When Lent returns each year, Catholics have many sacramentals and customs to treasure: ashes, palms, fasting, Stations of the Cross, and Lenten retreats, to name a few. Few Catholics, however, know about the tradition of observing the Roman Stational Churches as a spiritual guide through Lent.
Historically, on particular days the faithful of Rome would gather (or collect together) with the pope at a designated church called the ecclesia collecta1 After the recitation of a prayer there, the assembly proceeded to another church referred to as the stational church.2 In procession, they chanted the Litany of the Saints. At the stational church, as the pope began the celebration of Mass, he gathered the petitions of all the faithful into a unified prayer called the “collect”.
As one might expect, the practice of observing the Roman stational churches did not unfold all at once, but developed gradually over centuries. For example, in Constantinople, Milan and Rome the Church did not initially celebrate the Eucharist on the Lenten weekdays. The prayers, readings, and psalms offered on the Lenten weekdays, which eventually gave birth to the Divine Office, concluded with the Orationes Solemnes (Solemn Prayers”).3 Mass was not offered. By the close of the 5th century, Lenten weekdays evolved from a synaxis (Greek = “gathering”), a continuation of the Jewish synagogue service, into Eucharistic synaxis — the Sacrifice of the Mass.
Over time, the Roman Missal eventually designated 86 stational days using 45 stational churches in the course of the liturgical year, with stations assigned on solemnities such as Easter and Christmas.4 Most of the stational liturgies, however, occur during Lent. Pope Pius XI in 1934 made the most recent modification to the list of stational churches, adding Santa Agatha and Santa Maria Nuova. Rome’s stational liturgies slowly developed into this highly organized system, not only designating a specific church for each day of Lent, but also assigning specific liturgical propers (i.e., prayers, readings and choral chants) specially fit for each of these Lenten liturgies, as can be seen in the 1962 Missal of Blessed John XXIII.
Processional Nature of Liturgy
The pope participated in the stational processions “accompanied by the entire clergy of the Lateran Basilica,5 and by the high palace dignitaries, laymen, and clerics”.6 The processional nature of the liturgy appeared in other places than Rome. By the 4th century, the Church in Jerusalem organized liturgical processions to bring worshippers to the Biblical Holy Land sites. In Constantinople, the emperor made a ceremonial procession through the palace and into Hagia Sophia,7 in the company of the bishop — an image pointing to the rule of God and His Christ in the Heavenly Kingdom.
The pope’s stational processions displayed a stately quality as the Holy Father marched from the Lateran to the stational church of the day. As John Baldovin, SJ, observed in his study of early stational liturgies, as these processions of praying Christians wound their way through the Seven Hills of Rome they began to bring the Catholic faith to the public square.8 The processional liturgies, in a sense, revealed the Church to be that City of God9 set on a hill as a light of Christ before the world.10
However, the senatorial and aristocratic class resisted Constantine’s program of Christianization until the beginning of the 5th century. According to Baldovin, “no Christian building stood in the venerable monumental area of Rome, the Forum, until two hundred years after Constantine’s acceptance of Christianity”.11
Another historian of this period observed that the eventual “eclipse of the imperial administrators in Rome by the authority of the pope”12 manifested itself in multiple ways: the bishop’s throne (i.e., cathedra) assuming the status of the emperor’s throne, the pope enjoying an imperial guard, and the Church using elements of imperial court ceremony, like processional candles and incense, all of which transformed the scale of the Sacred Liturgy and gave it weight in the eyes of the public.
Titular Churches and Roman Basilicas
In the early centuries of the Church in Rome, there was no central basilica within the city. Constantine built basilicas, such as the Lateran, on the outskirts or outside the city walls. Instead, the Christians in the city of Rome worshiped in houses obtained by the Church for that purpose, called tituli. The tituli were located in the population centers of the city, but their distribution throughout the city was very uneven. They served as places for “worship, baptism, instruction, welfare, administration, and living quarters for the clergy”.13 All of the major basilicas and titular churches except three were used during Lenten stations. “All of the Sundays … are observed in the major basilicas, while weekdays … are celebrated in the tituli”.14 By the 4th century Rome had its twenty-five titular churches — and amazingly most of these churches retain the same names today.
