The Battle Station, Station Days, Station Churches

03-03-2024Weekly ReflectionFr. Leonard F. Villa

Station days were days of fasting in the early Christian Church, associated with a procession to certain prescribed churches in Rome, where the Mass and Vespers would be celebrated to mark important days of the liturgical year. Station days grew out of the early Christian practice of visiting the tombs of the martyrs and celebrating the Eucharist at those sites. By the fourth century, the practice of carrying out an itinerary to various churches of the city began to develop during the days of Lent. In those days it became a tradition for the pope to visit a church in each part of the city and celebrate Mass with the congregation.

Station also has a meaning for every Christian, because the Church on earth is called the Church-militant, the fighting-Church in battle with Satan, the world, and our fallen humanity.Lent especially calls to mind this battle, and the need for Christians to get into fighting-shape, because each Christian is a soldier and occupies a station or post to ward off the enemy. The enemy is three-fold: the world as opposed to God, the flesh meaning the seven deadly tendencies to sin: pride, sloth, envy, lust, gluttony, greed and anger; and the devil.

In a book called The Way by St. Jose Maria Escriva, it says the following:
#960 Custos, quid de nocte? — Watchman, how goes the night?

May you acquire the habit of having a day on guard once a week, during which to increase your self-giving and loving vigilance over details, and to pray and mortify yourself a little more. Realize that the Holy Church is like a great army in battle array. And you, within that army, are defending one “front” on which there are attacks, engagements with the enemy and counterattacks. Do you see what I mean? This readiness to grow closer to God will lead you to turn your days, one after the other, into days on guard.

What does it mean to mortify oneself? St. Paul tells us in his Letter to the Colossians 3: Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry. Because of these, the wrath of God is coming. [b] You used to walk in these ways, in the life you once lived. But now you must also rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips. Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator.

In the early centuries, the Lenten fast lasted all day, and so towards the evening the Christians of Rome would begin to gather at a church known as the collecta ("gathering place"), where they would be joined by the assembled clergy of the city and the pope.

The procession would then move through the streets to the station church, not far away. Having gathered at the daily statio ("standing place"), the pope would then celebrate a solemn Mass, and fragments of the Host were sent to the other stations of the city in order to symbolize the unity of the city around its bishop. After the conclusion of Vespers, the day's fast was broken with a communal meal. In the earliest form of the Lenten itinerary, only about twenty-five churches were assigned as stationes. More precisely, the statio was defined not as the church building, but the relics of the martyr whose relics were housed within. (For example, rather than "Station at the Basilica of St. Anastasia", the station was considered to be "at St. Anastasia" herself.)

In the sixth century, Pope Gregory the Great fixed the classic order of these stations, and confirmed the tradition that the more solemn festivals of the liturgical year should be marked with the standard practices: assembling at Sext, continuing in procession to the statio, celebrating the Eucharistic liturgy, and finishing with Vespers. The practice of keeping stations continued beyond Lent into Eastertide. The stations for the Easter season proceeded in order of sanctity: from St. John Lateran, which is dedicated to Christ, the Savior, for the Easter Vigil, to St. Mary Major on Easter day, to the shrines of principal patrons of the city over the next three days: St. Peter, St. Paul, and St. Lawrence.

Popes since John XXIII have revived the practice of visiting the station for Ash Wednesday, Santa Sabina all'Aventino. The practice of keeping stations gradually waned in Rome, starting after the Gregorian reforms of the eleventh century began to place more emphasis on the pope as administrator, and papal liturgies began to be celebrated in private, rather than among the people of the city. The keeping of stations ceased entirely during the Avignon papacy, and left their trace only as notations in the Roman Missal. Pope Pius XI and Pius XII encouraged a return to the ancient tradition by attaching indulgences for visiting the station churches of Lent and Easter. Concrete gestures on the part of Pope John XXIII and Paul VI also began a revival, as John XXIII was the first pope in modern times to celebrate Ash Wednesday at Santa Sabina, and Paul VI visited Sant'Eusebio on its station day in 1967.

The greatest impetus towards the recovery of the ancient tradition, however, has been the student-organized station church program put on by the Pontifical North American College, where U.S priests are trained for the priesthood and U.S. priests study for advanced degrees in theology. The North American College has coordinated a public station Mass in English at all the station churches of Lent, from Monday to Saturday, every year since 1975. In recent years, the Diocese of Rome too hosts Italian-language Lenten station Masses at the traditional evening hour. In addition to the station churches, a long-standing Roman custom is to visit the four major basilicas and the three of the more important minor basilicas, in what is commonly called the Seven Church Walk. This is traditionally done on Wednesday of Holy Week.

The Station Churches of Lent are the following:
Ash Wednesday – Santa Sabina
Thursday – San Giorgio al Velabro
Friday – Santi Giovanni e Paolo (titular Church of the CardinalArchbishops of N.Y.
Saturday – Sant’Agostino

Lent Week 1: Sunday – Saint John Lateran
Monday – San Pietro in Vincoli
Tuesday – Sant’Anastasia
Wednesday – Saint Mary Major
Thursday – San Lorenzo in Panispern
Friday – Santi Apostoli
Saturday – Saint Peter’s Basilica (Part 1)

Lent Week 2: Sunday – Santa Maria in Domnica
Monday – San Clemente
Tuesday – Santa Balbina
Wednesday – Santa Cecilia
Thursday – Santa Maria in Trastevere
Friday – San Vitale
Saturday – Santi Marcellino e Pietro

Lent Week 3: Sunday – San Lorenzo fuori le Mura
Monday – San Marco
Tuesday – Santa Pudenziana
Wednesday – San Sisto
Thursday – Santi Cosma e Damiano
Friday – San Lorenzo in Lucina
Saturday – Santa Susanna

Lent Week 4: Sunday – Santa Croce in Gerusalemme
(Part 1) Monday – Santi Quattro Coronati
Tuesday – San Lorenzo in Damaso
Wednesday – Saint Paul Outside the Walls
Thursday – Santi Silvestro e Martino ai Monti
Friday – Sant’Eusebio
Saturday – San Nicola in Carcere

Lent Week 5/Passiontide: Sunday – Saint Peter’s Basilica (Part 2)
Monday – San Crisogono
Tuesday – Santa Maria in via Lata
Wednesday – San Marcello
Thursday – Sant’Apollinare
Friday – Santo Stefano
Saturday – San Giovanni a Porta Latina

Holy Week: Palm Sunday – Saint John Lateran (Part 2)
Monday – Santa Prassede
Tuesday – Santa Prisca
Wednesday – Saint Mary Major (Part 2)
Thursday – Saint John Lateran (Part 3)
Good Friday – Santa Croce in Gerusalemme (Part 2)
Holy Saturday – Saint John Lateran (Part 4)
Easter Sunday – Saint Mary Major (Part 3)
**The St. John Lateran is the Pope’s Cathedral Church.