The Stational Churches of Rome: San Lorenzo Fuori le Mura

March 11, 2012

We continue to look at the Stational Churches of Lent.  These are particular churches in Rome associated with a particular day.  Every day in Lent has, by ancient custom, a stational church associated with it.  This series examines the stational churches associated with the Sundays of Lent.

Basilica of St. Lawrence Outside the Walls
Last Sunday, the stational church for Lent was the church of Santa Maria in Domnica, originally the house of Cyriaca, a Christian woman.  It also served as the place where St. Lawrence, one of the seven deacons of Rome, provided care for the poor.  That connection with St. Lawrence is continued in the stational church for the Third Sunday of Lent, the Basilica San Lorenzo Fuori de Mura, or the Basilica of St. Lawrence Outside the Walls.
Statue of St. Lawrence
As a deacon of Rome, one of St. Lawrence’s duties was to keep the goods of the Church.  In a story that goes back at least to the time of St. Ambrose, it is said that the Emperor, in want of some extra money, summoned Lawrence and ordered him to hand over the treasury to the government.  The saint asked for several days to make ready for Rome.  At the appointed time, he appeared before the Emperor who again demanded the treasury of the church.  At this time, Lawrence presented to him the poor, the sick, the orphaned, and the widowed in the church, declaring them to be the Church’s true treasure.  This provoked the Emperor to have Lawrence executed.  He was martyred on a grill, and so his symbols include the palm branch (a symbol for all martyrs) and the grill (his particular symbol).  St. Lawrence was one of the most popular of the early Roman martyrs, with several churches in Rome dedicated to his honor. As its name suggests, the Church is built outside the walls that once surrounded the city.  Roman custom at the time did not permit burial of the dead inside the city walls, and Christians generally did not follow the Roman custom of cremation.  After St. Lawrence’s martyrdom, the faithful took his burnt body to property owned by Cyriaca along the road to the Tibur (called the Via Tiburtina today).  He was buried in the catacombs there, in an area that came to be known as Verano (more on that below), after the Emperor Lucius Verus, who had owned much of the land. Upon entering the current Basilica of St. Lawrence (one of the seven major Basilicas of Rome), one is immediately struck at how different it is from other Roman basilicas.  Most other churches in Rome were renovated following the rise of the ostentatious Baroque style of the 16th century.  However, this Basilica shows very little of the Baroque influence, most of the Baroque additions having been removed in the renovation done by Pope Pius IX, with only two side chapels having been kept in that style.  The Basilica continues to present the simple character of its early Christian roots. One of the most notable features of the church is the Triumphal Arch separating the sanctuary from the current nave (built in the 11th century).  The top of the Arch facing the people contains a mural of Mary and the Saints, one of the few 19th century murals that survived the Allied bombing in World War II.  However, one must recall that the original 5th century church faced the other direction.  Therefore, one must now enter the sanctuary to see the original mosaic that once faced the people.  The mosaic contains an image of Christ in the center of the Arch–Christ is the Capstone of the Arch.  Near him are Sts. Peter and Paul, the ancient patrons of Rome.  Also depicted are St. Lawrence and St. Stephan, two of the deacon martyrs whose remains are found in the church, as well as the martyr St. Hippolytus of Rome.  The original mosaic dates to the 6th century and the renovation of the church by Pope Pelagius II.  Pope Pelagius is also depicted in the mosaic (without a halo) holding a miniature version of the Basilica.
Marble of St. Lawrence
Like many Roman Basilicas, the church contains a confessio, a lower section directly in front of (or under) the High Altar in which the relics of the martyrs are kept.  The Basilica of St. Peter in the Vatican contains a much larger and more ornate confessio.  The inscription above the entryway to teh St. Lawrence confessio indicates that its is the resting place of three early martyrs:  the Deacons Lawrence and Stephan, and the philosopher Justin.  Behind the small crypt area, in what was the original main floor of the original church, is found another relic of St. Lawrence–known as the “Marble of St. Lawrence”.  According to tradition, St. Lawrence’s charred body was placed on this stone immediately after his martyrdom.  Afterwards, a miraculous impression of his body was left on the stone, and can still be seen today. St. Lawrence was revered in the early church especially for his generosity to and love for the poor.  His stational church on this Sunday in Lent reminds us of the importance of almsgiving as a part of our Lenten observance.
Tomb of Bl. Pope Pius IX
At the very back end of the church (in what was the original porch of the Basilica) is the tomb of Blessed Pius IX (1792-1878).  Pope Pius IX lived in a time of great anti-clerical unrest, when many lands and properties were stolen from the Church by the newly unified Italian government.  (This provides an interesting tie with St. Lawrence, for the legitimate holdings of the church were demanded by the Emperor of his day.)  Nonetheless, in his mercy the Pope absolved his persecutor, King Victor Emmanuel II, of all excommunications shortly before the King’s death.  Regrettably, the kind Pope’s enemies were not so forgiving, as during the procession that brought his body from St. Peter’s all the way to St. Lawrence, anti-clerical forces sought unsuccessfully to dump his body in the river.  Despite long opposition from anti-Church forces in Italian politics, Pius IX was beatified by Pope John Paul II (himself also among the Blessed) in the great jubilee year of 2000, together with Bl. Pope John XXIII.
Dominican Crypt, Verano Cemetery
Finally, the Church of St. Lawrence is connected with another important Roman landmark, namely the Campo Verano.  This vast tract of land is one of Rome’s largest cemeteries, and includes the crypt for the friars and nuns of Rome.  The place was originally part of the catacombs of the family of Cyriaca, and has served as a cemetery since Roman times.  However, it is only since the 19th century that it has been open to all of the citizens of Rome, with both Catholic and Jewish sections in the cemetery.  One is struck by the catholicity of the cemetery–with families, nuns, priests, and bishops all buried together.  As we all share an equal dignity in baptism, so we all share in the great equalizer that is death, with the hope of resurrection in Christ. This ancient tie between St. Lawrence and this place of burial for the deceased should also provide a certain focus as we contemplate the mysteries of Lent.  In his trip to the U.S. in 2008, Pope Benedict XVI lamented the “almost complete eclipse of an eschatological sense” in the Western world.  That is, the West of today is almost exclusively focused on the things of this world–money, success, career, and happiness in this life.  The Holy Father wished to remind us that we are properly oriented not merely to this life, but the life to come.  Christians–and the society thy inhabit–ought to be marked more by a concern for eternal life.  This world is a preparation for a hoped-for, grace-given unity with the Holy Trinity. Contemplating our own mortality–an ancient Christian practice–helps us to restore this properly Christian focus. O God, author of every mercy and of all goodness, who in fasting, prayer, and almsgiving have shown us a remedy for sin, look graciously on this confession of our lowliness, that we, who are bowed down by our conscience, may always be lifted up by your mercy.  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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