Since not all the Christians of Rome could attend the same Mass, delegations from the twenty-five tituli attended the stational liturgies along with the clergy of these parishes. In order that the Sacred Liturgy could be offered in each stational church with solemnity, Pope Hilarius (461) gave liturgical vessels (i.e., chalices, patens, etc.) for stational services to the tituli. As a sign of the unity of the entire mystical Body of Christ with the pope as its visible head, acolytes transported to the priests of each titulus the Blessed Sacrament (fermentum) that had been consecrated by the pope.15
Venerating the Stational Saints
The stational observance, as liturgical scholar Pius Parsch once put it, is “a constant exhortation to worship in common”.16 It effectively reminds us that a company of saints surrounds the Church militant on its earthly pilgrimage. On a stational day Parsch says, “the saint was represented as a living person, and considered as alive and present in the midst of the congregation”.17
While processing to the station, the people chant the Litany of the Saints. The Church includes in that litany the stational saint of the day, whom the Church has selected as the icon of Christian virtue for our imitation. Thus, stational observance offers a magnificent way of venerating the saints.
The daily Mass propers of Lent generally refer to the stational saint or to some historical event associated with the place. For example, San Lorenzo in Luciana is the stational church for the third Friday of Lent. Historically, the Gospel that day is about the woman at the well, and San Lorenzo is located over the site of an old well. On the third Saturday of Lent, the epistle tells the Old Testament story of Susanna, and the Gospel recalls the woman caught in the act of adultery. Naturally, the pope selected Santa Susanna as the stational church for that day. San Eusebius is the stational church for the fourth Friday of Lent, located on the site of an ancient necropolis.18 This serves as a perfect place to read the Gospel for that day about the raising of Lazarus.
In the New Testament, we learn that Saint Peter suffered imprisonment twice. Acts 12:6 reports that an angel caused the chains to fall from Peter’s hands and led him to freedom past the sleeping guards. Eudocia, the wife of Emperor Teodosio II (408-450 AD), journeyed to Jerusalem, found the chain that had bound Peter during his second imprisonment, and gave it to Pope Leo the Great (440-461). When Pope Leo compared this chain to the other chain he had from Saint Peter’s nine-month-long imprisonment in the Mamertine Prison, they miraculously fused together into one unbreakable series of links.
Because of this miracle, Eudocia built the Basilica of Saint Peter in Chains, and dedicated it to the apostle in the year 442. On Monday of the first week of Lent the Church makes a stational visit there reading the Gospel19 passage where Christ says, “I was in prison and you came unto me”. The number of links in Peter’s chains corresponds to the number of days remaining until Easter, when “Judah’s lion burst his chains and crushed the serpent’s head”.20
Stational Churches from the Middle Ages to Avignon
In his book The Liturgical Year, Dom Prosper Gueranger, Benedictine Abbot of Solesmes, observed that the practice of the stational churches constituted a core Lenten practice in the monastic life of the Middle Ages: “Particularly on the Wednesdays and Fridays, processions used frequently to be made from one church to another. In monasteries, these processions were made in the cloister, and barefooted. This custom was suggested by the practice of Rome, where there is a ‘Station’ for every day of Lent which, for many centuries, began by a procession to the stational church”.21
Some report that Christians abandoned the practice of the stational churches in the Middle Ages when Pope Clement V moved the papacy to Avignon in 1305. But history records that Margery Kempe (1373-1440), the English mystic, gave an account of her participation the stational churches in her pilgrimage to Rome during Lent in 1415. In addition, the Augustinian friar John Capgrave visited Rome between 1447 and 1452, about 35 years after Kempe’s stay in Rome, and made a historic record of his participation in the stational church liturgies in his book.22
In 1586, Sixtus V attempted to popularize the stations, but with little success. In 1870, the unified Italian government imprisoned the pope, so he could not visit the churches of Rome. In 1929, the Lateran Treaty freed the pope from his captivity, and while Pius XI did not resume the stational practice himself, he encouraged other bishops to take up the practice by granting indulgences.
Monsignor Carlo Respighi (d. 1947), who served as the Prefect of the Apostolic Ceremonies and Magister of the Collegium Cultorum Martyrum in Rome, was instrumental in reviving the popularity of visiting the Lenten stational churches. In 1959, John XXIII showed his love of the stational churches as he revived the custom as a matter of papal ceremony. Paul VI, in the Latin editio typica altera of the 1970 Missale Romanum, strongly recommended (valde commendatur) that this custom continue, at least in larger churches worldwide.
