What Is the Meaning of a Station-Church?

03-07-2021Weekly Reflection

One of the characteristics of the Lenten season is something call the Stations or Station Churches. Each day in Lent has a “station-church” to which the faithful would process and pray and fast. Station became the place before which or within which the faithful walked in procession and, tired out, but always standing, sometimes leaning on a stick, assisted, before leaving, at the celebration of the Liturgy Station in the secondary sense meant a partial fast or day of partial fast, as distinguished from a day of full fast. The station normally ceased at the ninth hour (3PM), while the full fast was prolonged to the evening. Wednesdays and Fridays were days of customary if not obligatory Christian fast by the beginning of the second century.

Fifty years later the expressions ‘‘to maintain a station’’ and ‘‘to maintain a fast’’ were interchangeable and by the beginning of the third century station was the accepted synonym for a day of partial fast. Several theories have been advanced to explain how station acquired this penitential connotation. Most plausible, perhaps, is the conjecture that since the days of semi fast were also in many places days of liturgical observance, the term station came to be popularly applied to the day’s fast as well as the day’s rite. Station also had the meaning, in military language, of an outpost and the sentinels assigned to it. 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 for prayerful vigil.

The tomb of a martyr became the object of a kind of pilgrimage to which the faithful went in a body, and thus arose another statio ad. . . But the martyrs alone did not attract the crowds; it became the custom to go to the celebrated basilicas, and sometimes all the clergy of a large city assembled at a certain point, probably in the vicinity of the episcopal residence, to go there with the bishop, the patriarch, or the pope himself to the place assigned for the celebration of the Eucharist. In addition to suburban cemeterial basilicas, Rome had an early multiplicity of city churches. The primitive domus Dei—churches in private homes—became, after the persecutions had ended, the tituli, or parish churches, which numbered 25 by the fifth century. To these were added, under the Christian emperors, the major basilicas and a number of lesser church edifices. In establishing a cycle of stational visits, the bishops of Rome, like other bishops who followed this policy, saw in it an apt symbol of the unity of the shepherd with his flock. For although the whole diocesan community could not attend the station-Mass, this Mass would still be the official diocesan liturgy, and delegations would be on hand to represent the various city districts, with their own clergy to minister to them. If the priest in charge of a titulus (parish) was absent, the celebrant would send to him, as a sign of Eucharistic union, the FERMENTUM, a portion of his own consecrated Host.

It is not known which were the original Roman stational churches, but the popes may have started the practice as early as the third century. Gregory the Great reorganized the existing schedule at the beginning of the seventh century (Joannes Diaconus, Vita 2.18.19; Patrologia Latina 75:94). The oldest known lectionary, the ninth-century Würzburg Comes, gives the stational calendar as it stood in Gregory’s time. During the reign of Gregory II (d. 731) other churches were added to fill out the cycle of Lenten stations. The Tridentine Missal (1570) retained this eighth-century schedule substantially unchanged, indicating the station at the head of each stational Mass. Lent and Easter Week had the most complete series of station days. Less complete series were assigned to Advent and Christmastide, and to the Ascension and Pentecost. Ember and Rogation Days also had stational services. The eventual total was 89 stational services on 87 stational days, at 42 station churches.

As residential bishops witnessed the increase in the number of church buildings under their jurisdiction, they naturally found reasons for celebrating the solemn liturgy now at one, now at another of these churches. The Spanish nun Egeria, who made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land around386, has left an account of the current stational practice there, although she does not use the word statio. A similar procedure was followed in Antioch, in Oxyrhynchus, Egypt, and doubtless in other dioceses of the Near East and Egypt. Many of the larger Christian dioceses in the West had stational liturgies: for example, Carthage, Milan, Vercelli, Ravenna, Lìege, Paris, Tours, Cologne, Mainz, Metz, and Strasbourg. Tours had its stational rites by 460.

