Ancient Lenten Pilgrimage Comes to Life Through New Book

The book helps readers join a pilgrimage once led by the pope during the days of the early Church and which has begun a modern revival in the last 30 years.

Roman Pilgrimage by George Weigel
Roman Pilgrimage by George Weigel (photo: Kerri Lenartowick/CNA)

ROME — Author and scholar George Weigel says his new book offers readers the opportunity experience a centuries-old Lenten practice from Rome in their households across the globe.

Weigel called Roman Pilgrimage: The Station Churches an “invitation to people all over the world to spend Lent in Rome, at home.”

“This book is a way to make the ancient station church pilgrimage in Rome, really, without coming to Rome,” he told CNA.

The station church pilgrimage is a Roman tradition, dating back to the fourth century. Each day during Lent, the pope would lead the faithful to a different church, often built on the site of a martyr’s house. There, he would celebrate Mass for the Christian community.

The practice, Weigel explained, “lay fallow for almost 1,000 years. It was a part of Roman life into the beginning of the second millennium, but when the popes moved to Avignon, the tradition of the pope leading this pilgrimage really ended.”

“While the memory of the pilgrimage remained in the Roman Missal, because every day in the pre-Vatican II Missal, every day of Lent had a stational church notation, it’s only in the past 30 years that the habit, the tradition of walking to each one of these churches each day for Mass, has been revived,” he said.

Weigel describes the modern daily pilgrimage that continues for six and a half weeks each year as “an Anglophone experience in Rome.”

“The North American College began to do this, [and], now, you’ve got kids from American university campuses all over the city, diplomats, English-speaking members of the Roman Curia, hundreds of these people coming to these ancient churches,” he said.

While staying at the North American College in Rome in the 1990s to write a biography of Blessed John Paul II, Weigel would make the daily journey for Mass. In 2010, he had the idea to bring “this extraordinary way of doing Lent” to others “who don’t have the luxury of coming to Rome for extended periods of time.”

Written with art historian Elizabeth Lev, the book contains a reflection on the liturgical texts of the day, as well as a description and photos of each of the 54 churches in Rome where Mass is celebrated every day in Lent and the eight days following Easter.

Stephen Weigel, George Weigel’s son, who did all of the photography for the project, explained that his work involved a “balance between trying to do the pilgrimage myself and document it from the outside.”

“It was obviously something very important to everybody that was on [the pilgrimage], so I didn’t want to get in the way or be too distracting … [but] I wanted to represent that importance to people,” he said.

The father-son team participated in the entire pilgrimage in order to produce the book.

With mass each morning at 7am, Stephen Weigel admitted that it “was a bit of an adjustment, getting up at 5 or 5:30 in the morning and walking to each of these places, but as you arrived and you stepped in, it woke you up.”

“It’s more effective than coffee,” he added.

The freelance photographer noted that the book is released in both print and digital form, but the electronic version contains full-color photographs, while most pictures in the print edition are in black and white.

Regardless of the version chosen, Stephen Weigel said he hopes that the book allows readers to “experience Rome without necessarily having to make the trip.”

CNA’s Alan Holdren contributed to this report.