I am not a Roman Catholic, but I love the churches of Rome. Where else on earth is there such a concentration of hallowed houses of worship, sermons in stone and light, in art and architecture, that reveal so completely the antiquity and historical density of the Christian faith? That is why I was delighted to see George Weigel’s beautiful new book, Roman Pilgrimage: The Station Churches (New York: Basic Books, 2013).
Many of the churches in Rome are built over or near the tombs of the martyrs, those who willingly faced (an often tortuous) death rather than renounce their faith in Jesus Christ. Ever since Bishop Polycarp of Smyrna (Izmir in modern Turkey) was bound and burned at the stake in the mid-second century, Christians have remembered the martyrs in a special way. Already in the Book of Revelation, the martyrs are lauded as white-robed saints in heaven who have “come through great tribulation” (Rev. 7:14). They belong to the great cloud of witnesses who are cheerleaders for believers here on earth still on journey to “that city which has foundations” (Heb. 11:10).
The practice of making a Lenten pilgrimage to certain churches in Rome associated with the early Christian martyrs goes back to the fourth century. The pilgrims would gather at a church, known as the collecta, where they would be met by the bishop and other clergy of the city. Together they would process to a particular statio, or martyr church, designated for that day in Lent. Their visit to the church would conclude with the service of vespers, complete with the public reading of Holy Scripture, singing, prayers, and the solemn celebration of the Eucharist. This Lenten discipline has been revived in recent years by seminarians at Rome’s North American College and is still followed today.
Roman Pilgrimage, was brought together by George Weigel along with his son, the photographer Stephen Weigel, and the superb art historian Elizabeth Lev. These three walked the Lenten station church pilgrimage in preparation for this book, which features biblical exposition, stunning photographs, and expert historical comment. But this publication is neither a mere guide for tourists nor a handbook for antiquarians. Rather it is a manual of Lenten faith: an invitation to the spiritual landscape of martyrdom, pilgrimage, prayer, and lectio divina. The description of each of the station churches begins with suggested Bible readings and other texts from the commentaries and sermons of the church fathers, followed by a meditation.
To process with the pilgrims to these ancient churches, as Weigel and his collaborators did, is to enter into the storied history of a place that belongs to all Christians. If Rome is not, as it was called in the days of the Caesars, the caput mundi, it is nonetheless a place of sacred memory made such by the dual apostolic martyrdom of St. Peter and St. Paul, and the many others who followed their example. To walk this path is to enter into the plenitude of the Church and to take up an itinerary of conversion. As Weigel reminds us:
Here walked Peter and Paul, and perhaps others of the apostles and the evangelists. Here walked Leo and Gregory, two popes popularly acclaimed as “the Great”; here walked another pope, John Paul II, whom many believe history will remember with the same title.
Martin Luther strode these pathways, as did John Henry Newman, two men of genius who came to dramatically different conclusions about the place of Rome in the Christian scheme of things. . . . And here, in the late twentieth century, Orthodox and Protestant leaders began to pray in common with the Bishop of Rome for an end to the fragmentation of the Christian world.
In my various visits to Rome across the years, I have found, a haven of rest and reflection in many of the churches described in this book. I remember sitting late one afternoon in the Basilica of St. Mary Major, atop the Esquiline Hill, with the rays of the setting sun reflecting on the Byzantine mosaic of Mary Theotokos—“the one who gave birth to the one who was God,” as Jaroslav Pelikan described the title given to the mother of Jesus at the Council of Ephesus in 431. I recall worshipping one Sunday morning at a family communion service in St. Mary Trastevere, one of Rome’s first churches. Here, in New Testament times, immigrants to the imperial city, especially Jews, found shelter. On this very site, or nearby, Paul’s Letter to the Romans might first have been read aloud in a Christian house church. The Basilica of St. Clement, near the Coliseum, is built like a cake in three layers. The ground floor, far beneath street level today, takes one back to the late first century. Here one can still see the remains of an altar to the Persian god Mithras, whose devotees included many soldiers in the Roman army. Around, and then later above, this pagan altar the early Christians gathered to worship Jesus Christ and to build there a sanctuary dedicated to the memory of the bishop-martyr Clement.
The largest and most visited of the station churches, of course, is the Vatican Basilica, dedicated to St. Peter. This famous place is said to be “the parish church of the entire Catholic world.” For all of its Renaissance splendor, the most impressive thing to me about St. Peter’s is the necropolis, the ancient Roman cemetery far beneath the magnificent church of Bernini and Michelangelo. Here one can see what are said to be the actual bones of Peter himself. While this claim cannot be historically proven beyond doubt, it is certain that we are looking here at the mortal remains of an early martyr whose burial site was a place of reverence and pilgrimage from the first days of the Christian era.
Though not as lavish as St. Peter’s but even more impressive in its own way, especially to Protestants, is the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls. According to tradition, St. Paul, the great missionary apostle, was beheaded not far from this site at a place called Aque Salvie on the road to Ostia. Recent archeological work has encouraged the time-honored belief that the bone fragments still preserved beneath the altar of this Constantinian church once resided in the worn-out body of the Apostle to the Gentiles. The chain by which Paul is said to have been bound to the Roman guard can be seen in a glass case near his tomb. Approaching the end of his earthly journey, St. Paul wrote: “I am already on the point of being sacrificed; the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (2 Tim. 4:6-7).
The churches of Rome remind us, as Weigel says, that “the truths of Christianity are truths embedded in reality.” Christianity is about stuff: material, fleshly stuff. Such stuff—ashes, bones, chains, wood, stone, color, light—are on display in the churches of Rome’s hills, corners, and catacombs. These are churches of the Great Tradition, and their doors are open to all followers of Jesus. While they serve Catholic spiritual traditions in a distinctive way, they are clearly not for Catholics only.
Timothy George is dean of Beeson Divinity School of Samford University and general editor of the Reformation Commentary on Scripture. His email address is email@example.com.