THE STATION CHURCHES OF ROME
In the development of the Roman Church’s public liturgy over the course of the 4th-6th Centuries A.D. there arose the custom of the “Stational Mass”. On days of major religious importance all of the Christians of Rome would first gather at a designated church (the church of the colecta) and then set forth together in a liturgical procession to another designated church (the church of the statio) for the celebration of Mass. As they processed they sang the Litany of the Saints and Psalms. At the same time the Pope and his clergy were heading to the Station Church in another procession which began from the Pope’s residence at the Lateran Palace.
At the Station Church the Mass would be celebrated, a community Mass Urbis et Orbis, i.e., of the City of Rome and of the whole world, for all Christians in communion with the Pope, wherever they were, partook of the spiritual goods of this particular Mass. The original churches which were included in this round of stations were the four major and three minor basilicas, the “Seven Churches”, the Sette Chiesa (from which is derived that older custom of visiting seven churches on Holy Thursday), and the 25 parish churches of Rome, the tituli. Churches chosen for the Station Mass on a particular day would have some connection to the character of that day’s liturgy. So, for example, on the First Sunday of Advent, the Station Church was the basilica of St. Mary Major, also known as “St. Mary of the Crib” because the relic of the wood from Christ’s manger in Bethlehem is preserved there. Today, on the Second Sunday of Advent, the Station Mass indicated was for the Church of the Holy Cross at Jerusalem. Here in this basilica is kept a considerable portion of the relic of Christ’s Cross, which was brought to Rome by St. Helena as a gift after her discovery of the True Cross in Jerusalem (325 A.D.). The wood of the manger of Christ is a foreshadowing of the wood of His Cross, and so we go in spirit from Bethlehem on the First Sunday of Advent to Calvary outside Jerusalem’s walls on the Second Sunday. The theological connection between Christ’s Birth (the Mystery of the Incarnation) and Christ’s saving Death and Resurrection (the Mystery of the Redemption) is thus beautifully re-enforced.
There were, all told, 89 Stational Masses throughout the liturgical Year in the Roman Church, beginning with the Four Sundays of Advent and the Ember Days in December. The custom of the Station Masses celebrated by the Pope endured in Rome for about 1,000 years (from the 4th-14th Centuries). They ended abruptly after the Papacy began its long exile away from Rome in the city of Avignon, southern France.
But the historical mark of these Station Churches of Rome remains for us as an important part of the spiritual patrimony of Roman Catholics. I hope during this Year of Grace 2019 to bring up the Station Churches and their connections to the liturgies, both in my homilies and in these Pastor Notes.