Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Ash Wednesday & the Station Churches of Rome

Ash Wednesday by the Biedermeier painter Carl Spitzweg

Today the Church enters into the Lenten season, 40 days of prayer and penitence which aim to prepare us for the triumphant joy of Easter. While it bears many similarities to the also preparatory season of Advent, the theme shifts at this time of year from one of anticipation to one of repentance. Lent is a time to remind ourselves of our own mortality and to encourage us in re-centering our lives on what is most important, our relationship with God. "Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel" (Mark 1:15) -- these are the words the priest speaks as he imposes ashes on our foreheads. The season of Lent has often been associated in recent years with the penitential practices associated with it: fasting, almsgiving, giving up various pleasures or luxuries until Easter, etc. These are intended not to show our piety toward others (indeed, Jesus exhorts us not to do this in today's Gospel, Mt. 6:1-6, 16-18), but rather to spur us into reforming our lives and disciplining our baser desires so that we may be ready to rejoice with pure hearts at the Resurrection of Christ on Easter morning.

For those of us at the NAC, Lent offers a special opportunity to continue a very ancient tradition of the Church in Rome: the pilgrimages to the city's station churches. Beginning as early as the third century, Christians in Rome observed the season of Lent by journeying each day to an ancient and prominent church, usually dedicated to and named after a saint who had been martyred at that spot. The Bishop of Rome led the procession and the singing of the Litany of the Saints as they honored the martyrs of Rome, the men and women of the Church Triumphant whose lives (and deaths) of faith serve as inspiration for all of us of the Church Militant. The practice became standardized in the 6th century under Gregory the Great, and although it waned for a time in the middle ages, it became popular again after the Council of Trent. Beginning with Pope John XXIII, the pilgrimage to the station churches of Rome has been a recognized Lenten practice.

The Renaissance fresco in the apse of the Basilica of Santa Sabina

While the practice of visiting the station churches is open to all on an individual level, the North American College is the only group to organize a daily communal celebration at each day's designated station church. It has become an important service for our community to the city of Rome (especially its English-speaking population) and a significant witness of the faith which unites us to the saints and martyrs we commemorate. It is a small but visible symbol of our unity in Christ. As the Holy Father remarked a couple of years ago: These rites retain their value, despite the passing of centuries, because they recall how important it also is in our day to accept Jesus’ words without compromises: "If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me" (Lk 9:23).

The practice began this morning at the traditional location for Ash Wednesday, the Basilica of Santa Sabina on the Aventine Hill. Priests, nuns, and study-abroad college students from around the city joined us for our liturgy. As we headed off in the early morning sunshine for our various universities, the challenge of Jesus to "Go into all the world and proclaim the Good News to all creation" resonated with me in a new way. We can only do this, of course, if we first accept the Gospel ourselves and conform our lives to it. The mercy of God is always available to us, but it is we that must accept it. As the prophet Joel remarks in today's first reading, "Even now, says the LORD, return to me with your whole heart." If we are to answer Christ's charge to live the Gospel for all people, we must, as Paul tells us today, "Be reconciled with God." This task cannot be delayed if we are serious about answering our Lord's call. As Paul says, "Behold, now is a very acceptable time; behold, now is the day of salvation."

A blessed Ash Wednesday to everyone.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Saturday Sojourn: The Borghese Gallery

Salve, folks, I'm back from the dead. Thanks for the prayers and best wishes for my birthday and as I prepared for my exams. They went very well, and so I'm grateful that the work paid off and that I've gotten a feel for how this thing works. It's nice to have one semester down, and, what, ... nine or so to go?

The Borghese Gallery

An interior room in the Gallery

Unlike most of the NAC seminarians, I wasn't able to get away for any travel between or after exams. A few of us did make a little half-day trip here in Rome yesterday, heading over to the Borghese Galllery to view some of its very fine and very famous collection. Begun by Cardinal Scipione Borghese, the Gallery features art from true masters, including Caravaggio, Titian, Raphael, and Peter Paul Rubens. However, it is perhaps most famous for its wide collection of works by the Baroque painter, sculptor, and architect Gianlorenzo Bernini, who benefited as a young artist from the patronage of Cardinal Borghese. The Bernini sculptures, in particular, are as good as advertised, with the famous David perhaps being the highlight.

Bernini's David

The Gallery's most striking sculpture, to me at least: Bernini's The Rape of Proserpine
EDIT: My mom tells me that my description of this statue could be misunderstood or is, at least, a bit untoward. She's right, of course -- my apologies.

Tickets to the Gallery can be hard to get (especially in summer) and must be purchased ahead of time. And though you only have two hours to view everything before you're shuffled out in time for the next group, the museum's permanent collection isn't terribly large so the time restriction works out alright. It's a nice half-day trip and a fairly cheap way to get some serious culture on a Saturday morning.

Second semester starts tomorrow, so there's no rest for the weary. My classes, for any that are interested: The Credibility of Revelation, Fundamentals of Christian Liturgy, Christology & Trinity, Biblical Exegesis: Pentateuch & Early Prophets, Introduction to Patrology & Christian Archaeology, Greek II, and finally, God Revealed: the Trinity (taught by this bishop). Should be great fun!

I still want to detail my Christmas travels a bit, so look for that soon. Hope you're having a nice February, everyone -- ready for spring yet?