It is a Wednesday, it is 4.45am and my alarm is sounding. An even earlier start than normal. In what is a rare occurrence, the snooze button is not deployed. By the time I have showered, dressed and sorted my backpack for the day- and consumed what could be described as a very quick coffee- I am out the door of the Scots College and heading to the bus stop. It is freezing cold and still completely pitch black. A few of the other seminarians are already there when I arrive. One or two more appear moments behind me. None of us are going to Morning Prayer in the College today, which won’t begin for another hour at least.
So what’s going on?
We are making the journey (which, given Rome’s idiosyncratic public transport network, could likely take well over an hour) to today’s ‘station Mass’, taking part together with hundreds of priests, seminarians, religious Sisters and lay Catholics, in a both an ancient and very modern Lenten tradition.
The origins of this practice date back to the first few centuries of Christianity. The Bishop of Rome would make a point, much as many Diocesan bishops do today, of visiting the various churches throughout his city and celebrating Mass there. Over time, the process developed a structure, with individual churches being tied to specific dates to host the Pope’s Mass. The organisational high point would be the season of Lent. Back then, Christians would observe a fast for the entire daytime every day, and following the evening Mass at that day’s ‘statio’- or station- church, they would eat together as a community. Dinner with the Pope was quite the selling point, and the Masses became more and more popular.
Sadly, over time, the practice waned and the tradition fell dormant for centuries. Popes had become global administrators for the entire Church (as well as political figures) and hadn’t the time to visit local city churches every day for six weeks. Eventually, by the time of the Avignon chaos, there wasn’t even a Pope in Rome at all.
However, in 1975, some history-keen seminarians of one of Rome’s other Anglophone Colleges had a bright idea: they could find the old Lenten station schedule and organise their own Mass at each church for each of the days. The bishop of Rome may not be able to make it, but plenty of other Catholics might.
And so the tradition was re-born. To allow the seminarians to attend university as normal, the Masses would now be at dawn, not dusk. They’d be in English, for convenience, and they’d each be held at a different, historic church for every day in Lent, corresponding to the old tradition. And everyone would be invited.
And so, I go. Free once per week to forego our usual morning prayer and Mass participation in our own College, should we wish, we have the opportunity to go instead to the station Mass, to visit and acquaint ourselves with a variety of churches in the city, many of which are not all that well-known, and we may never have visited otherwise. We also have an additional day where the entire Scots College community attends the station Mass together.
To me, the station Masses are more than just the opportunity to visit a new place. There are always several hundred people in attendance (I don’t think I’ve ever had a seat) from all walks of life and from so many countries, and yet despite the business there is a sense of calm. Despite the excitement of being somewhere new, there is always a quiet reverence. It’s a beautiful, different way to start a normal, run of the mill day. It marks Lent out as different and puts us in touch with the rich history of the Church in this city, as well as the universal nature of it today. The fact that so many of the congregants are young seminarians, from all over the world, is encouraging too. The station Masses are truly one of my favourite things about being here. After all- why else would I voluntarily set my alarm even earlier?!
Lent is, of course, for all of us a pilgrimage, or journey. I get to physically express this by travelling one morning per week to the station Mass, but spiritually we all have the opportunity to journey closer to Jesus at this time of year, reflecting on his sacrifice at Calvary and what it means for us in our own lives. Yes, we normally express this by ‘giving something up’. But maybe instead of, or as well as, foregoing chocolate or fizzy juice, we could ‘take something up’. A good suggestion might be to go to one extra Mass per week, if you can. Perhaps an evening Mass for those who work. This could be at your own parish, or maybe you could even journey to other churches in the diocese. Maybe we can make our very own ‘station Masses’ throughout Lent in Scotland.