Under John Paul II, the Congregation for Divine Worship in 1988 stated that “the Roman tradition of the ‘stational’ churches can be recommended as a model for gathering the faithful in one place … at the tombs of the saints, or in the principle churches of the city or sanctuaries, or some place of pilgrimage which has a special significance for the diocese”.23 And today our Holy Father Pope Benedict XVI reminds us,24 “These rites retain their value, despite the passing of centuries, because they recall how important it also is in our day to accept Jesus’ words without compromises: ‘If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.’”25
Those who have the privilege to visit Rome in Lent can usually expect the Holy Father to begin Lent by making a pilgrimage to the Aventine Hill at Santa Sabina, the stational church for Ash Wednesday. The Collegium Cultorum Martyrum26 celebrates Holy Mass at all the stational churches daily at 5:00 p.m. And at least since the Holy Year of 1975, priests and seminarians of the North American College have established the custom of visiting the stational churches during Lent, walking to each church for an early Mass at 7:00 a.m. As an Australian seminarian recently observed, “Attending the stational churches truly enriches Lent beyond the regular sacrifices…. The rhythm of a different church, a new martyr each day so early in the morning, is a powerful reminder of the purpose of Lent and the Way of the Cross lived by so many in the past.”27
Local “visits” to the Stational Churches
On the diocesan level, bishops today can designate certain churches as stational churches for Lent. If this were done, the people of a diocese would have a unique opportunity to make a mini-Lenten pilgrimage in the tradition of the Roman stational churches, to which an indulgence could be attached. It would provide an opportunity to highlight the importance of communal fasting, prayer and almsgiving.
In parishes, stational shrines can be erected as has been done at St. John Cantius in Chicago for the past decade. The people can erect a Lenten stational church shrine in a conspicuous place (e.g., a side altar, the vestibule, a side chapel) with a placard displaying the title of the Stational Church of the Day. Small votive candles or candelabra could be placed around the painting, icon or relic of the stational saint appointed for that day. Before Mass, the people could meet the celebrant at the stational church shrine as the Roman Church gathers at the ecclesia collecta. The celebrant may then reverence this stational church shrine, incensing the painting, icon or relic of the stational saint. Before the people chant the Litany of the Saints, the priest or deacon may chant, “Procedamus in pace”,28 to which the people reply, “In Nomine Christi. Amen.” As the procession makes its way through the church toward the altar, a thurifer, crucifer, and acolytes could lead the procession.
Families can even set up a stational church shrine at home, using a simple holy card to display the saint who is the stational leader of the day. Children could easily make a sign displaying the title of the daily stational church. The family can light candles at the stational church shrine and recite the Litany of the Saints. The family may even enjoy reading from a special booklet prepared at St. John Cantius called the “Stational Churches of Rome”.29 The brief entry for each of the days of Lent touches on the lives of the saints and the history of the Church in Rome, and gives a much-needed structure to the home Lenten devotional practices that relate to the Sacred Liturgy.
As Lent returns, we again look forward to ashes, palms and Stations of the Cross. But as we fast and abstain from worldly pleasures, we should not starve ourselves of the spiritual food which our Church so richly stores up for us. This Lent, feast on the richness of our Catholic faith and go on a pilgrimage to the Roman stational churches. If we do this, our Lenten experience will come alive as we follow Pope Benedict XVI and the stational saints up the Sabine Hill on Ash Wednesday and into St. Mary Major on Easter morning, where we rejoice with Our Lady in singing a triple “Alleluia”.
8 , John F. Baldovin, “The Urban Character of Christian Worship: The Origins, Development, and Meaning of Stational Liturgy”, Orientalia Christiana Analecta, no. 228. Rome: Pont. Institutum Studiorum Orientalium, 1987, pg. 266.
9 Saint Augustine of Hippo wrote De Civitate Dei (“The City of God”) in the early 5th century reminding the Christians that Church was at the heart of the City of God, which should be concerned with the mystical, heavenly city, the New Jerusalem — rather than with earthly politics.
23 Paschalis Sollemnitatis, n.16 (Circular Letter Concerning the Preparation and Celebration of the Easter Feasts) Congregation for Divine Worship; 1988.
26 The Commission of Sacred Archeology, founded in mid-19th century, to direct excavations in the catacombs, created the College of the Cult of Martyrs to hold religious services in the catacombs on martyrs’ feast-days in order to stimulate interest and knowledge regarding the early Church.
27 Deacon Andrew Keswick, a seminarian studying for the Archdiocese of Melbourne, Australia, interviewed by Zenit news service in an article entitled: “Lenten Tradition of Station Churches Lives On: An Edifice a Day Helps Focus on Paschal Mystery”; www.zenit.org/ article-18965?l=english.
29 Stational Churches of Rome is a booklet prepared by Father Frank Phillips, C.R., Pastor of St. John Cantius, as a daily guide through Lent. To order online go to: www.cantius.org/ go/webstore/product/stational_churches_of_rome/ Or call 1-800-345-6665.