Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Wednesday, First Week of Lent: Mary, Major Basilica

This first week of Lent always saw the observance of the spring Ember days.  These ember days occuring on Wednesday, Friday and Saturday, were instituted for the purpose of consecrating to God the new season, and to pray and fast for those who were to receive Holy Orders on Saturday. Although, they are not observed now, it is good to pray for priests during this week.

Today's Station Church is the greatest and most illustrious of all the Roman Churches consecrated to Mary, the Basilica of St. Mary Major.

Tradition has it that the Virgin Mary herself inspired the choice of the Esquiline Hill for the church's construction. Appearing in a dream to both the Patrician John and Pope Liberius, she asked that a church be built in her honor on a site she would miraculously indicate.

The morning of August 5th, the Esquiline Hill was covered with a blanket of snow. The pope traced out the perimeter of the basilica in the snow, and John financed the construction of the new church.

The present Basilica dates back to the fifth century AD. Its construction was tied to the Council of Ephesus of 431 AD, which proclaimed Mary Theotokos, Mother of God. Sixtus III commissioned and financed the project as Bishop of Rome. The unique quality of St. Mary Major comes from the fifth century mosaics, commissioned by Sixtus III, that run along the nave and across the triumphal arch. The nave mosaics recount four cycles of Sacred History featuring Abraham, Jacob, Moses and Joshua; seen together, they are meant to testify to God's promise of a land for the Jewish people and His assistance as they strive to reach it.

The triumphal arch is composed of four images. The first, in the upper left, shows the Annunciation, with Mary robed like a Roman princess. She holds a spindle as she weaves a purple veil for the Temple where she serves. The story continues with the Annunciation to Joseph, the Adoration of the Magi and the Massacre of the Innocents. In this last scene, there is a woman in a blue robe facing away from the other women; she is St. Elizabeth, fleeing with her son John the Baptist in her arms. The upper right illustrates the Presentation in the Temple, and the Flight into Egypt.

The central medallion of the apse shows the Coronation of the Virgin while the lower band illustrates the most important moments of her life.

In this mosaic, Mary is not only seen as mother but as Mother Church, bride of her Son. The sun, the moon and a choir of adoring angels are arranged around their feet, while St. Peter, St. Paul, and St. Francis of Assisi along with Pope Nicholas IV flank them on the left. On the right, Torriti portrayed St. John the Baptist, St. John the Evangelist, St. Anthony and the donor, Cardinal Colonna.

In the lower apse, mosaic scenes showing the life of the Madonna are arranged to the left and right of the central panel, which represents the Dormition of the Virgin and is situated directly below the image of the Coronation. This way of describing the death of Mary is typical of Byzantine iconography, but was also widely diffused in the West after the Crusades.
The Confession, or reliquary crypt, lies before the main altar, and was constructed at the behest of Pope Pius IX to contain the sacred relic of the Holy Crib. The crystal reliquary, shaped like a crib, contains pieces of ancient wood which tradition holds to be part of the manger where the Baby Jesus was laid. A statue of Pope Pius IX kneeling before the ancient wooden pieces of the manger serves as an example to the faithful who come to see the first humble crib of the Savior.

The Pauline chapel, built by Pope Paul V in the 1600's, holds the icon of the Salus Populi Romani. Believed to be painted by St. Luke, She is also called by the title, Our Lady of the Snows.

Let us pray to God that we may be strengthened in mind by the fruit of good works, while we mortify our bodies through prayer and fasting.  Mary, Mother of God, and Mother of Sorrows, intercede for us to your Son, Jesus Christ.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Tuesday, First Week of Lent: Church of St. Anastasia

Visiting St. Anastasia's in July
Today’s Station Church is located in that area of Rome, next to the Circus Maximus, and is dedicated to St. Anastasia who was a early martyr in Sirmius, modern day Serbia. Devotion to this martyr arrived in Rome from Constantinople in the fifth century. This particular church also has a history with St. Jerome who would often offer Mass here when he was visiting the city, because he too was from the area where St. Anastasia lived. The altar used in the Blessed Sacrament Chapel dates back to his time.

In the beginning of the history of the station churches, St. Anastasia was the starting point of the procession to St. Sabina on Ash Wednesday. It also served as a chapel for the Byzantine Emperor, who lived on the Palatine Hill. As a result of this, the pope began to personally celebrate Mass here on Christmas morning, which is also the feast of St. Anastasia. During the Pontificate of Blessed John Paul II St. Anastasia was given to the youth, after World Youth Day in Rome, 2000 to establish Perpetual Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament.

