I am not a Roman Catholic, but I love the churches of Rome. Where else on earth is there such a concentration of hallowed houses of worship, sermons in stone and light, in art and architecture, that reveal so completely the antiquity and historical density of the Christian faith? That is why I was delighted to see George Weigel's beautiful new book, Roman Pilgrimage: The Station Churches (New York: Basic Books, 2013).
Many of the churches in Rome are built over or near the tombs of the martyrs, those who willingly faced (an often tortuous) death rather than renounce their faith in Jesus Christ. Ever since Bishop Polycarp of Smyrna (Izmir in modern Turkey) was bound and burned at the stake in the mid-second century, Christians have remembered the martyrs in a special way. Already in the Book of Revelation, the martyrs are lauded as white-robed saints in heaven who have "come through great tribulation" (Rev. 7:14). They belong to the great cloud of witnesses who are cheerleaders for believers here on earth still on journey to "that city which has foundations" (Heb. 11:10).
The practice of making a Lenten pilgrimage to certain churches in Rome associated with the early Christian martyrs goes back to the fourth century. The pilgrims would gather at a church, known as the collecta, where they would be met by the bishop and other clergy of the city. Together they would process to a particular statio, or martyr church, designated for that day in Lent. Their visit to the church would conclude with the service of vespers, complete with the public reading of Holy Scripture, singing, prayers, and the solemn celebration of the Eucharist. This Lenten discipline has been revived in recent years by seminarians at Rome's North American College and is still followed today.
Roman Pilgrimage, was brought together by George Weigel along with his son, the photographer Stephen Weigel, and the superb art historian Elizabeth Lev. These three walked the Lenten station church pilgrimage in preparation for this book, which features biblical exposition, stunning photographs, and expert historical comment. But this publication is neither a mere guide for tourists nor a handbook for antiquarians. Rather it is a manual of Lenten faith: an invitation to the spiritual landscape of martyrdom, pilgrimage, prayer, and lectio divina. The description of each of the station churches begins with suggested Bible readings and other texts from the commentaries and sermons of the church fathers, followed by a meditation. Read the rest at First Things.