A Lent Pilgrimage; Valentine's Legacy

Station Churches Are Home to Tradition

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By Catherine Smibert

ROME, FEB. 10, 2005 (Zenit.org).- Lent is when Rome offers its international community the chance to grow in holiness through the traditional "station church" pilgrimage in their own languages.

I am not a keen early riser, but during the Lenten season in Rome, I find myself actually pleading with colleagues to change shifts so that I can have more time to attend the 7 a.m. Masses in a different Roman church every day. That amounts to around 46 churches over seven weeks.

And I am not alone. In fact, due to the large crowds, it's recommended that pilgrims get to the churches early.

Codified by Pope Gregory the Great at the end of the sixth century, this tradition dates back to the origins of Christianity when the first Roman faithful went on pilgrimage to the tombs of the martyrs.

The custom also strengthened the sense of community within the Church in Rome, as this system meant that the Holy Father could visit each part of the city and celebrate Mass with the congregation.

In addition to Mass, the station services consist of a procession, the Litany of Saints and veneration of relics.

These days, the station churches which are appointed for the special morning and evening services during Lent and Easter, range from the major basilicas to less prominent, medieval chapels. All are magnificent.

Because of restoration works and practical problems, stations are sometimes changed. To confirm the schedule for the day, the English-speakers can just contact the North American College.

Those who cannot get to Rome can visit the station churches virtually, via Father William Swengros' "electronic pilgrimage" at www.mostholyname.org/stationchurches/index.htm.

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Terni Is for Lovers

For those in love who find St. Valentine's Day too commercialized, Rome gives another option.

It's the small city of Terni, about an hour's drive out of Rome's center, where the St. Valentine's festival originated.

I found it when my Roman fiancé wanted to accommodate my whim to do something "typically Roman" for the occasion.

There, we stumbled across a long street filled with seemingly happy couples. All were lining up to receive the annual St. Valentine's blessing from the saint's successor, the bishop of the diocese, in the basilica which holds the third-century prelate's remains. (Early martyrologies listed at least three different St. Valentines, but that's another story.)

One can feel the general sense of love and good will in the area. As we went to partake in the event ourselves, village vendors gave us the opportunity to buy red flowers to place in the church, our money going directly to charity. This gesture is in keeping with the traditional belief that Valentine picked fresh flowers from his garden to give to young visitors.

Inside the Basilica di San Valentino, a grand statue of this legendary bishop seemed to look benevolently upon the visitors. By the way he is placed, he seems to direct visitors into an area behind the tabernacle where they can light candles as they ask him to intercede in their relationships.

There is almost a pact you feel with this figure who, according to legend and Church history, secretly married young couples against the wishes of the Emperor Aurelius.

Aurelius had decided that married men made poor soldiers and so he banned young men from marrying. Bishop Valentine of Interamna (modern-day Terni), however, believed that marriage was part of God's plan and purpose for the world.

Thinking the emperor cruel and unjust, Valentine would invite young lovers to come to him in secret, where he joined them in the sacrament of matrimony.

Valentine's guidance for happy and holy unions became so famous that he was obliged to dedicate one day of the year to a general benediction for the matrimonial state.

When the emperor learned of this "friend of lovers," he ordered the bishop be brought to the palace.

Impressed with the young bishop's dignity and conviction, Aurelius tried to convert him to the pagan Roman gods and save him from otherwise certain execution. Valentine refused to renounce Christianity.

In February 273, Valentine was clubbed, stoned and then beheaded on the orders of the Roman prefect Placidus Furius.

According to the prayer cards I bought in the town, Valentine's life, given to the apostolate and ennobled by his martyrdom, induced the citizens of Terni in 1644 to proclaim him both the patron saint of their city and of lovers.

Valentine's impact finds expression in a series of events, which began last month and continue into March.

The events started in January with the opening of an art exhibit, "Della Vita, Dell'Amore" (Of Life, of Love). They continue with poetry-and-song evenings, and interreligious prayer meetings, and lead up a closing conference on March 15 organized by the Catholic movement of the Laureati on "Religion in Politics."

March 14 itself is a splendid mix of prayer and festivities with Masses, a marching police band, a fireworks display and a benefit concert in the Teatro Verdi.

One central element to the party is the annual presentation of the "Terni -- Year of Loving Award," a prize given in recognition of a special act of love from husband-and-wife couples to charity groups. This year's event will emphasize solidarity with the peoples of tsunami-struck southern Asia.

A program for Terni events is posted on the Web.

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Crux of Carnival

Rome has been preparing for Lent in the traditional way -- by feasting.

Though the purple liturgical vestments are now being donned, the "coriandoli" (colored confetti paper) still line the streets of the city, reminding its inhabitants of how they must put their more indulgent behavior behind them and refocus their energies on God.

The Carnevale Romano festivities take us back in time to a different age. From the feast of Epiphany to Mardi Gras, Rome is abuzz with fancy-dressed children playing in the piazzas, and colorful parades marching throughout the streets.

The city abounds with house and street parties, complete with culinary (and meaty) feasts and dancing and boisterous music. You can almost see the shadows from those events that were decisive in the development of popular theater, songs in the vernacular, and folkloric dancing.

In that line, a new Roman venue is presenting an exhibition about the history of Carnival. Until March 11, the Sala Santa Rita in Via Montanara is showing a collection portraying noisy activities of yesteryear when the city's piazzas and streets were transformed into a huge, open-air theater.

Etchings and paintings of some 19th-century artists -- Bartolomeo Pinelli, Achille Pinelli, and Antoine Jean Baptiste Thomas -- tell tales of the unbridled race of the Berber horses down one of Rome's main streets. You can still see the damage these did to Via del Corso!

The artists present the traditional masks of Cassandrino, Rugantino and Meo Patacca, and academic reinterpretations of some of the most emblematic figures of daily life, such as the doctor, the bandit and the fallen nobleman.

Yet, the Roman Carnival has always been more than just a costume party. This period of celebration had its origin in the need to use up all remaining meat and animal products such as eggs and butter before the fasting season. Even the word "carnival" comes from Latin and means "to remove meat" or "stop eating meat."

All parties, of course, come to an end, and this one has a reputation for doing so, very spiritually, in the Eternal City.

Charles Dickens describes it brilliantly in his essay "Pictures from Italy" where he recalls the bells of Rome chiming at the stroke of midnight and an Ave Maria being sung at the very climax of the feast and fun.

True to form, just before bedtime last Tuesday night, many Roman families knelt down to say an Our Father together before wishing one another a "blessed Lenten season."

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Catherine Smibert can be reached at catherine@zenit.org.