Station churches: A pilgrimage of faith and discovery
Diocesan seminarians walk to a different church in Rome every day during Lent, beginning with Santa Sabina, where the pope began his Lent.
The penitential season of Lent started early for the seminarians at the Pontifical North American College (NAC) in Rome. At 5:30 a.m. on Ash Wednesday, the seminarians began gathering at the seminary gate atop the Janiculum Hill. They set out on foot at 5:55 a.m. for their first station church, Santa Sabina, about two-and-a-half miles down the Tiber River. It was still dark, but mild as they made their way to the first of what would be 41 station churches they will visit throughout Lent.
Each morning they set out on foot to a different church. Some will take more than an hour to reach, others are much closer. The young men walk in pairs, or big groups, and make their way quickly, on a mission. Some recite the rosary aloud, others pray quietly. They are a witness to anyone on the streets at that hour. It’s a moving sight to see.
Ash Wednesday they walked along the Lungotevere, usually jammed with traffic, but at this early hour there were just a few cars and trucks vying for lane space. Once across the Tiber, they made their way to Aventine Hill and the Basilica of Santa Sabina.
In addition to the faith aspect of beginning each day at a different church throughout Lent, the educational opportunities abound.
Santa Sabina is believed to have been built near the house of a Sabine, a Roman widow who converted to the Faith because of her slave, Seraphia. Both were martyred for the Faith.
The present church was built between 422 and 432. Through several modifications, in 824, 1559, 1586 and 1914, the church remains a basic rectangle with large columns and simple décor.
Since the 13th century, it has been the mother church of the Roman Dominicans. Worthy of name-dropping, such saints as Dominic and Thomas Aquinas frequented it.
This Ash Wednesday, the seminarians gathered for Mass at 7 a.m., celebrated by Msgr. James Checchio, rector of the NAC.
“So here we go again,” he said, pointing out that “40 days seems like a long time, but it is not.” He explained how the number 40 is symbolic: the number of days it rained for Noah; the number of years the Israelites wandered in the desert; and the days of fast for Moses, Elijah and Jesus Himself.
“Rend your hearts, not your garments,” Msgr. Checchio said, quoting Scripture. He urged the seminarians to use “those weapons of self-restraint — prayer, fasting and almsgiving.”
Arlington Diocese seminarian Brendan Bartlett rode his bike to Santa Sabina. It allowed him an extra 20 minutes before leaving. In his third year at the NAC, he has done all 40 days for the past two years.
The parishioner of St. Leo the Great Parish in Fairfax and a graduate of Bishop O’Connell High School in Arlington and James Madison University in Harrisonburg, said the station churches give “the aspect of pilgrimage to the 40 days of Lent” in addition to doing it in community.
“We are all on our earthly pilgrimage together as Catholics,” he said, adding that we should try to do Lenten pilgrimages together.
Nicholas Barnes, also a third-year seminarian, said the station churches are a huge benefit of studying in Rome. The fact that they are praying in places where ancient saints were martyred impresses him.
Barnes, a parishioner of St. Raymond of Peñafort Parish in Springfield and a graduate of Paul VI Catholic High School in Fairfax and the University of Virginia, said the early hour and the distance don’t compare to the experience.
Another benefit, Barnes and Bartlett agreed, is that the station church outing helps the seminarians get to know the beautiful churches and saints of Rome. For some of the churches, this is the only time during the year they are open for people to wander in and see different things.
Although many churches in Rome contain relics, there are some notables in the rotation.
Legend says there are pieces of the manger at Santa Maria Maggiore and pieces of the Holy Cross at Santa Croce in Gerusalemme.
At Santa Sabina, there is a black rock on a pillar, believed to have been thrown by the devil at St. Dominic, who was praying in the church.
Just eight hours after the seminarians filled this church, Pope Benedict XVI came to celebrate Ash Wednesday Mass.
Some other station churches include Santa Cecilia, the patron saint of musicians; Santa Susanna, known as the American church; Santa Maria in Via Lata, with remains dating back to the First century AD underneath; San Crisogono, on a busy street in Piazza Belli; and San Nicola in Carcere, built on the remains of three Roman temples.
The NAC publishes a guide to the station churches, a handy resource when following along on foot, or by praying and touring vicariously from the diocese of Arlington.