The Stational Churches of Rome: St. John Lateran

February 25, 2012

The current edition of the Roman Missal instructs us that:

It is strongly recommended that the tradition of gathering the local Church after the fashion of the Roman “stations” be kept and promoted, especially during Lent and least in larger towns in cities, in a way best suited to individual places.

Such gatherings of the faithful can take place, especially with the chief Pastor of the diocese presiding, on Sundays or other more convenient days during the week, either at the tombs of the saints, or in the principal churches or shrines of a city, or even in the more frequently visited places of pilgrimage in the diocese.

If a procession precedes a Mass celebrated for such a gathering, according to circumstances and local conditions, the faithful gather at a smaller church or some other suitable place . . .  Then the procession makes its way to the church in which Mass will be celebrated and meanwhile the Litany of the Saints is sung.  Invocations to the Patron Saint or the Founder Saint and to the Saints of the local Church may be inserted at the appropriate point in the Litany.

Historically, Stational Churches were associated with liturgical processions, especially in the holy seasons of penance throughout the year.  The faithful would gather together in the morning at a particular location, and process to one of the churches to participate in the holy liturgy.  Often times, these liturgies would be associated with a major prelate or even the Holy Father himself.  They were truly expressions of the Church — the people of God gathered together in the unity of prayer and sacrament, surrounding the one altar, led by the Bishop who both represents Christ and stands as a successor to the Apostles. Eventually, a stable pattern was established, and particular days (the “Station Days”) were associated with particular churches.  This custom continues in our own time.  In fact, the American diocesan seminarians in Rome (who live at the North American College) continue this tradition with daily Mass at each of the stational churches.  They have produced an extensive series of reflections on each of the stational churches, which is available online.

Main Doors, St. John Lateran Basilica
For the first Sunday of Lent, the stational church is, appropriately, the Archbasilica of St. John Lateran, one of Rome’s four principal Basilicas.  It is a common misconception to believe that the Basilica of St. Peter on the Vatican hill is the Pope’s Cathedral.  In fact, the ecclesial See of the Bishop of Rome is St. John Lateran, and hence its status as Rome’s Archbasilica.  As the inscription on the facade proclaims: “SACROSANCTA LATERANENSIS ECCLESIA OMNIUM URBIS ET ORBIS ECCLESIARUM MATER ET CAPUT”  (“The Most Holy Lateran Church, of all the churches in the city and the world, the Mother and Mistress”) In his great work on The Liturgical Year, Dom Prosper Gueranger tells us:

The Station, at Rome, is in the patriarchal Basilica of Saint John Lateran. It was but right, that a Sunday, of such solemnity as this, should be celebrated in the Church which is the Mother and Mistress of all Churches, not only of the Holy City itself, but of the whole world. It was here that the public Penitents were reconciled on Maundy Thursday [Holy Thursday]; it was here, also, in the Baptistery of Constantine, that the Catechumens received Baptism on the night preceding Easter Sunday. No other Basilica could have had such a claim for the Station of a day like this; for it was there that the Lenten Fast had been so often proclaimed by Leo and Gregory.

Were one to walk from St. Peter’s to the Lateran basilica, one would follow a fairly straight bath to the south east.  On his way, he would pass the great Roman forum–the place in ancient Rome that was the residence for the wealthiest and most powerful of the Empire.  He would also pass the great Colosseum, the center of Roman entertainment, an entertainment often barbaric in its brutality, and also the likely entryway into heaven for many a Christian martyr.  After a time, he would arrive at the great and imposing structure of the Lateran. The Lateran Basilica itself was originally built under the title of Christ the Savior.  The site was originally land owned by the Laterani family, from whom the Basilica gets its name.  The land eventually was owned by the Emperor Constantine, and it was he who gave it over to the Church of Rome.  Likely adapting an existing structure, the Lateran Basilica stands out as the oldest of the four major Basilicas of Rome. In the back of the apse one finds the great chair, or cathedra in Latin (from which we get the word Cathedral), of its Bishop, the Pope.  The remainder of the Church evinces a typical Basilica style, with a large nave lined with columns on either side.  Like most churches in Rome, evidence of its earlier medieval deocration can still be found, but it has mostly been redone in the lavish baroque style popular in the Catholic Counter-Reformation. The nave leads to an elevated Apse, with side transepts marking the cruciform shape of the building.  Above the apse is a great dome, serving to accentuate the holiness of the sanctuary as the place of the presentation of the sacramental mysteries.  It is a grand structure that in both its ancient tie to the early church and its tie to the Supreme Pontiff accentuates our unity as Christians in this penitential season. This stational church also serves to point us to the Holy Triduum and the saving action of Christ on the cross.  Besides the original title of the Basilica–Christ the Savior–the Basilica was also home to many relics of the passion of Christ.  According to tradition, St. Helena, the mother of Constantine, traveled to Jerusalem on pilgrimage and returned with many items associated with the Lord’s passion.  Among these were the Santa Scale, the holy steps.  These are thought to be the steps on which Jesus climbed when he was taken to see Pontius Pilate shortly before his crucifixion.  The stairs are now located in a building to the side of St. John Lateran, but remain an important pilgrimage place for many Catholics.  The ancient custom is to climb the stairs on one’s knees, praying at each step.

While we are not all able to make the pilgrimage to this holy stational church on this first Sunday of Lent, we can at least unite ourselves in prayer with the Holy Father.  Below are some recent images of the Basilica of St. John Lateran.

For a more thorough view of this great Basilica, see the Virtual Tour of the Basilica available through the Vatican’s website. Grant, almighty God, through the yearly observance of holy Lent, that we may grow in understanding of the riches hidden in Christ and by worthy conduct pursue their effects.  Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.

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