During the week of Feb. 25 through March 2, while in Rome for an “International Congress on Palliative Care” on behalf of the California Catholic Conference (more on this will follow in the paper), I inquired as to the location of the “Stational Masses” on the days that I would be there. They were to be held in two of the historic churches in Rome in the district known as “Trastevere” – meaning literally “across the Tiber”! This called to mind once more for me the historical, liturgical and penitential practices of celebrating Masses at the so-called “Stational Churches” in Rome. In summary, from Wikipedia, the Station days (or Masses) “were days of fasting in the early Christian Church, associated with a procession to certain prescribed Churches in Rome, where Mass and Vespers would be celebrated to mark important days of the liturgical year. Although other cities had similar practices, and the fasting is no longer prescribed, the Roman Churches associated with the various station days are still the object of pilgrimage and ritual, especially in the season of Lent.”
What characterized these Stational Masses in the early centuries of the Church was the presence of the Bishop of Rome with his people. “In the early centuries, the Lenten fast lasted all day, and so towards the evening the Christians of Rome would begin to gather at a church known as the “collecta” (or gathering place) where they would be joined by the assembled clergy of the city and the Pope. The procession would then move through the streets to the Station Church, not far away. Having gathered at the daily “statio” (standing place) the pope would then celebrate a solemn Mass, and fragments of the Host were sent to the “stationes” of the city in order to symbolize the unity of the city around its bishop. After the conclusion of Vespers, the day’s fast was broken with a communal meal.”
Like many other sacred customs and practices, the Stational Mass practice gradually faded away and were only found in the Roman Missal. (I just recently read once again the missal that I received in 1962, and sure enough, in each day of Lent the Stational Church is listed.) Exacerbating this fading away of this custom was the fading of much devotion and penance in the immediate post-Vatican II era.
However, in the late 1970s and 1980s a group of seminarians from the North American College revived the Stational Mass tradition, which I was privileged to be a part of: as I would gather early each morning in Lent with seminarians and priests from the North American College as we would walk across the city on pilgrimage to the Stational Church. Our Mass was always early in the morning – 7:00 AM, followed by the Germans, and then the Italians in the evening, where Mass was usually celebrated by one of the resident cardinals.
This experience truly made Lent “come alive” for me as we would walk to the Churches where the Saints and martyrs had been buried, and where Mass had been continuously celebrated for all of these centuries. I made these stations for two consecutive years in my graduate study days. Providentially, the Stational Church where I was the principal celebrant was the Servite Church – San Marcello on the Via del’ Corso. The Stational Churches help one to have an experience of what is already a part of the Eternal City – the faith of the centuries!
Lent is a pilgrimage or a walk through a season with prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. The Roman Stational Churches help that pilgrimage to come alive. I would highly recommend that some reading about this custom would be a good practice for the remainder of Lent. For the “record,” as I am writing these words, the Stational Church for today, Tuesday of the second Tuesday of Easter, is “San Lorenzo in Damaso” on the great Roman thoroughfare of Corso Vittorio Emanuele!