Wednesday, February 24, 2010

San Lorenzo in Panisperna

The Lenten station church practice is in full force, now more than a week into it. It's been good although a challenge to commit oneself to attending every morning. However, I have learned more about this great city, which I thought I knew pretty well already. It's funny -- yesterday, on my early morning walk to the Basilica of St. Mary Major for the station Mass there, I passed a church with an interesting facade and wondered if it might be a station church somewhere down the road. Lo and behold, it happens to be today's station church, San Lorenzo in Panisperna.

The church is named for St. Lawrence, one of Rome's most famous martyrs and one of the most venerated saints in the Catholic Church. A deacon of the Roman Church in the mid-3rd century, St. Lawrence was put in charge of the administration of Church property and keeping its records. When the emperor Valerian, hoping to quash the young Christian religion, asked Lawrence to give him the treasures of the Church, Lawrence is said to have returned a day later with all of the sick, lame, and orphaned in Rome that he could find and declared, "These are the treasures of the church!" Valerian, of course, did not take kindly to this bit of spiritual wisdom and threw him to prison. Lawrence further enraged the emperor and his court when he successfully converted his jailer and the jailer's family. Valerian ordered the deacon to be roasted alive. Lawrence nonetheless kept his sense of humor about him since tradition says that he advised his executioner, "You may turn me over, I'm done on this side." No joke, he's still the patron saint of chefs!

The Martyrdom of Saint Lawrence, behind the high altar, by Pasquale Cati, a student of Michelangelo.

The church of San Lorenzo in Panisperna is reputedly the oldest church in Rome related to the saint's life. Though it has now been passed in importance by the place where St. Lawrence is buried, the Basilica of San Lorenzo Fuori Le Mura (also a Lenten station church, coming up in a few Sundays), the church of San Lorenzo in Panisperna was erected on the site of the saint's martyrdom some time in the mid-4th century. Not much is written about the church until the Middle Ages, when it was attached to an abbey, run first by the Benedictines and then by the Poor Clares. The word Panisperna, roughly translated "ham sandwich", likely comes from this time, when the sisters at San Lorenzo would distribute food to the city's poor along the road that runs in front of the church. (Others say it's because the church known to hand out really great ham sandwiches to the medieval pilgrims who were visiting Rome and walking from the Basilica of St. Mary Major to St. Peter's Basilica.) San Lorenzo is still run by the Franciscan order and continues to have an active ministry to the poor.

Steps from the Via Panisperna lead up to the courtyard in front of the church's portico, separating it from the street.

Beneath one of the side altars on the right hand side of the church rests the relics of St. Crispin and St. Crispinian. The two brothers, born into a noble Roman family in the third century, converted to Christianity and had to flee to Gaul because of their faith. There, they preached the Gospel and made shoes by night in order to get by. They were successful in spreading the Christian faith, enough in fact to make the emperor and the local governor take notice. Crispin and Crispinian were tortured and beheaded ca. 286 AD and their bodies were brought back to Rome some time in the Middle Ages. According to some accounts, the local governor, inspired by their faith, converted to Christianity himself and was later martyred.

The Feast of Sts. Crispin and Crispinian occurs on October 25 and has long been commemorated in England. Historically, it is most famous for being the day on which the famous Battle of Agincourt was fought in 1415, when an English force led by Henry V defeated a much vaster French army. In Shakespeare's Henry V, one of the most famous passages from the Bard is given by Henry to his men in the moments preceding the battle -- the famous "St. Crispin's Day speech." Below, Kenneth Branagh delivers the speech in his film version from 1989:

The Mass readings for today speak to us of the importance of asking God in prayer for all that we need and, even more, of the assurance of God answering those prayers. Jesus tells us, just as he told his disciples: "Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door shall be opened to you" (Mt 7:7). God is infinitely near to us, waiting to grant us what we need, whatever is best for us, if only we turn to him to ask. The saints surely knew this, especially perhaps the martyrs who must have turned to God in their hour of need, not so much to be rescued from their fate but to have the strength of perseverance in enduring it. What kind of amazing courage Lawrence must have had to face the grill of martyrdom! Surely such courage is only the fruit of intense prayer, prayer that relies confidently and solely on God. In this season of Lent, when we are called especially to rededicate ourselves to prayer, may the lives of the saints remind us of prayer's daily and indispensable role in our lives as Christians, remembering as Jesus tells us "how much more will your heavenly Father give good things to those who ask him" (Mt. 7:11).

