By Ann Schneible
ROME, FEB. 22, 2012 (Zenit.org).- In the early hours of nearly every morning in Lent, seminarians and priests from the North American College can be found celebrating Holy Mass in one of the "station churches," continuing a tradition that goes back to the days of the early Church. Their daily visits begin with Mass at Santa Sabina on Ash Wednesday, and continue throughout Lent (except on Sundays) until Wednesday of Holy Week, with Mass at the Basilica of Saint Mary Major.
Father Riley Williams is a priest from the Diocese of Fall River, Massachusetts, and in his fifth year at the North American College. He spoke with ZENIT about the yearly tradition of the Lenten station churches.
ZENIT: What is the history behind the Lenten tradition of visiting these station churches?
Father Williams: The tradition of visiting different churches during Lent (and other seasons in which there are also station churches, such as Christmas) began with the practice of the pope to make pastoral visits to the different areas of the city, beginning even as far back as the time of the persecutions. The current list of station churches was essentially complete by the late fifth century, with a few changes in the following centuries before being finalized in the mid-1500s. So, this is a very ancient tradition in which we take part.
The collect for Ash Wednesday, which we heard in a new translation this year, helps to provide the context for our practice of the station churches. Just as we prayed to be "armed with weapons of self-restraint" as we begin "this campaign of Christian service," the Latin word statio also has military connotations. It originally meant the post of a soldier on watch. In a Christian context, it refers to our own alertness and preparedness as we undertake the rigors of Lent while "keeping watch" through our worship at these churches.
ZENIT: When did priests and seminarians from the NAC begin this yearly tradition?
Father Williams: While the ancient practice of the station churches died out when the popes moved to Avignon in the fourteenth century, it was revived most recently by Blessed John XXIII. A group from the North American College began organizing Masses at the station churches in about 1975, with the tradition continuing to the present day.
ZENIT: What do the priests and seminarians from the NAC gain from the experience?
Father Williams: I think the most profound thing that we, as well as the many people from the city who join us for these Masses, gain from this experience is a real connection with the history of our faith and the witness of those who came before us. Not only are we worshipping at churches that either enshrine the remains of the saints or commemorate the place of their martyrdom, but we are also literally walking in the footsteps of nearly 2,000 years of Christians who have come to these very same places to do what we're doing: worshipping God. It gives us a real sense of both the foundations of our Faith, and also its continuity through the ages.
ZENIT: Could you speak about the significance of the churches that are visited during this first week of Lent?
Father Williams: Lent begins at Santa Sabina, a fourth century basilica that contains the oldest depiction of the crucifixion in Christian art. On the following days are San Giorgio in Velabro and Santi Giovanni e Paolo, two churches dedicated to martyrs of the early Church. The latter church is actually built over the house of Sts. John and Paul, who were martyred in the same place. Saturday brings us to Sant'Agostino, where the mother of St. Augustine, St. Monica, is buried. The pope's cathedral, St. John Lateran, is the station for the First Sunday of Lent. Monday’s church is San Pietro in Vincoli, which besides holding the chains which bound St. Peter in prison also contains Michaelangelo's famous Moses. Sant'Anastasia, dedicated to another early martyr from the Balkans, is visited on Tuesday. While not well known now, in the early days it was very significant, since it was near the Imperial Palace in which lived the viceroys of the Byzantine emperor. On Wednesday we are at Santa Maria Maggiore, the oldest Marian basilica in the West. San Lorenzo in Panisperna, located over the site of St. Lawrence's martyrdom, is the station on Thursday, and the Basilica of the Twelve Apostles, which has the relics of Sts. Philip and James, is on Friday. Finally, on Saturday of the First Week of Lent we celebrate Mass at the Basilica of St. Peter in the Vatican.
And at this point there are still five weeks to go…