The best Lent of my life involved getting up every day at 5:30 a.m., hiking for miles through ankle-twisting, cobblestoned city streets, dodging drivers for whom traffic laws were traffic suggestions, avoiding the chaos of transit strikes and other civic disturbances and battling bureaucracies civil and ecclesiastical — all while 3,500 miles from home sweet home.
Lent 2011, which I spent in Rome working on "Roman Pilgrimage: The Station Churches" (Basic Books), had its compensations. Each day, I discovered new architectural and artistic marvels, brilliantly explained by my colleague Elizabeth Lev. Each day, I watched with pride as my son Stephen pulled off one photographic coup after another, artfully crafting pictures that would get our future readers "inside" the experience of the Lenten station church pilgrimage in Rome. Each day, I had the opportunity to dig more deeply than I'd ever done before into the biblical and patristic readings for the Mass and Divine Office of the day. This was a both spiritual and entertaining.
That Lent in Rome also taught me a lot about the vitality of the Church in the United States and the effects of that vitality on other Anglophones. While the tradition of pilgrimage to a "station church" in Rome for each day of Lent goes back to the mid-first-millennium, the tradition had lain fallow for some time before it was revived by North American College students in the mid-1970s. By the mid-1990s, when I first encountered it, the entire American seminary community was participating. By 2011, that daily Mass community had grown to over 300 (and sometimes over 400) souls, as students from the Roman campuses of American universities, English, Scottish and Irish seminarians from their national colleges, and English-speaking ambassadors accredited to the Vatican became regulars.
That English-language liturgical and spiritual fervor wasn't necessarily replicated by the Vicariate of Rome, which also sponsored a daily "station" Mass at the church of the day. On the Friday after Ash Wednesday, 2011, my son and I hiked back up the Caelian Hill to the Basilica of Sts. John and Paul to complete the photography Stephen had begun at the 7 a.m. English-language stational Mass that morning. We got our work done just before the Vicariate Mass started in the early evening, and saw a half-dozen concelebrants and perhaps fifteen people enter the basilica for the stational Mass of the day sponsored by the pope's diocese — a sharp contrast to the 250-300 English-speakers who were there as the sun was rising. The day before, at St. Giorgio in Velabro, the same number of English-speakers had to scurry out of the basilica at 7:30 p.m. sharp to accommodate the half-dozen German priests celebrating their stational Mass: beautifully chanted, but concelebrants without a congregation.
Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow and William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. RELATED ARTICLE(S):THE CATHOLIC DIFFERENCE | Lent: The annual catechumenate