The area is certainly historical, and reminds us of those who gave their lives for the faith in the Circus Maximus, not far from this spot.

Christ, the Light, Life and Truth, gave them the strength to bear witness thus receiving the crown. Let us ask for the grace to live each day of this lenten season bearing witness to the love of Our Lord through sacrifice, fasting, and almsgiving.

St. Anastasia's relics are under the altar

Getting ready for Mass to begin

Monday, February 27, 2012

Monday, First Week of Lent: San Pietro in Vincoli

Preparing for Mass
During our year in Rome we were engaged in an apostolate that required us to be a work by 8:10 am. So needless to say, it was a challenge to squeeze on the right bus, and run down the right street. We soon caught on to the Italian idea of public transportation...if it looks full, push because there is always room for more. This helped us to arrive at our destination and return on time.

The Station Church today was a long treak for us up the Oppian Hill. After two buses, and a long walk, we arrived at the Church of San Pietro in Vincoli. (St. Peter in Chains) First used for Christian worship in the late fourth century, completed by Pope Sixtus III, it is named after the chains which bound St. Peter in prison in Jerusalem and in Rome. Around 450 AD, when the chains were brought from Jerusalem and placed with those from Rome, the two fused together. At the end of the fourth century, the church was rededicated when the relics of the Maccabee brothers were brought to the church. Throughout the coming centuries the church would undergo restorations by those who held the title. In the 1500’s Michangelo was commissioned to complete the tomb begun for Pope Julius II, who was eventually buried at St. Peter’s. His famous Moses, completed around 1545, can still be seen there. In the 1800's, a renovation of the sanctuary created a confessio before a new high altar, and the relics of St. Peter’s chains were placed there for veneration by the faithful. The sixteenth century apse depicts a fresco of a miracle in the 8th century, in which a crucifix of Christ bled when an image of the Christ was nailed to the Cross. Beneath this depiction are three images relating to the history of the chains; an angel coming to free St. Peter from prison, the Empress Eudoxia giving the chains from Jerusalem to the Pope, and the astonishment on the faces of the people who witnessed the miraculous joining of the two chains.

As we continue out Lenten journey, let us pray to St. Peter, who although his denied Our Lord, through weakness, he found strength in Christ to repent, and eventually witnessed by giving his life.

St. Peter's Chains displayed in the confessio

Sunday, February 26, 2012

First Sunday of Lent

A favorite painting in a side chapel at St. John Lateran
As it was custom while living at the Domus Santa Maria in Rome, to “go out” for Sunday Mass, we often attended Mass at the Basilica of St. John Lateran’s. Today's Station Church is this ArchBasilica of the Holy Savior and Ss. John the Evangelist and the Baptist. Here the Holy Father has his Cathedra, the seat of the authority as Bishop of Rome. The donation of land for this first Christian building project in Rome, came from the Emperor Constantine shortly after his great Edict legalizing Christianity and ending the persecution.

Among the major relics of this Basilica are the heads of St. Peter and Paul, the table of the Last Supper, the Eucharistic table used by St. Peter to celebrate the Holy Mysteries, and many other wonderful treasures of the Church. It is a special place of pilgrimage and a must visit if you only have a short time when traveling to Rome.

There is a wonderful website that will take you on a virtual tour of this Basilica. So enjoy.

On this First Sunday of Lent, I would like to offer a short refection on Lenten practices.

Fasting, at first glance, does sound a bit austere. But the law of fasting strictly applies only on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. That doesn't sound like too much – only two days a year. But there is more to fasting than that and if it only entails two days, why does the Church encourage it? I can remember the Lent I spent in Germany. There were some books in English and the Sisters knew English, but that was about it. There were no newspapers or magazines in English, none of the neighbors knew English very well, internet access was very limited. Sure, when we watched the news on TV, I could understand some key words, like: “Obama,” and “Washington,” but it wasn’t enough to figure out what was happening. That Lent I fasted from news and from the English language.

When I was a novice, I thought almsgiving did not apply to me. I had taken a vow of poverty and did not have any money to my name. How wrong I was! We must give of the treasure we have. Whether we are considered rich or poor by the IRS has nothing to do with the amount of alms we are capable of giving. I can give the alms, the gift, of taking the time to listen to someone, to smile and show gratitude, to love someone unconditionally. This is not to diminish the value and duty of giving alms of wealth and material goods. These are good and necessary, but not the only alms we can give.

Prayer seems to be an obvious practice for Lent. After all, prayer is the lifting of the heart and mind to God, conversing with Him. It is normal for us to want to converse with our friends, so if we consider God our friend, we want to converse with Him. Perhaps the greatest challenge of prayer for us is to remain quiet long enough to hear Him speaking to us and to trust that He does hear us and care about us.

