The Station Churches

By George Weigel, Stephen Weigel and Elizabeth Lev
Basic Books, 2013
464 pages, $34 (hardcover)
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As the Eternal City wakes, the pilgrim walks the ancient streets in quiet prayer, rosary in hand, and soon is joined along the way by others traversing the same path. The destination — early morning Mass in one of the oldest churches in Rome. This ascetic morning routine is repeated for more than 40 days, drawing pilgrims to more than 40 designated “Station churches.”

The daily Lenten tradition of visiting these churches dates back to the fourth century, when the bishop of Rome, the clergy and the faithful of the city would gather at the tombs of martyrs to celebrate the holy Eucharist and commemorate the supreme witness of faith.

For centuries, this Roman pilgrimage was largely forgotten; yet, in recent years, it has been vibrantly revived by American seminarians studying at the North American College.

Now, on any given day of Lent, Holy Week and Easter Week, the designated Station church is full of hundreds of English-speaking pilgrims — seminarians, clergy, religious, university students, diplomats, Vatican officials and workers — eager to be fed by the liturgy and the memory of the martyrs, as they make their way through Lent.

I had the joy of experiencing this tradition during my graduate studies in Rome several years ago. Every Lent, I remember the prayerful, sunrise journey to the church with my fellow pilgrims and the depth of prayer I was able to enter into as we worshipped in our own tongue in the house of an early martyr. I’ve longed to relive that experience.

Thankfully, theologian George Weigel’s latest book, Roman Pilgrimage: The Station Churches, brings this Lenten tradition to everyone and anyone — those who find themselves in Rome for Lent and those who make the journey from their own homes.

In Roman Pilgrimage, Weigel chronicles the history of this tradition, while his co-authors, photographer Stephen Weigel (George’s son) and art historian Elizabeth Lev, detail in images and words the artistic beauty of each site that is visited.

Yet Roman Pilgrimage is more than a historical and artistic rendering of a Roman tradition. It’s a day-by-day spiritual guide through the Church’s penitential season.

Weigel describes the season as “relentlessly gritty,” in the way it invites Christians to “confront the darkness of ourselves” in a dusty journey that ends as we pass through the cleansing waters of baptism and receive radiant new life at Easter.

Lent, Weigel writes, calls for “a stepping aside from the ordinary rhythms of life in order to be more open to the promptings of the Spirit of God and those more deeply converted to walking God’s path through history.” Weigel emphasizes that the ultimate reason for Lent is for the penitent to be renewed in friendship with God and strengthened in the evangelical mission, so that friendship with Christ can be effectively presented to others.

The book shows us that the pilgrimage experience is a “lesson in Western civilization,” as each place illuminates a “culture that endures despite radical changes of political and economic fortune”; an “itinerarium of sanctity and profound Christian conviction” as the pilgrim remembers the lives of the saints; and an “itinerary of conversion” as the prayers and readings of the Lenten liturgy invite the worshipper to be made holy.

Roman Pilgrimage has an entry for each day of Lent, Holy Week and Easter. Through the liturgical readings, the first and second weeks of Lent — and thus, the reflections for those days in the book — focus on the penitential aspect of the season. The third, fourth and fifth weeks emphasize a renewal of our baptismal promises, while Holy Week invites us to imitate Christ on his path to Calvary. Finally, Easter Week calls us to allow the reality of the Resurrection to transform us totally, as it did the first Christians.

The reflections for each day are based in Scripture, theology and literature, and they are accompanied by descriptions of the history and art of each place and the saints who are commemorated. The book is available in hardback, which has some fine photographs of Rome’s churches. It’s also available in a digital version, which has even more photos and allows the reader to see in greater detail the beauty of the holy places.

As is typical with our Catholic faith, the Roman Station church pilgrimage touches our senses — walking in the cool early morning, hearing the Scriptures, consuming the Sacred Host, kissing the relics of saints and seeing the artistic grandeur. In this way, Lent and the Station church pilgrimage are meant to touch our senses and our hearts to bring about conversion. Roman Pilgrimage is a worthy aid for that annual journey. 

Jeanette De Melo is the Register’s editor in chief.

She writes from Denver.