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Making a mini pilgrimage

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Our journey begins in the dark, before the first rays of the sun bring light and warmth to the city and, no less significantly, before any coffee has been consumed. No one speaks, but the gentle “click’”of rosary beads reveals the internal prayer taking place amid the external silence. Winding through the dark, narrow streets of Rome, I find myself surrounded by unfamiliar buildings and am grateful that someone knows the way. We round a corner and arrive at a dimly lit, half-full church that is centuries old. A bell rings and Mass begins. One journey ends, another continues.

Beginning in the fourth century, Christians in Rome would gather at a set meeting point and then make a mini pilgrimage. They would journey together to a nearby holy site, usually on the outskirts of the city, where Mass would be celebrated. These holy sites were significant to the faithful because of their connection to the apostles and early martyrs; for instance, the burial site of St. Paul the Apostle is now the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls, and the site of St. Cecilia’s martyrdom is now  Santa Cecilia Church in Trastevere. These ancient pilgrimages gave rise to what is now the tradition of the “Station Churches,” daily mini pilgrimages during Lent. Every year during this holy season, the Pontifical North American College in Rome organizes a 7 a.m. Mass at the Station Church of the day, drawing seminarians and English speakers from around the city.

Our Catholic faith is full of traditions that help us as human beings — a unity of body and soul — enter more deeply into the mysteries of our faith. These practices help us to remember that our faith is not something private or abstract, but rather is lived out by the whole person in his or her daily life. The Station Church tradition, and its sense of pilgrimage for those involved, can help us as we continue our journey through this liturgical season of Lent.

As we near Holy Week, it’s a good time to reflect on our own Lenten pilgrimage. Obviously, not all are able to get to Rome, but what stops are you making to grow in your own holiness? What sacrifices have been involved? Are you traveling with a community to help you find your way? Though COVID-19 reduces the ability to make a physical pilgrimage, it opens up opportunities for virtual ones: accompany the Holy Father in the Stations of the Cross; “visit” churches of ancient Rome online and learn about the martyrs who have gone before us in following Christ; gather with friends to do a walking rosary in the neighborhood. Make your own Lenten journey a pilgrimage and a reminder of your earthly pilgrimage toward heaven. And while there are sacrifices on the journey, the experience at the end is worth it.

Deacon Townsend, who is from St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception Church in Fredericksburg, is in his fourth year of theology at the Pontifical North American College in Rome.




© Arlington Catholic Herald 2021