San Lorenzo's ceiling fresco The Glory of St Lawrence by Antonio Bicchierai

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In case you didn't see my last post, some fellow seminarian-bloggers and I have teamed up to chronicle the Lenten station churches of Rome. I'm not going to feature every church on this blog, but you can see them on the blogs of my friends Victor and Doug, who are putting up each day's post. You can also check out the full list of the station churches and some information about all of them, much of which we're using in our posts.

Second semester has started with a bang so, as always, I thought I'd give you an idea of what courses I'm taking:

- Canon Law
- The Prophets & Apocalyptic Literature
- Paul Today: Applied Exegesis of the Major Pauline Letters
- Church History: the Reformation
- Fundamental Moral Theology
- Introduction to the Theology of H.U. von Balthasar
- Sacramental Theology: Penance, Matrimony, Orders, & Anointing

Plus a fun morals seminar in Italian. It's going to be a rough semester to say the least. Keep me in your prayers!

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

A Lenten Exercise: Santa Sabina

The view from the Aventine Hill toward the Vatican

Exams are finally behind us once again, and after a crazy semester, another that looks to be just as harried started on Monday. The first few days and weeks though usually aren't too overwhelming and I'm hoping to finally make good on some of my promises to get to some long-awaited and long-intended posts on the past few months. Thanks to those of you that are still reading and commenting -- I hope to be around a bit more as the second semester progresses.

Today, as you may know, is Ash Wednesday and thus the start of another season of Lent. You might remember my thoughts from last year on the season of Lent and the Roman practice of visiting various "station churches" throughout the 40 days. Each day, a different church is designated as that day's station for the inhabitants and visitors of the city as they progress toward Easter. It's an ancient practice that enjoyed popularity during the early Middle Ages and again during the days of the Reformation and counter-Reformation. The NAC community is one of the few groups who practice this collectively and we're joined most morning by various Italians and English-speaking emigrants who worship with us.

The Basilica of Santa Sabina

The apse of Santa Sabina

The Basilica of Santa Sabina is the traditional home of the Ash Wednesday liturgy. The NAC has a Mass at 7 a.m., followed shortly thereafter by the Dominicans, who are based at Santa Sabina. Finally, in the early evening, the Pope travels to Santa Sabina to celebrate Mass with guests and members of the Curia. Situated on the Aventine Hill, one of the famous "seven hills of Rome," Santa Sabina was likely built atop the home of the Roman widow Sabina, who converted to Christianity with her slave Seraphia and was martyred with her around the year 125 AD. Their relics rest beneath the main altar. The original church was built in the early 5th century though the modern church dates from the Middle Ages. The apse of the basilica features a fresco of Christ as both preacher and font of living water for the universal Church. In the wooden doors leading into the basilica is one of the oldest depictions of the crucifixion of Jesus. Martyrdom, often by crucifixion, was an imminently present reality for the early Christians, and thus such scenes were not needed or wanted in art. However, by the 5th century, Christianity was the religion of the empire and the crucifixion of Christ was seen more and more as its foundational event.

Detail of the crucifixion scene at Santa Sabina, one of the oldest in Christian art.

So that's the first of the 40 station churches. This year, I've teamed up with a few seminarian buddies and fellow bloggers to mark our progression as we make our way through the station churches and toward Easter. So, each day, we'll visit the church designated for that day, and then one of us will blog about it. The idea is to help you viewers at home get a fuller taste of what the station church practice and Lent in Rome are like. I'll try to update this blog occasionally with some of the posts that I write, but most of the daily write-ups will be on my friend Victor's blog since he came up with the idea: You can also check out the websites of my other friends who will be contributing: Doug (; Colin (; Dave (; Francis (; and Fr. Adam (

I should be back soon with some details on some recent travels, visits from family, and other recent happenings. For now, enjoy the online station church guide!