ROME — Every morning during the 40 days of Lent, a band of worshippers walk literally in the footsteps of early, persecuted Christians, visiting some of the world’s oldest churches in preparation for the most solemn week on the church calendar.
On Thursday as the sun rose over the cupolas and rooftops of Rome, fresh-faced American seminarians made their pilgrimage over the Tiber River and through the alleyways of Rome’s historic center to revive this ancient tradition that today draws ambassadors, college students and ordinary folk alike.
They were heading to Sant’Apollinare, one of the “station churches” of Rome, the nearly 40 ancient churches that centuries ago were designated to hold a rotating daily Mass during Lent, the period leading to Holy Week and Easter when the faithful mark the death and resurrection of Jesus.
The dawn processions take place every morning, a different church slated for worship each day.
At a time when most churches in Italy are empty — evidence of the dwindling Catholic faith in much of Europe — the seminarians of the Pontifical North American College pack these 7 a.m. English services on a regular basis.
Starting in the mid-1970s, they began reviving the tradition and making a daily pilgrimage to each church on the Lenten circuit, paying tribute to early Christians who risked their lives to worship.
The tradition caught on with a wider group. And today, the Masses are often standing-room-only events.
“You think, ‘on this day for 1,300 years Christians have been going to this church on this day,'” said Deacon Riley Williams, of Cape Cod, Mass., who is in his fourth year at the North American College. “Going to this place where the saints died, it joins us to Christ.”
Poland’s ambassador to the Holy See, Hanna Suchocka, has been a regular for years, a dean of sorts of the lay crowd who flock to the Masses and attend the de rigueur cappuccino and cornetti run afterward at a nearby cafe. The breakfast — the Roman equivalent of coffee and doughnuts in the church hall after Mass — has in recent years become almost as much of a tradition as the service itself.
“I started eight years ago with the Italian Mass in the afternoons, but only five people would come, old people,” Suchocka said Thursday. “I decided to join the [American] group because it is a young church, it gave me hope that the church is not descending but is growing.”
She was joined Thursday by Canada’s ambassador to the Holy See, Anne Leahy. The American and Irish ambassadors often round out the diplomatic set but missed Thursday’s Mass because of travel and other engagements.
College students on their junior year abroad, seminarians, nuns and priests and a handful of English-speaking expats and visitors filled the pews — in all more than 200 people plus the 50-odd priests who concelebrated with American Cardinal Raymond Burke, head of the Vatican’s supreme court.
Author and commentator George Weigel was in church as well, as he has been every day this Lent; he’s writing a book on the station churches due out in 2013.
“I think the whole notion of Lent as itself a pilgrimage is embodied in this walk through these historic churches, where you can touch the origins of Christianity in the West,” he said.
Faith aside, the 40-day itinerary is a great way to see Rome, with daily pre-dawn walks through the Eternal City’s silent streets to visit some of the world’s oldest and most beautiful places of Christian worship, some of which aren’t open except on their station days.
Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, brings the faithful to Santa Sabina, where according to tradition, the widow Sabina was converted to Christianity by her slave in the 2nd century and both later were killed for it.
Pope Benedict XVI celebrated Ash Wednesday there just as popes from earliest Christianity visited station churches to unify the faithful.
Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York often is credited with having helped revive the tradition while a student at the North American College in the 1970s, when he said he and a friend used to research the station church of the day and walk there for a visit.
Dolan returned to the college in 1994 as rector and found that the ritual had stuck, albeit informally.
“I said ‘Bravo, let’s put this on steroids. Let’s make this part of our college Lenten spiritual regimen,'” Dolan said Thursday from New York. “It’s an act of penance. Is there anything colder, damper than taking off on a dark Roman morning … to walk a half hour to a church? That’s what Lent is all about.”
On Thursday, the seminarians gathered at the college’s front gate at dawn and hiked down the Janiculum hill, crossed the bridge over the Tiber and snaked their way through back cobblestone streets to Sant’Apollinare, once a Jesuit church that now belongs to the conservative Opus Dei movement.
Audrey Anderson, a 20-year-old from Stillwater, Minn., on a study abroad program, did her own pilgrimage to get there, walking nearly an hour, but said she wouldn’t miss it.
“This trumps everything,” she said. “Thousands of people have been coming here for hundreds of years, and the one thing that unites us is our Lord. It boggles my mind.”