The stational rite proper was a pontifical Mass. In order that this Mass might be celebrated at all the stations with equal splendor, Pope Hilary (d. 468) provided a special set of chalices and other utensils that were carried out to each day’s station (Liber pontificalis 1:244–247). For the ordinary stational Mass, the pope and his train went in state to the appointed church where the clergy and faithful from all the tituli awaited him. On penitential days when there was to be a letania or procession, the pope went first to another church that had been designated as the rendezvous for the formation of the procession and was therefore called the collecta, for example, S. Georgius in Velabro, collecta for S. Caecilia, S. Hadrianus (in the Forum Romanum), collecta for S. Maria Major. Here he initiated the day’s rite with special prayers, concluding with the oratio ad collectam (prayer for the assembly). Then the procession, led by one bearing the wooden stational cross, set out for the station. Following the cross bearer were the clergy and faithful from the seven ecclesiastical districts of Rome, and the pope and his clergy in black vestments since the Litany of the Saints chanted by the procession concluded with a triple Kyrie, the Mass at the station had no Kyrie of its own.

The stational rite itself was the ceremonious papal liturgy prescribed by the Roman Ordinals of the seventh to eleventh centuries. The clergy of the tituli originally concelebrated with the pope and administered Communion to their own parishioners in attendance. At Communion time the archdeacon announced the station church for the next station day, and the collecta if there was to be a procession. The announcement was greeted by a Deo gratias. Since the rite at the collecta usually began about 3 P.M., the day’s penitential fast ended with the conclusion of the stational Mass. The beautiful Masses composed for the stational liturgy were frequently written with the station church in mind. Thus SS. Cosmas and Damian are mentioned in Collect of the Mass celebrated in their church, and the lesson read in the stational Mass of S. Susanna is the story of Susanna and the elders, from the Book of Daniel.

After the popes took up residence in France in 1305, the stational program fell into disuse, and upon their return to Rome in 1378 it was resumed only on a much diminished scale. Sixtus V, in the constitution Egregia of Feb. 13, 1586, attempted to renew the custom more fully, but his efforts met with slight success. After the fall of Rome in 1870, the popes, as voluntary prisoners of the Vatican, could not have revived the papal stational visits even if they had desired to do so. Pius XI, freed from this ‘‘captivity’’ by the Lateran Pacts of 1929, did not personally undertake the stational visits; but he did encourage the revival of the general stational practice and granted indulgences to those who participated (April 12, 1932: Raccolta 780). Credit for its revival is due to Carlo Respighi (d. 1947), prefect of the apostolic ceremonies and Magister of the Collegium Cultorum Martyrum, a Roman archeological and devotional society. Successive popes from Pope John XXIII have participated in stational visits.

Week of Ash Wednesday

Ash Wednesday – Santa Sabina
Thursday – San Giorgio al Velabro
Friday – Santi Giovanni e Paolo
Saturday – Sant Agostino

First Week of Lent

Sunday – Saint John Lateran
Monday – San Pietro in Vincoli
Tuesday – Sant’Anastasia
Wednesday – Saint Mary Major
Thursday – San Lorenzo in Panisperna
Friday – Santi Apostoli
Saturday – Saint Peter’s Basilica (Part 1)

Second Week of Lent

Sunday – Santa Maria in Domnica
Monday – San Clemente
Tuesday – Santa Balbina
Wednesday – Santa Cecilia
Thursday – Santa Maria in Trastevere
Friday – San Vitale
Saturday – Santi Marcellino e Pietro

Third Week of Lent

Sunday – San Lorenzo fuori le Mura
Monday – San Marco
Tuesday – Santa Pudenziana
Wednesday – San Sisto
Thursday – Santi Cosma e Damiano
Friday – San Lorenzo in Lucina
Saturday – Santa Susanna

Fourth Week of Lent

Sunday – Santa Croce in Gerusalemme (Part 1)
Monday – Santi Quattro Coronati
Tuesday – San Lorenzo in Damaso
Wednesday – Saint Paul Outside the Walls
Thursday – Santi Silvestro e Martino ai Monti
Friday – San Eusebio
Saturday – San Nicola in Carcere

Fifth Week of Lent

Sunday – Saint Peter’s Basilica (Part 2)
Monday – San Crisogono
Tuesday – Santa Maria in via Lata
Wednesday – San Marcello
Thursday – San Apollinare
Friday – San Stefano
Saturday – San Giovanni a Porta Latina

Holy Week

Palm Sunday – Saint John Lateran (Part 2)
Monday – Santa Prassede
Tuesday – Santa Prisca
Wednesday – Saint Mary Major (Part 2)
Thursday – Saint John Lateran (Part 3)
Good Friday – Santa Croce in Gerusalemme (Part 2)
Holy Saturday – Saint John Lateran (Part 4)
Easter Sunday – Saint Mary Major (Part 3)