Station Churches of Rome : An Introduction

This year during Lent, the Scots College will continue the series of features on some of the Station Churches of Rome that started last year.


The tradition of visiting churches over the period of Lent and Eastertide flourished through the history of the early Church. The pilgrimage was simple, visiting the tombs of martyrs for a celebration of the Eucharist and prayers. As churches were established on the various sites around the city, so the tradition emerged to visit a certain church on a certain day before Easter. It was during this stage in the early development that the Bishop of Rome would attend after a day-long Lenten fast. The fast would end after Mass which did not conclude with the usual Go, the Mass is ended, or Ite, missa est. Instead the blessing would be in the form of grace before meals, thus ending the fast.

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The term Station comes from the Latin, statio, which means position or location. During the Lenten season penitential processions begin at one ‘statio’. A short service led by a bishop or his representative is held in a church of assembly, before a procession to the station church of the day. These processions sometimes stop at other churches or shrines on the way, to allow for devotions to the Stations of the Cross. Elements of our current Liturgy find their roots in this tradition, the Collect of the Mass is named after the original conclusion to the service at the church of assembly, whilst the procession itself was termed a litania as those processing sung psalms and litanies.

This tradition was firmly established when Gregory the Great settled on a program of Lenten pilgrimage which is largely replicated in today’s form, albeit, with a few additions. Eventually, the annual pilgrimage dropped off during the early part of the second century. By 1305 it had ended entirely due to the relocation of the Papal residence to Avignon in the south of France.

Whilst the return to Rome of the Pope came about before the dawning of the 15th century, the station pilgrimage did not. Despite the fact that the Missal of the time still retained a reference to the appropriate station of the day, the traditional pilgrimages remained in abeyance.  In the late 19th century, this was of necessity when the Pope had to remain within the Vatican during the invasion of forces of the Kingdom of Italy. However, as the situation became more stable in the early 20th century, Pope Pius XI and Pius XII both oversaw a revival of the tradition by granting an indulgence to attendance at Mass in the station churches during Lent. World War II caused a brief interruption before Pius XII restarted the practise.

Pope St John XXIII, on his first Ash Wednesday as the Bishop of Rome, was a huge catalyst in the re-establishment of the tradition. On the 11th February that year the new Pope himself went to Santa Sabina on the Aventine Hill where he received penitential ashes. Pope Paul VI made the journey to the station of St. Eusebius after Vatican II, emphasising the tradition of Lenten station church pilgrimages had not been removed through the reforms of the council.

Roman_StationMapSince then, Pope St. John Paul II, Benedict XVI and Francis have all made the Ash Wednesday pilgrimage to Santa Sabina.

Nowadays, the tradition of the Lenten station pilgrimages is firmly established in the Roman liturgical calendar. For Italian speaking pilgrims they celebrate Mass in the station of the day in the evening of each day whilst the English speaking congregations gather at 7am every morning. The Pontifical North American College has led the English speaking pilgrimages since the 1970’s and provide a full timetable of Mass times on their website.

The St. Andrew’s Daily Missal contains a handy map of the churches which you can use to follow the pilgrimage this year.

“Return to me” — says the Lord — “return with all your heart”: not only with a few outward deeds, but from the depths of ourselves. Indeed, Jesus calls us to live prayer, charity and penance with consistency and authenticity, overcoming hypocrisy. May Lent be a beneficial time to “prune” falseness, worldliness, indifference: so as not to think that everything is fine if I am fine; so as to understand that what counts is not approval, the search for success or consensus, but the cleansing of the heart and of life; so as to find again our Christian identity, namely, the love that serves, not the selfishness that serves us. Let us embark on the journey together, as Church, by receiving Ashes — we too will become ashes — and keeping our gaze fixed on the Crucifix. He, loving us, invites us to be reconciled with God and to return to him, in order to find ourselves again.”

Homily of Pope Francis, Ash Wednesday 2016

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