J., Fr. Platania grew up in Vernon and is currently studying Sacred Scriptures at the Biblical Institute. A former seminarian of the North American College, he is now stationed at Rome’s college of Santa Maria.

“There’s a real communal aspect to the whole experience (of the pilgrimage), which is walking with the brothers of the house to the site and then praying, celebrating Mass and then returning in a prayerful spirit,” he said.

A big part of his own Lenten sacrifice involves his commitment to participating in the ancient pilgrimage, which involves rising around 5 a.m. and making the walk to the day’s church with his community while praying the rosary.

By doing this, in addition to practicing acts of charity, “the penitential practice doesn’t just become a routine of just a rigorism, but something that gives life to others,” the priest noted.

Daniel Sedlacek, the student leader of the pilgrimage and a third year seminarian at the North American College, said the event serves as not only a means of prayer, but also of preparation for Easter.

“When you’re in Rome you have to prepare yourself for pretty much anything. But for the most part, the biggest preparation is the preparation toward the Easter Triduum, the spiritual preparation, which is what Lent is all about,” he said.

Lent is a time when the Church journeys together toward the Passion, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, Sedlacek noted, explaining that he is seeking to assist people along this path in any way that he can.

His own Lenten journey involves not only making extra time for personal prayer, but also journaling, so that each day he can write down the “graces and things to be grateful for each day during this Lenten pilgrimage.”

Alan Holdren contributed to this piece.

Tags: Lent, Pilgrimage, Rome

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