The early morning sunlight warms the ancient and time-weathered stones of Santa Sabina, “the gem of the Aventine.” As one opens the fifth-century carved wooden doors of this basilica that depict scenes of the Old and New Testaments, one is greeted by the sweet and delicate aroma of fresh bay leaves that lay strewn across its vast expanse of toiled floor.
Through opaque windows above 24 fluted columns taken from a nearby temple, light penetrates the darkness and illuminates the nave of the church. The eye is immediately drawn forward to a mosaic depicting Christ the Good Shepherd. One hears the refrain of the Gregorian Chant, “Attende Domine.” It is Ash Wednesday in Rome; Lent has begun.
Rome’s Titular Churches
Santa Sabina is the first of 40 station churches in Rome. For nearly 20 centuries, these churches have served as gathering places for Christians. Here the faithful come on pilgrimages to pray at the tombs of the martyrs and saints and to beg their intercession. Twenty-five of these churches were once the homes of Romans who converted to Christianity.
Until the first persecution under Nero (A.D. 54-68), there was probably no secret about these churches. However, when Christians attracted the attention of the civil authorities, a blanket of silence and mystery descended upon them as the faithful went to the churches in secret and did not talk about them for fear of implicating the owners, whose name they bore.
Shouldered by modern buildings in the heart of Rome are a number of churches that lie below street level and may be accessed by flights of steps. They belong, like the Forum, to a world that lived and walked 30 to 40 feet below the pavement of modern Rome. Several of these churches go back to the time of the apostles, but they have been rebuilt so often, and so recently, that only a stray column, a mosaic or a crypt gives a clue to their astonishing antiquity.
These are the titular churches (tituli) of Rome. They existed as meeting places for Christians three centuries before the Basilicas of St. Peter or St. Paul or any other public church existed.
Beneath their naves one can see the foundations of the first-century Roman buildings — ruins that resemble an underground Pompeii, with room after room decorated with frescoes painted in the second and third centuries. Many of the so-called tituli are older than the catacombs and are the most venerable places of worship in the Western world.
Penitential Stations During Lent
The word “station” seems to come from the Latin “statio” (stare): standing together — that is, gathering around the bishop at the altar to celebrate the Eucharist. After the peace of Constantine in A.D. 312, these primitive homes were rebuilt into the great basilicas we see today. While some still enjoy their original design, others have witnessed architectural changes through the ages.
From early on, these stations took on a penitential character, which has suggested the alternative deprivation of “station” from the statio or fortified and sentineled camp of the Roman army. St. Ambrose, in the fourth century, seemed quite sure that the Church had deliberately applied the military term to liturgical assemblies, because Christians were the “militia of Christ” who gathered together for prayerful vigil.
Christians today continue to observe the early custom of visiting these churches in Rome. At the Pontifical North American College (the U.S. seminary in Rome), priests and seminarians have enjoyed the tradition of gathering each morning at 7 a.m. for Mass at each of the station churches.
Their prayers echo the voices of centuries of Christian pilgrims who, like themselves, came to the tombs of the martyrs to honor those saints whose lives bore witness to Christ and whose blood consecrated the Eternal City.
Along with our prayer and penitence during Lent, the observance of the station churches affords us a unique opportunity to make a true pilgrimage of faith.
Msgr. James D. Watkins is pastor of St. Ann’s Catholic Church in Washington, D.C., and adjunct professor of philosophy at The Catholic University of America.