Lent is about living a Christian life that consists of fasting from sin, giving of ourselves to others in charity and staying close to God in prayer. It is an annual reminder of the things that really matter in life – it is like the yearly tithe, the 10% of the calendar year that we specifically dedicate to growing closer to God by means of fasting, almsgiving and prayer.

Let us pray for one another that our lenten practices, whatever the are, may lead us closer to a transformation into Christ.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Saturday after Ash Wednesday

Madonna del Parto
Wakening up early, we only had a short walk to the Station Church for this Saturday after Ash Wednesday. The Domus Santa Maria located near San Carlo ai Catinari, was around the corner from Piazza Navona. The Church of Sant Agostino, is located at the east end of the Piazza. Originally today's liturgy was celebrated in the church of St. Tryphon, an older Church which once stood near this spot but was demolished to make room for the adjacent Augustinian convent. The present church dedicated to St. Augustine dates back to the medieval period. Recycled from stone of the Coliseum, this church is one of the best examples of Renaissance architecture in the city today.

There are many sensational treasurers to be found here; Caravaggio's Madonna dei Pellegrini, Raphael's Isaiah, the venerated statue of the Madonna del Parto, whom the Italians consider the patron of all mothers, the beautiful high altar by Bernini, and most especially the remains of the mother of St. Augustine, St. Monica. (left side chapel) Originally buried in the seaport of Ostia in 387, her remains were translated to St. Tryphon in 1430 and later moved to this church. We took some time to pray and reflect upon this woman so steadfast in the faith, so contant in her prayer, and so unwavering in her confidence that God would hear her prayer for her son. What an example for us all.

The chapel to the right of the high altar has an image of St. Augustine with St. John the Baptist and St. Paul the Hermit, representing three great masters of the contemplative life, revered by many of the early Augustinian communities dedicated to the eremitic life. As you make your way around the church and visit the other side chapels you will find relics to St. Nicholas of Tolentine, taken from the catacombs of St. Callistus, relics of Ss. Fortunata, Pius, Justina, and Honorius, early christian martyrs, and figures representing the four doctors of the Latin Church, Ss. Jerome, Ambrose, Augustine, and Gregory the Great.

Receive O Lord, the sacrifices we make during this Lenten season, and being cleansed through its virtues may we offer to you a tribute of love.

Tomb of Saint Monica

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Friday after Ash Wednesday

The Station for today's Mass is the Church of Santi Giovanni E Paolo. Situated on Mt. Coelius, it was a residence that the Christian Senator Pammachius transformed into a parish church. (5th century) Six frescoes of that period represent the captivity and death of these two Roman soldiers of the Imperial Household, “Who in the same faith and the same martyrdom were truly united as brothers.”

Julian the Apostate ascended the throne in 360, Sts. John & Paul were forced with the decision either to embrace the pagan religion or face death. They choose Christ, and were executed in their own home and buried nearby.

Throughout the history of this sacred place, the church was renovated several times. In the late 1850's, the sacristy was added, as well as a large chapel dedicated to St. Paul of the Cross, who is buried there and is founder of the Passionist order which serves the basilica. From 1948 to 1950, a restoration/renovation was carried out by Cardinal Spellman of New York, who held the title to this church at that time. The facade was returned to its medieval appearance. The interior was also restored; among the additions were chandeliers that had previously hung in the Waldorf-Astoria hotel in New York. The basilica is a magnificent manuscript of architectural history, from Roman ruins that make up the foundation, to the modern chandeliers hanging in the nave.

The basilica is a must see if you ever travel to Rome, it serves as a wonderful reminder to the courage of these two martyrs who stood so steadfast in their faith. During Lent, let us cultivate an internal spirit of sacrifice which will show itself in works of mercy done for our neighbor in the name of Christ.

O Lord, grant me a spirit of sacrifice and mercy!
Frescoes of the Martyrdom of Sts. John and Paul

Outside the Basilica of Santi Giovanni E Paolo

Marks the place where the Saints were buried, beneath the Basilica

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Thursday after Ash Wednesday: San Giorgio

View of the apse before the Mass begun
I remember the day very clearly, it was raining heavily as we left the Domus Santa Maria on the Thursday after Ash Wenesday.  It was a challenge to catch the right bus, maneuver the correct streets and arrive at the Church on time for the 7:00 a.m. Mass.  Our destination was the Station Church of San Giorgio in Velabro.

