A Tradition Rises From the Ashes; Da Vinci Decoder

Benedict XVI Revives a Lenten Practice

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By Elizabeth Lev

ROME, MARCH 9, 2006 (Zenit.org).- Benedict XVI continued a 1,600-year-old tradition on Ash Wednesday when he celebrated Mass and the imposition of ashes at the station Church of Santa Sabina on the Aventine Hill.

To the thrill of medievalists, he also revived a usage discontinued since the 11th or 12th century of gathering for prayer at a collect Church of Sant'Anselmo before heading to the station church.

Station churches are traditionally the site where a pope celebrates Mass during Lent as well as certain holy days and feasts. In the ancient customs of Christian Rome, on Ash Wednesday the faithful would assemble at a collect church (Sant'Anastasia in the Middle Ages) and after praying together they would depart in procession to Santa Sabina where the pope would celebrate Mass for the congregation.

The origins of the station churches are unclear, but it appears that as the Christian community of Rome grew over the centuries, all the Christians of Rome could no longer fit in a single site, so the station churches -- meaning where the pope "stops" -- were created to distribute the bishop of Rome evenly around the city.

The stations were probably in use by the end of the fourth century when Christianity became the sole religion of the empire but the definitive list was compiled by St. Gregory the Great in the sixth century.

Austere Lenten practice meant the city more or less shut down for 40 days allowing people to spend as much time in prayer and at Mass as possible. The pope's presence every day in one church or another throughout the city ensured that every Roman or visiting pilgrim would have the opportunity of witnessing the papal example of penitence.

The selection of Sant'Anastasia and Santa Sabina was most likely connected to the idea that the privileged class of Rome should set an example of repentance for the rest of the city.

Sant'Anastasia rests on the slopes of the Palatine and was the preferred church of the ruling class of Rome. Santa Sabina dominates the wealthy Aventine Hill and was frequented by rich Roman matrons.

An interesting legend has it that during his time in Rome, St. Jerome served as priest of Sant'Anastasia. It is also well known that the Church Father acted as spiritual director to the ladies of the Roman upper class residing on the Aventine Hill, in particular Paula and her daughter Eustochium who lived on the Aventine.

Jerome was famous for his personal asceticism as well as his extremely strict penances so the choice of churches to open Lent seems to recall the thoughts and deeds of the great penitent saint.

So as we wince at renouncing chocolate, alcohol or cigarettes for 40 days, it is perhaps helpful to remember the Lents of old, marked by fasts and abstinence, yes, but also by a citywide call to constant prayer and Mass.

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Welborn, Well Armed

At times it seems that Rome is the epicenter of the universe. Heads of state, movie stars, long-lost friends all seem to find their way here at one point or another. Add to that the special touch of Divine Providence, and every now and then you get to meet someone you've been longing to meet.

I'd heard a great deal about Amy Welborn, former writer for Our Sunday Visitor, now freelance author, lecturer and remarkable mother of five. Many people had directed me to her blog, "The Open Book," and I was curious to meet her.

Welborn came to Rome last week with her husband Michael Duvriel and three of her five children. While primarily a family trip, the English-speaking Catholic community in Rome seized the opportunity to have the author talk about her latest works debunking "The Da Vinci Code." A couple of mutual friends later, I was able to meet Welborn for a talk about her life, work and first trip to Rome.

Much became clear to me when Welborn told me that she had been a teacher for nine years and had a master's in Church history. Indeed her books, her studious rebuttals of "The Da Vinci Code" and her blog all speak of a mission to form and inform Catholics.

Welborn's first forays into literature were a children's book on saints and a series of apologetics books for young people. She says that through her writing, she "was able to continue teaching in a broader way." Her knack, she says, "is taking complicated concepts and making them more understandable especially for young people."

The author explained that she felt inspired to help kids "get past the idea that the Gospels are something far away from them that they can't relate to and see that they are a Truth with the answers to their lives today."

From adolescents to adults wasn't a big leap. Welborn's recent book, "Decoding Da Vinci: The Facts Behind the Fiction of the Da Vinci Code," was written to assist numerous readers of the "Da Vinci Code" who find themselves confused between fact and fiction in the novel.

