Story and photos by Alan Holdren
Editor's Note: See more photos in the gallery.
Procedamus in pace.
In nomine Christi, Amen.
ROME (SNR) - It’s 5:15 a.m. and James Morin’s multiple alarms are buzzing.
A quick shower, a shave and morning prayer, then it’s out the door of the North American College to Mass. He’s off to an early start for the Roman tradition of the “Station Church Pilgrimage.”
“It’s a part of the Lenten life that we seminarians live here in Rome,” Morin told the Southern Nebraska Register March 2 as his morning trek began.
But it’s not just seminarians who roust themselves out in the pre-dawn hours with the same intention during Lent.
Most days, at least 100 other ex-pat Americans - lay and consecrated - are doing the same in the Eternal City.
The pilgrims follow in the footsteps of the early Christians as they gather together for Mass in some of the oldest and most beautiful churches of Christendom.
The ancient tradition is a two-fold pilgrimage: participants meet at a different church every day throughout the Lenten season and they often also physically walk to reach them. Sometimes the distance is so great it takes more than an hour on foot. Other times, the next “station church” is just around the corner.
Morin’s fellow Nebraskan Father Matthew Rolling is doing it this year, too.
“Thank you Jesus for loving me in this way,” Father thinks as his alarm sounds just minutes after Morin’s, but more than a mile away. He’s living in the dead center of Rome at the residence for U.S. priests called the Casa Santa Maria.
This year he plans to attend every one of the 43 Masses on the schedule.
On March 2, it was the turn of the stunning Basilica of San Clemente, where St. Cyril is entombed.
The origins of this Lenten tradition can be traced back to the first centuries of legalized Christianity in the Roman Empire. Pope St. Gregory the Great formalized the practice of the pilgrimage during his papacy in the 6th and 7th centuries.
The pope would lead the faithful from a meeting point or “collecta” to the end point, often the tomb of a saint, which they called a “statio.” There, they celebrated Mass. The idea was to promote unity in the diocese, while venerating the early martyrs and marking major feast days at sites of important relics.
Today, the Americans make the same pilgrimage from Ash Wednesday to Holy Week, ending as the Easter Triduum begins with liturgies at St. Peter’s Basilica.
The pope now only begins the Lenten season by celebrating the first Station Mass Liturgy at the Basilica of Santa Sabina all’Aventino. This year on Feb. 18, Pope Francis headed across the Tiber River to impart the ashes in the footsteps of his predecessors.
Though he took a car up the hill, he still made a pilgrimage on foot to the site, processing from the nearby Church of Sant’Anselmo, while aptly leading the chant of the Litany of the Saints.
The Roman Pontiff was there in the afternoon. The Americans slipped in that morning. Father Rolling and Morin were there, too.
“It’s a beautiful opportunity to see churches, celebrate Masses in beautiful churches and also to be able to participate in this beautiful custom of the Church,” Father Rolling told the Register of the ongoing pilgrimage.
“It reminds us of the spiritual journey that we’re on which is part of the spiritual life,” he added.
Different churches on the route house the tombs of the Apostles Peter and Paul, Philip and James the Minor, also St. Lawrence of Rome and dozens of other saints. The Trastevere neighborhood’s Basilica of Santa Cecilia keeps St. Cecilia’s relics.
The relatively obscure Basilica of St. Praxedes houses what tradition holds to be a large piece of the pillar where Christ was scourged. At the Basilica of Santa Croce in Gerusalemme, pieces of the Cross of Christ and a nail that was used to crucify him are on display. The church itself was built at the place of St. Helen’s palace, where she brought the relics of Christ to Rome from the Holy Land.
The station churches and the order in which they are visited have remained largely unchanged through the centuries.
In their histories, Jerusalem, Constantinople and Milan all have seen forms of the “stational” liturgies come and go. Only in Rome does an organized tradition continue today.
