In the Footsteps of Saints

Roman Pilgrimage: The Station Churches

by George Weigel with Elizabeth Lev and Stephen Weigel
2013 Basic Books, 464 pages, $39.00

The distinguished team of papal biographer George Weigel, his photographer-son Stephen (who handles the illustrations), and well-known art and architecture historian, professor, author, and tour guide resident in Rome Elizabeth Lev have collaborated to produce The Station Churches of Rome.

At first glance this work might be dismissed as yet another expensive coffee table book, but it is much more. Indeed it could variously be classified under the headings of Church history, architecture, archaeology, liturgy, art, tour guide, or spiritual reading. Let us just say that this is a magnificent book about religion and in particular about a religious practice—pilgrimage—that predates both Rome and Christianity. In particular, the book chronicles an ancient Roman pilgrimage to the Station Churches during the connected liturgical Seasons of Lent and Easter.

Christians adopted the practice of pilgrimage from their spiritual forbears, the ancient Israelites, when Christianity ceased to be a persecuted Church of the catacombs after Constantine’s Edict of Milan brought her out from illegality and persecution. This particular pilgrimage has experienced a revival in recent years, particularly with the beginning of the new millennium in 2000 that was so gloriously celebrated in the lands of Christianity and especially in Rome. The timing argues that at least part of the credit should go to the influence of our newly canonized Saint John Paul II, who was surely the greatest pilgrim in history. His frequent flyer miles alone would have brought him to Heaven regardless of his sanctity.

John Paul explained the dynamic of pilgrimage in his own words in 1999, in his letter on pilgrimage:

To go in a spirit of prayer from one place to another ... helps us not only live our lives as a journey, but also gives us a vivid sense of a God who has gone before us and leads us on, who himself set out on man’s path, a God who does not look down on us from on high, but who has become our traveling companion.

The revival of this private practice of weekday visits to the designated ancient Stational Churches began in the mid-1970s when the American seminarians and student priests began walking the pilgrims’ road through Rome before dawn in order to celebrate a Lenten Mass at 7:00 a.m. The practice became very popular with English-speaking members of the Curia, and then it exploded in popularity among the many hundreds of people coming to Rome from all over the world during the holy liturgical season leading up to Easter.

For readers less interested in piety, liturgical practices, Catholic history, and Church architecture and more interested in the remnants of an even older Rome, well, as it happens these churches are located right in the heart of ancient Rome and are surrounded by impressive signs of her faded glory. To quote Mr. Weigel, “Along the Stations, one passes artifacts and ruins that jog the cultural memory with considerable frequency: the Forum, for example, where Cicero and others argued for the superiority of law over brute force in the governing of states and peoples; the Coliseum, reminder of the perennial human attraction to sport—and the perennial human attraction to cruelty; the arches of Titus, who despoiled the Temple of Jerusalem, and of Constantine, who initiated the troubled relationship between Christianity and state power from which some Christian countries have only just begun to extract themselves in the past two centuries; the tale of Saturn and La Bocca della Verità, reminders of the paganism and superstition still underlying the surface of modern Roman life; and the Baths of Caracalla, once a different kind of naked public square, and now a venue for opera.”

Reading and studying this book carefully over time would be the equivalent of a one-quarter college course in religion, art and architecture, history of Rome, liturgy, painting, iconography, fundamentals of the Catholic Church, and of course pilgrimages.

The passion for pilgrimages continues to grow with globalization and affordable international air travel. Millions of Catholics make pilgrimages to Marian shrines such as Lourdes, Fatima, and Guadalupe each year. And of course Muslims in the millions make the Hajj to Mecca. Jews are able for the first time in centuries to flock to the Western Wall of Herod’s Temple, some from all over the world. Tens of millions of Hindus participate in pilgrimage every twelve years to the Ganges River to worship their gods.

But Rome is, well, Rome! The foundation of Western thought and culture and the city from which Christianity spread throughout the world. The only experience that would improve on reading this book is to make the trip to Rome and visit the Station Churches with this book in hand.