From the shadows of the narrow street, I walked into the Piazza Navona all alone. The deep rose of dawn pushed in from the east and became salmon then cerulean as the dark of night retreated. This breathtaking long oval plaza, shaped by an old Roman racetrack, is widely regarded as one of the most beautiful public spaces in the world. Ordinarily teeming with tourists and Romans, waiters, vendors, hucksters, and beggars, its broad expanse of polished cobbles was gleaming and empty. Three splendid fountains, Bernini’s “Four Rivers” masterpiece and two others by his workshop, gushed and splashed in competition for my attention.
It was Lent, and I was on my way to the Station Church.
From as early as the fifth century, the Roman church designated a different church for each day of Lent. For centuries, the Pope would lead a pilgrimage to the church of the day, where he would offer Mass. This year, Pope Francis began Lent by doing just that at Santa Sabina, the ancient Station for Ash Wednesday.
The pilgrimages on the other days proceed now without him. Each of the forty days, people set out begin their pilgrimages from their homes all over Rome to reach the daily Station. The Romans go mid-afternoon; the English-speakers, led by American priests and seminarians, offer their Mass at seven in the morning.
The great basilicas of Saint Peter, Saint Paul, and Saint Mary Major take their places in the queue with little churches like San Giovanni in Porta Latina and San Lorenzo in Panisperna. The breathtaking San Clemente gets the same number of days as the dumpy Sant’Eugenio, whose location by the fish market makes it breathtaking in other ways.
As a seminarian, my attention to chronology and cartography earned me the responsibility of leading the group of men who left the North American College even earlier than our accustomed 6:30 Mass. We had to find our way through the ancient city and arrive at each day’s destination by ten minutes to seven, so musicians and ministers would have time to vest or prepare. Almost two hundred people would assemble for each morning Mass, many of whom we encountered every year.
For many of the years I was there, my dad would come to Rome during Lent, not because the weather was so great, but because of the Station Churches. Each year he would try to be there for a different week, and a different group of the forty churches. It helps that my dad likes to walk!
If you cannot make the trip yourself, you can still visit these places and enrich your prayer with the new book Roman Pilgrimage: The Station Churches, by my friend George Weigel. With photos by his son Stephen Weigel, and artistic notes from Elizabeth Lev, it lacks nothing you need to make a virtual pilgrimage every day of the season.
When I returned to Rome to work with Cardinal Baum, I was the only one in my house who could make the trip, so I set out in the dark on my own. That’s how I got the Piazza Navona all to myself. But each day, as I drew closer the church, I would encounter more and more others who shared my goal. By the time I arrived I was usually in a group excited to reach our destination.
This is the joy of Lent. We have all fallen far afield from Jesus and what He offers us, so we must move toward him from our different starting points. But the destination is the same for all of us on the pilgrimage, and as we move, with the direction of the Word of God and help of the Holy Spirit, we find company on our journey. For in the pilgrimage of Lent, we do not walk alone.Monsignor Smith