And, even in Rome, the tradition was all but lost for six centuries until the mid-1970s when the American community resurrected the full pilgrimage. They’ve been leading it during Lent ever since. German and Italian groups now do the same.
Along with Father Rolling, about 20 priests, most from the U.S., begin the walk from the Casa Santa Maria residence every morning with a prayer in Latin.
“Before we leave the house, the leader says ‘Procedamus in pace,’ and everyone else says ‘In nomine Christi, Amen.’ And then we walk,” said Father Rolling.
Let us go forth in peace. In the name of Christ, Amen.
They pray the rosary aloud along the way. And if there’s time afterward, said Father, he can let his mind wander.
“A lot of it is enjoying the beauty of the quiet of Rome before it gets busy in the mornings, walking past other churches along the way, thinking about where we’re going, what’s the historical significance of this church, who’s buried there … or sometimes as it’s so early in the morning thinking about nothing is also beautiful, so it’s just peacefully walking,” said Father Rolling.
For Morin, who grew up going to Mass at Lincoln’s St. Teresa Parish, the Roman station church experience has become routine, an annual appointment.
“This year, my third year, it’s almost strange. It’s kind of a normal thing to do because I’ve been here for two-and-a-half years. I know where the churches are. I’m not lost. I can go there on my own time,” he told the Register.
“I suppose it’s kind of cool that in some ways I’ve become like a Roman,” said Morin as he traversed the city’s historic center on the way to his favorite station church, the Basilica of San Clemente.
The third-year theology student and seminarian will make it to “about 30 this year.” He emceed one Mass early on at the Church of San Giorgio in Velabro with U.S. Cardinal Edwin O’Brien celebrating. Being a master of ceremonies at Masses throughout the year is also his “house job” at the North American College.
Morin is preparing to be ordained a deacon this fall in Rome and a priest in May 2016 back in Nebraska.
He and the seminarians from the College plod along, peppered by a light rain, in silent prayer and thought. They have their backpacks on, ready to move on to class after the celebration. The experience is one of community in Rome.
At Mass itself, the average age of attendees is mid-20s. But, there’s a little bit of everything. Seminarians, students, tourists, religious and priests all come together for a special moment to start the day. So many come, in fact, that it’s standing-room only for those who arrive latest.
The call and response prayer, “Procedamus in pace…” is echoed again in Latin by the priests and seminarians before they leave the sacristy to begin the liturgy.
A different English-speaking priest, bishop or cardinal celebrates Mass each morning. They aren’t necessarily Americans.
It’s the Bellevue, Nebraska-native Father Rolling’s first time taking part in the pilgrimage, so he’s attempting to go the distance without missing a single Mass.
He’s in his first of several years studying for a license in philosophy at the Pontifical University of St Thomas Aquinas, known locally as “the Angelicum.”
He only arrived in Rome in August 2014, so it’s all still rather new. “When I take a step back and look at the experience, the first word that comes to mind is ‘surreal,’” he said about ending up in Rome.
After Mass, they step out to a local coffee shop for a “caffe and cornetto,” an Italian coffee and a sweet breakfast croissant. It’s a reunion of sorts for the southern Nebraskans in Rome. The two other Lincoln priests, Msgr. Thomas Fucinaro and Father Andrew Menke, also made time for breakfast before going to the Vatican for work.
Sister Tatum McWhirter, formerly of St. Michael Parish in Hastings, was there, too, with a homemade banana nut bread in hand to share around.
Because of her schedule as a member of the Apostles of the Interior Life and the logistics of arriving, this was one of just two “station church” liturgies she’ll make it to this year.
Talk of home, the weather, Father Menke’s imminent departure for a new job back in the U.S. and the coming consecration of the St. Thomas Aquinas Church back at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln marked the conversation.
And after the early start, they all returned to work and study, each on a separate mission for the Church. Continuing their earthly pilgrimage.
Procedamus in pace. In nomine Christi, Amen.