The Stational Churches: A Lenten Devotion Whose Time Has Come Again
“Have you given up anything for Lent?” Only a true boor, a child, or a living saint can ask this question without irony or sarcasm. But in case you find yourself staring at Lent without an answer besides, “Well, I’m not going to eat meat on Fridays,” perhaps consider the stational churches of Rome as a way to deepen your prayer life for the remaining days of Lent.
This ancient devotion, which got a whole new lease on life with George Weigel and Elizabeth Lev’s Roman Pilgrimage: The Stational Churches of Rome (New York: Basic Books, 2013) and reviewed in the National Catholic Register http://www.ncregister.com/daily-news/from-grit-to-grace. The book is gorgeous and packed with color and black-and-white photos of the venerable Roman churches by Weigel’s son, the noted photographer Stephen Weigel.
However, you can also make this “virtual-pilgrimage” online at https://www.pnac.org/station-churches/week-of-ash-wed/.
But what is missing from both of the above, despite the plethora of fascinating historical detail, and beautiful artwork and architecture, is an actual guide to prayer. For that, I recommend Rev. Canon Frank Phillips, C.R.’s 60-page booklet, The Stational Churches of Rome (Biretta Books: Chicago, 2008) which is available from the Canons Regular of Saint John Cantius online at http://birettabooks.com/go/webstore/product/stational_churches_of_rome/.
In some of the older St. Joseph Catholic Missals, the stational churches are actually listed, but you can “make” the stational churches even without that help, as Fr. Phillips outlines the following “Lenten Pilgrimage”:
- Begin as we begin all prayer, with the Sign of the Cross
- The Our Father
- The Litany of the Saints. The full version is available online here: https://www.ewtn.com/Devotionals/Litanies/saints.htm
- The Holy Rosary (or at least a part of it)
- The Gospel of the Day from your missal or online at http://www.ewtn.com/daily-readings/
- The Hail Holy Queen
- A Prayer from the Booklet (although you can follow the stational church pilgrimage at the website above)
- A final prayer for the pope’s intentions.
Each stational church in Fr. Phillips’s booklet is given a one-page historical write-up, followed by a very short, but trenchant, prayer.
This may seem like a tremendous lot of praying! But in fact, even including the full version of the Litany of the Saints and the five decades of the Holy Rosary, it rarely takes more than 35-45 minutes a day.
Further, one can add Lenten challenges to one’s prayer life as Lent goes on with this devotion. For example: You can start by reciting the shorter prayers (the Sign of the Cross, the Our Father, and the Hail Holy Queen) in Latin—and then, as the season grows deeper toward Laetare Sunday and Passiontide, try to recite the Holy Rosary and the Litany of the Saints in Latin, too. The Angelus Edition of the Missal has the Latin/English Litany side-by-side.
Another way of deepening and extending this devotion: In place of, or even in addition to, the Holy Rosary, one can recite the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Also, by using Butler’s Lives of the Saints or the Roman Martyrology, you can learn more about the saint whose name is borne by the stational church of the day.
Finally, one can read prayerfully from George Weigel’s masterwork, Roman Pilgrimage. Each and every church is examined in detail in at least five pages, plus another page on the art itself by noted historian Elizabeth Lev.
The stational churches of Rome are not some antediluvian, old-fashioned devotion. Indeed, the very latest editions of the Daily Roman Missal According to the Roman Missal Third Edition (Woodridge, IL: Midwest Theological Forum, 2012) emphasize and encourage this august tradition. In fact, in the very first note on Lent, we read:
It is strongly recommended that the tradition of gathering the local Church after the fashion of the Roman ‘Stations’ be kept and promoted, especially during Lent and at least in larger towns and cities, in a way best suited to individual places.
The note in red (remember the saying: “READ the black, DO the red”)—continues:
Such gatherings of the faithful can take place, especially with the chief Pastor of the diocese of presiding, on Sundays or on other more convenient days during the week, either at the tombs of the Saints, or in the principal churches or shrines of a city, or even more frequently visited places of a pilgrimage in the diocese.
However, if one does not have access to any of the above—a large diocese with a shrine or a saint’s tomb—then keeping the stational churches “in your own room, with the door closed” is an excellent way to “keep a true Lent”.