By Corey Close
Experiencing Lent in Rome is one of the truly unique opportunities I have while studying in what is known as the center of Catholicism. Each year, during the 40 days of Lent, we of the North American College in Rome (NAC) travel to 40 different churches throughout the city, one each day, for our daily Mass.
The practice is a long-standing one, going as far back as the early Christian community living in Rome. Today we call it the “Station Churches.” As one moves from station to station during Stations of the Cross, so we move through the season of Lent going through the many churches and basilicas of Rome during this season of prayer, penance and fasting.
I find it appropriate to be making this pilgrimage during the Lenten season. Early in Lent the readings we listen to at Mass tell us of the journey of Moses and the Israelites. We hear of their captivity in Egypt, their exodus at the hand of God, and their eventual 40 years of wandering in the desert, in anticipation of entering the Promised Land. We hear also of Christ’s 40 days in the desert. And so the Church has given us these 40 days to pray, to journey with Christ, with the ancient Israelites, as we move toward Christ’s passion, death and resurrection.
For all of us Lent is a journey of faith, sacrifice and prayer. For those of us studying in Rome that journey is incarnated in small part each morning. We begin the day in the dark hours before dawn with a hike to the church of the day, usually praying our rosary on the way. After some time we arrive at the appointed church and go inside. Here the lights are on and the place is in preparation for Mass.
Each church is different, so usually the newly arrived are found wandering the aisles to see all the beautiful artwork present, making the faith visible and tangible. Mass is then celebrated, with us having the privilege of being the servers and readers. After Mass, we take one last look at the church and go back outside, where we are met by a very different world. For during Mass, the sun has risen and the world is covered once again in light.
In my experience the Station Churches incarnate the mystery of Lent and Easter, that is the suffering, death and resurrection of Christ. The simple images of walking through darkness, praying in the church, and then emerging into a world now filled with light evokes for me the mystery of our whole faith. The world is full of darkness and the period of Lent is a special reminder of this, but evil does not have the final say. For Easter and the resurrection are soon to be followed by a world reborn in light. As we make our Lenten pilgrimage, let us remember that this time is not simply a journey of 40 days, but rather an image of the journey we make each day of our lives on our way in faith toward our Promised Land, Christ and his saving love for us.
(Corey Close is a third-year seminarian studying for the Diocese of Davenport at the North American College in Rome.)