Welborn's first encounter with the Dan Brown book was a quick (negative) review for Our Sunday Visitor, but she realized that "however silly the story and poorly written the book was, it was very manipulative."

Reactions to her review revealed that the novel had unearthed a deep crisis in catechesis. Recalling a letter from a mother saying that her daughter had "lost her faith" as a result of reading the book, Welborn asked, "What faith, if it can be undone by something off a fiction shelf?"

Reflecting on the problem, Welborn found that "over the past 30 or 40 years, people have come out of catechesis thinking the Gospels are unreliable. People think that the Gospels are more about the Church that produced them than Jesus himself."

Welborn pointed out that some of the staunchest defenders of the book have been people who preface their remarks with, "I'm a devout Catholic but …" before going on to say "that we can't know anything for sure anyway … the Gospels came so late." Welborn feels that this results in people who "pick whatever story meets one's needs at the moment."

To answer the many questions surrounding the book, Welborn decided to address the issue at the core. A remarkably simple task as she states, "All you need are sources and logic to unravel the book."

Her newest book, "Decoding Mary Magdalene: Fact, Fiction and Lies" was inspired by her husband who noted that there were no Catholic books setting the record straight on Mary Magdalene.

Welborn said that the real puzzle which emerged while writing this book was "what happened to the devotion to Mary Magdalene?" She found that "after 1,400 years … devotion to Mary Magdalene was rooted in the three figures in one: sister of Lazarus, the adulteress and the penitent woman." Welborn then explained that, "after Vatican II, they cleared up the confusion but at the same time the bottom fell out of her devotion."

Welborn notes that Mary Magdalene, besides her role as the faithful disciple who is the first witness to the Resurrection, is also a model of penitence. In this respect, she claims that Dan Brown's errors are the most grievous because "'The Da Vinci Code' gives the impression that her repentance is bad."

Continuing, Welborn explains that "the book suggests that the purpose of focusing on her repentance was to focus on her sinfulness, to the effect of demonizing her, which is not true at all."

Welborn clarifies that the reality is exactly the opposite: "Mary Magdalene shows the hope of forgiveness and the reality of forgiveness and how our lives are changed."

As I write this on March 8, International Women's Day, Welborn's words have particular resonance, "Mary Magdalene is not a figure of the lowliness and the horrible state of women, she symbolizes the joy of a Christian life and the joy of forgiveness."

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Politics, the Roman Way

Here in Rome, exactly one month away from the Italian general elections, the prevailing mood is peaceful, even a little jocular as we come into the electoral home stretch.

This mellow mood stands in sharp contrast with the last U.S. elections, which featured hostility to supporters of the rival party, and vicious bumper stickers (thank heavens the Italians don't do bumper stickers).

In fact, Romans go about their business as if the elections were still two years away. Is it institutional indifference? Are they merely fey? Or is there some secret recipe for electoral serenity?

One of the reasons might be that Italians don't unearth every detail of politicians' personal lives to hurl in muckraking contests. We hear nothing of their children, their marital status or what they may have done in college.

In a city where the church/state question is literally in the back yard, the most turbulent moment regarding the religion question took place this week over a number of center-right leaders scheduled to visit the Pope at the end of March.

Although Benedict XVI has been avoiding anything that could be construed as interference in the elections, the leaders of the Communist left grabbed headlines by objecting to the exploitation of the Church to gain votes. Italians shrugged off the potential polemic, surmising that the leftist leaders were disappointed that Stalin was unavailable to grant them an audience.

The election platforms (where applicable) circulate around general state questions -- jobs, taxes and the Iraq question -- but very little discussion is given to issues of individual rights.

The hottest topic on that score is the PACS -- "Patto Civile di Solidarietà," which is the Italian equivalent of same-sex marriage. The PACS platform is particularly dear to the extreme left party, colorfully named "la rosa nel pugno" (the rose in the fist), which attracts a few stragglers in Che Guevara T-shirts (yes, people really wear those here) but few others.

Perhaps it is that Romans, after a 3,000-year-old history of being governed by dictators, emperors and popes, have developed a view that they'll get through five years of whatever administration comes their way. After Nero, how bad can it be?

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Elizabeth Lev teaches Christian art and architecture at Duquesne University's Rome campus. She can be reached at lizlev@zenit.org.