The Stational Churches of Rome: Santa Croce in Gerusalemme

March 16, 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. Last week–the third Sunday in Lent–saw us far from the center of Rome at the Basilica of St. Lawrence Outside the Walls.  For this Fourth week in Lent we find ourselves once again in the ambit of the St. John Lateran, the Pope’s Cathedral.  If you were to exit from the front of St. John Latern and continue straight, you would find yourself on the Viale Luciano Lama.  This wide street runs parallel both to the old city walls of Rome as well as to a long, narrow modern park, filled with old Italians and their newspapers and young Italians and their dogs.  At the end of that street you would come straight to the entrance of the stational church for this Fourth Sunday of Lent, Basilica Santa Croce in Gerusalemme, the Basilica of the Holy Cross in Jerusalem.

Apse fresco of St. Helen bringing the relics from Jerusalem
Like many of the Stational Churches of Lent, this Basilica, one of the seven major Basilicas of Rome, has ties to the ancient practice of Christianity in Rome.  The Original Church was consecrated in the year 325– the same year as the Council of Nicea.  It is believed that the property was once the Sessorian Palace, owned by Helen, the mother of the Emperor Constantine.  Helen was a devout Christian who one year organized a pilgrimage to the Holy Land.  There, she and her entourage discovered a great treasure of relics of the life and especially the passion of Christ.  These she brought back with her to Rome.  Among the relics she brought with her were spines from the crown of thorns, one the nails that pierced Christ, a piece of the true cross, a large plank from the cross of the “good thief”, the incorrupt finger of St. Thomas the Apostle (the “Doubting Thomas” who touched the wounds of the risen Christ); a piece of the pillar on which Christ was scourged; a piece of the crib of the infant Jesus, a small piece of Christ’s tomb.  These may now all be found in a small chapel, renovated in an art deco style in the 1930s.  She also brought other relics which can be found in other churches, especially the stairs from the office of Pontius Pilate, which can be found at the Sancta Scale near St. John Lateran.
Titulus Crucis Stone
However, perhaps the most interesting find was the so-called Titulus Cucis, or the Title of the Cross.  The Gospel stories tell us that when Christ was crucified there was a sign placed on the top reading, in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin the words: Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.  This was also apparently one of the relics brought by Helen.  There are few other records in history of the discovery of this relic, which was lost for almost 1000 years.  In 1492, a brick was discovered in the Basilica carved with the words “Titulus Crucis”.  Upon removing the stone, workers found a silver coffer sealed by Cardinal Gerardus, later Pope Lucius I.  It is believed that the coffer was hidden to protect it from the invading Visigoths.  That coffer contained an ancient piece of wood, with remnants of the words “Jesus of Nazareth, King” in Greek, Latin and Hebrew.  Curiously, the word in all languages is written, not from left to right as would have been the norm in medieval Latin, but from right to left, as Hebrew is written.  This strongly suggests that the piece discovered was not a medieval forgery, but truly comes from the Holy Land.  The same Titulus Crucis is mentioned in the diary of Egeria, a Spanish nun of the fourth century who writes of her pilgrimage to Jerusalem and the veneration to the Titulus Crucis that she witnessed there.  It is believed that when Helen found the Titulus, she had it broken into three parts, keeping one in Jerusalem, giving one to her son Constantine, and bringing this piece back with her to Rome.
Titulus Crucis
Relic of the Title of the Cross
And so, as we approach the mid-point of Lent, our Stational pilgrimage leads us to the implements of the passion of Christ.  We begin to look more intently towards those days of Holy Week.  Here at the Church of the Holy Cross, we can even see the implements of his passion — the thorns that pierced his sacred head, the nails that affixed has body to the cross, and even the sign that declared him King.  We ought to recall the words of the Prophet Isaiah:  “He was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that made us whole, and with his stripes we are healed.”  (Isaiah 53:5 RSV)  What the Prophet foretold, what we know by faith, we can still see in the relics of those implements.  This Fourth Sunday of Lent is often called Laetare (Rejoice!) Sunday, as this is the first word of the Mass.  On this day we rejoice not in the suffering of our Lord, but in the salvation he has won for us through his crucifixion.  And so, our meditation on His death and resurrection should stir up in us greater faith in his truth, hope in his salvation, and joy in our ability to love the God who first loved us.
Crucifix designed from the image on the Shroud
Just past the chapel of the holy relics is another small room housing an image related to the death of our Lord–the Holy Shroud of Turin.  This is not the original shroud, but a full-sized replica of the original that runs the length of the wall.  One can see clearly the negative image of our Lord’s scourged body impressed upon the cloth.  In this room is also is a statue of Christ on the cross that was done to match the image of the body found on the original Shroud.  And so our collection of the tangible reminders of the Passion of Christ are all available for us to see and ponder.
St. Helen
Over the course of the centuries, this church has been added on to and remodeled a great number of times.  However, the oldest part of the building is a small room underneath the current sanctuary.  This portion goes back to the initial use of the site as the Empress’s palace.  In fact, it is believed that the small chapel there was once the private chapel of St. Helen herself.  Outside that chapel now is a statue of St. Helen from Roman times, copied from a pagan statue of the goddess Juno, shown holding a large wooden cross.  At the foot of the statue is soil brought to Rome by St. Helen from the Holy Land.  It is now under plexiglass, and you can see the hundreds of written intentions from the devout faithful that have been placed, in this earth where Christ stood.  Above on the ceiling is a large mosaic put up in the 1400s, but based on the original mosaics commissioned by the Emperor Valentinian II almost 1600 years ago. This Stational Day–the Fourth Sunday in Lent–is often called Rose Sunday, in part because this is one of the two days in the Liturgical year on which the priest may wear Rose colored vestments.  But the origin of this name is not actually because of the color of the vestments worn on this day.  Rather, this was the day on which the Holy Father, while at the Church of Santa Croce, traditionally bestowed the Golden Rose to one of Christendom’s Catholic princes.  The great 19th century liturgist Dom Guerenger describes this ceremony in his master work, The Liturgical Year:

