Last year, during my first revert Lent, I explored lots of the same spiritual practices many Catholics do. I tried (not very successfully) to eat more simply and sparely. I gave alms, formally to good causes and informally to the folks who hit me up on the street. I got to daily Mass a few times a week, and upped my time in prayer before the Blessed Sacrament. I took a weekly class in the spirituality of Carmel at a local retreat house. Inspired by Therese, a saint to whose example I have also had a reversion (after loving her as a child, when I read my copy of Little Queen, a child’s version of The Story of a Soul, so frequently and fervently it fell apart, and then being driven to eye-rolling gag-me distraction as an adult by what I saw as her saccharine wimpiness, and finally being brought back around to reconsider the virtues of the Little Steel Flower on a dare from Max Lindenman), I wore a UD Flyers silly band on my wrist and snapped it vigorously when I found myself exhibiting anger or impatience. That last spiritual practice was the most successful, and I have the scars to prove it.
I also made a part of my daily Lenten prayer a kind of armchair pilgrimage, which I thought I had invented. Not having had a current daily missal or Liturgy of the Hours last year, I dug out my Saint Mary Everyday Missal and Heritage (Benziger Brothers, copyright 1948, with an imprimatur from Francis Cardinal Spellman). I read the daily Mass readings and prayers as a kind of makeshift breviary. About three days into Lent, I noticed that each day began with the heading “Station at . . .” followed by the name of a church. I vaguely remembered something about it being ancient custom for the Holy Father to celebrate Mass at a different Roman church on each day of Lent, and for people to walk in procession to these stations. Having visited Rome the year before and fallen in love with its churches, I decided I would revive this custom (which I was certain had passed into disuse about the time Spelly went to his reward), participating virtually. Every day I read the name of the station church and then used a combination of resources–my DK Eyewitness travel guide to Rome and a marvelous Churches of Rome wiki site, principally–to “visit” the church, reflect on its art and architecture, and learn more about its titular saint.
This year, as I began assembling resources to walk the Stations of Rome again, what do I find? It’s a tradition very much alive at the Pontifical North American College in Rome, though with some modifications necessitated by the fact that a couple of the original station churches no longer exist. The wonderful folks at the North American College (whose garden courtyard on the Janiculum Hill was one of my favorite places in Rome–and not just because, God bless the American seminarians, they served us the only really cold beer in the city there) have assembled a web page that serves as a one-stop tour guide for pilgrims who want to make the stations in person–groups leave the seminary each morning to walk to the day’s church–or online!
From the PNAC page I learned more interesting things about the custom of visiting station churches. It actually begins in the weeks before Lent (traditionally known as Septuagesima and Sexigesima) and continues through the Octave of Easter, during which the the titles of the churches visited form a physical Litany of the Saints. And I learned the origin of the word station, as it is used here and was adapted to another Lenten virtual pilgrimage, the Stations of the Cross. The Lenten pilgrims who originally accompanied the pope to the station churches remained there after Mass, fasting and praying in shifts throughout the day. They took their commitment to do so seriously enough that they used the term describing a military guard’s standing watch–statio–to describe it.
I will be making the Stations of Rome again this year (and with less eyestrain, since the North American College’s website is much easier to read than the Saint Mary missal’s 4-pt type!), and I am happy to welcome any of you who want to join the pilgrimage. I also ask your prayers as I undertake a different kind of statio. This year, in spite of or because of my struggle with the the Church’s teachings of sexuality and the way the Gospel of Life is sometimes used by Church people to bludgeon women, I’ve signed up to participate in our parish’s 40 Days for Life witness. I’m not standing in the street–though I would have little problem doing so in this case, as we pray in front of the facility where partial-birth abortion was invented, and where late-term abortions continue in spite of legal restrictions. It’s not fear, but what I hope is humility, that keeps me away; I don’t think I’m able to preach the Church’s complete message without hypocrisy.
Instead, I have signed up to provide prayer support before the Blessed Sacrament for those who are witnessing on the street. It’s just an hour on Thursday mornings once a week, but I’ve added fasting to it, deferring breakfast (and even coffee!) until I’ve finished my watch. I’m praying to change hearts, not laws, because that’s the bigger challenge. In my prayer, I am standing with (not in the sense of taking sides, but in being prayerfully present to) those who work and pray to end the need or desire for abortion, and with those who sincerely believe abortion is a service and a right, and even with those who simply make a profit exploiting that belief. I’m standing with the women who think this is their only solution. I’m standing for the lives lost–the children who might have been, the women who died from illegal abortions. I’m standing with the women who have had abortions–who regret it or don’t, who have complications medical or emotional or spiritual or not, who go on to be better mothers or don’t, who never give themselves the chance to be mothers, and with the men who threw away or lost or deferred the chance to be fathers for whatever reason.
They all–we all–need prayer, and grace, and the mercy of God. So you’re welcome to join me in this statio, too. Thursday mornings, 9-10 am Eastern time. Now I’m off to today’s station church, San Giorgio al Velabro, located (so our tour guide tells us) “very near where the battered body of St Sebastian was thrown into the Cloaca Maxima, the ancient sewer . . .” Let’s go!