This church was built around the 6th century,near the march where according to legend Romulus and Remus were found.  It was dedicated in 682 by Pope Leo II to the Saints George and Sebastian, the patrons of the cavalry.  In 741 Pope Zachary brought the relic of the head of St. George here, which had recently been discovered at the Latern.  Although St. George was little known in the West, he was very much venerated in the East.  Therefore, this church marks one of the first places of devotion to this saint in the Latin Church.   The sacred relic of his skull is kept in a cosmatesque style enclosure underneath the main altar.

That day, the Rector of the English College offered Mass and he reminded us that Blessed Cardinal John Henry Neumann had been titular of this Church at one time. There are plagues in the crypt commemorating him and other Cardinals who held the same title.

In the 12th century, the vault of the apse was decorated with frescoes of Christ, the Virgin, St. Peter, St. Sebastian and St. George (on a white horse). A magnificent reminder to us of their loyalty to Christ, and steadfast witness to the faith.  Let us pray for this grace during the lenten season.
See you tomorrow.

Outside the Church of San Giorgio

Relic of the Skull of St. George

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Station Church of Santa Sabina - Ash Wednesday

In 2010 during our stay in Rome, one of the highlights of our year, was attending Mass at the Stational Churches during the Lenten Season.  This tradition dates back to the second or third century, when the Bishop of Rome would visit the various parishes of his diocese to celebrate the Sacred Liturgy.  There were practical reasons for this as well as the ability to commemorate certain feast days at the Church which had a particular link to that feast.  Therefore, Good Friday came to be celebrated at the Basilica of the Holy Cross in Jerusalem because of the relics of the passion that were venerated there.  Many of these churches held special relics of the early Christian martyrs and contained memories of the early history of the Church in the city of Rome.

By the last half of the fifth century, there was a fairly regular fixed schedule for the Holy Father to visit these parishes and celebrate Mass with the faithful.  During Lent, the various stations were originally organized so that the Masses were held in different areas of the city each day.  The term “statio” came to be applied to the Eucharistic celebrations that took place on these Lenten days, but later the term was used for all of the visits of the Holy Father throughout the year.
The stational cycle during Lent was fixed by the time of the Council of Trent.  If you remember the Roman Missal, these Stational Churches were listed each day of the Lenten Season, so the faithful could be present in spirit with the Holy Father in Rome.  Today many of these ancient churches are only opened to the faithful on that particular assigned day of Lent in commemoration of this practice.

When we were there, the Pontifical North American College sponsored an early morning Mass each day as a Lenten pilgrimage. We were able to join a couple hundred people each morning to celebrate Mass and venerate the precious relics of the holy martyrs contained there.  It was a grace that we will never forget and a practice that we would recommend to anyone who might be able to visit Rome during the Lenten season.

Each day we will return in spirit to these holy places, recalling our own experience and uniting with this practice revived by the North American College.  Please come back to join us.

Ash Wednesday: Stational Church of Santa Sabina - One of the most complete examples of early Christian architecture in Rome, brought back to its primitive splendor in the 1900's, the church of Santa Sabina was originally built in 422 by Peter of Illyria and covered a building belonging to the Roman matron named Sabina.  The adjoining Dominican cloister, the headquarters of the Order of Preachers for many years, was built in the 13th century.  Since then, countless friars, including St. Dominic, St. Thomas Aquinas and Pope St. Pius V, have passed through this holy place.
After entering the church the mosiac above the main doors are two figures representing the church of the circumcised and the church of the nations.  These demonstrate the continuing memory of the two major groups that comprise the early Roman church, from Jewish and Gentile backgrounds. On the left side is a small chapel in honor of St. Dominic, with a black rock sitting on a small pillar.  Legend has it that, while St. Dominic was once praying in this church, the devil hurled this stone at him. One the other side is the Chapel of St. Catherine of Siena where the Blessed Sacrament is reserved.  In the pavement are tombs of several past master generals of the Dominican Order.

Under the high altar stands at the front of the apse, a small casket containing the relics of SS Sabina, Seraphia and the other early martyrs Alexander, Theodulus, and Eventius - all placed here by Eugenius II.  Since the time of Blessed Pope John XXIII, the Holy Father has offered the evening Mass here on Ash Wednesday to begin the Lenten Season. 
As we begin our own Lenten journey, an inscription in the wall above a tomb reminds us: “Ut moriens viveret, vixit ut moriturus” “That dying he would live, he lived as one who was to die.”  With our eternal destiny before our minds and an unshakable belief in God's infinite love for us, we enter this special season of the year.
View of Rome from Santa Sabina