The blessing of the Golden Rose is one of the ceremonies peculiar to the Fourth Sunday of Lent, which is called on this account Rose Sunday. The thoughts suggested by this flower harmonize with the sentiments wherewith the Church would now inspire her Children. The joyous time of Easter is soon to give them a spiritual Spring, of which that of nature is but a feeble image. Hence, we cannot be surprised that the institution of this ceremony is of a very ancient date. We find it observed under the Pontificate of St. Leo the Ninth (eleventh century); and we have a Sermon on the Golden Rose preached by the glorious Pope Innocent the Third, on this Sunday, and in the Basilica of Holy Cross in Jerusalem. In the Middle Ages, when the Pope resided in the Lateran Palace, having first blessed the Rose, he went on horseback to the Church of the Station. He wore the miter, was accompanied by all the Cardinals, and held the blessed Flower in his hand. Having reached the Basilica, he made a discourse on the mysteries symbolized by the beauty, the color, and the fragrance of the Rose. Mass was then celebrated. After the Mass, the Pope returned to the Lateran Palace. Surrounded by the sacred College, he rode across the immense plain which separates the two Basilicas, with the mystic Flower still in his hand. We may imagine the joy of the people as they gazed upon the holy symbol. When the procession had got to the Palace gates, if there were a Prince present, it was his privilege to hold the stirrup, and assist the Pontiff to dismount; for which filial courtesy he received the Rose, which had received so much honor and caused such joy.

Dom Guerenger also gives us in his work a translation of the great prayer used by the Pope for the blessing of the Golden Rose:

O God! by whose word and power all things were created, and by whose will they are all governed! O thou, that art the joy and gladness of all thy Faithful people! we beseech thy Divine Majesty, that thou vouchsafe to bless and sanctify this Rose, so lovely in its beauty and fragrance. We are to bear it, this day, in our hands, as a symbol of spiritual joy; that thus, the people that is devoted to thy service, being set free from the captivity of Babylon, by the grace of thine Only Begotten Son, who is the glory and the joy of Israel, may show forth, with a sincere heart, the joys of that Jerusalem, which is above, and is our Mother. And whereas thy Church seeing this symbol, exults with joy, for the glory of thy Name;- do thou, O Lord! give her true and perfect happiness. Accept her devotion, forgive us our sins, increase our faith; heal us by thy word, protect us by thy mercy; remove all obstacles; grant us all blessings; that thus, this same thy Church may offer unto thee the fruit of good works; and walking in the odor of the fragrance of that Flower, which sprang from the Root of Jesse, and is called the Flower of the Field, and the Lily of the Valley, may she deserve to enjoy an endless joy in the bosom of heavenly glory, in the society of all the Saints, together with that Divine Flower, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, for ever and ever. Amen.

O God, who through your Word reconcile the human race to yourself in a wonderful way, grant, we pray, that with prompt devotion and eager faith the Christian people may hasten toward the solemn celebrations to come.  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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