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Rome Notes: A Lent Pilgrimage; Valentine's Legacy

2/11/2005 - 7:00 AM PST

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Station Churches Are Home to Tradition

By Catherine Smibert

ROME, FEB. 11, 2005 (Zenit) - Lent is when Rome offers its international community the chance to grow in holiness through the traditional "station church" pilgrimage in their own languages.

I am not a keen early riser, but during the Lenten season in Rome, I find myself actually pleading with colleagues to change shifts so that I can have more time to attend the 7 a.m. Masses in a different Roman church every day. That amounts to around 46 churches over seven weeks.

And I am not alone. In fact, due to the large crowds, it's recommended that pilgrims get to the churches early.

Codified by Pope Gregory the Great at the end of the sixth century, this tradition dates back to the origins of Christianity when the first Roman faithful went on pilgrimage to the tombs of the martyrs.

The custom also strengthened the sense of community within the Church in Rome, as this system meant that the Holy Father could visit each part of the city and celebrate Mass with the congregation.

In addition to Mass, the station services consist of a procession, the Litany of Saints and veneration of relics.

These days, the station churches which are appointed for the special morning and evening services during Lent and Easter, range from the major basilicas to less prominent, medieval chapels. All are magnificent.

Because of restoration works and practical problems, stations are sometimes changed. To confirm the schedule for the day, the English-speakers can just contact the North American College.

Those who cannot get to Rome can visit the station churches virtually, via Father William Swengros' "electronic pilgrimage" at www.mostholyname.org/stationchurches/index.htm.

* * *

Terni Is for Lovers

For those in love who find St. Valentine's Day too commercialized, Rome gives another option.

It's the small city of Terni, about an hour's drive out of Rome's center, where the St. Valentine's festival originated.

I found it when my Roman fiancÚ wanted to accommodate my whim to do something "typically Roman" for the occasion.

There, we stumbled across a long street filled with seemingly happy couples. All were lining up to receive the annual St. Valentine's blessing from the saint's successor, the bishop of the diocese, in the basilica which holds the third-century prelate's remains. (Early martyrologies listed at least three different St. Valentines, but that's another story.)

One can feel the general sense of love and good will in the area. As we went to partake in the event ourselves, village vendors gave us the opportunity to buy red flowers to place in the church, our money going directly to charity. This gesture is in keeping with the traditional belief that Valentine picked fresh flowers from his garden to give to young visitors.

Inside the Basilica di San Valentino, a grand statue of this legendary bishop seemed to look benevolently upon the visitors. By the way he is placed, he seems to direct visitors into an area behind the tabernacle where they can light candles as they ask him to intercede in their relationships.

There is almost a pact you feel with this figure who, according to legend and Church history, secretly married young couples against the wishes of the Emperor Aurelius.

Aurelius had decided that married men made poor soldiers and so he banned young men from marrying. Bishop Valentine of Interamna (modern-day Terni), however, believed that marriage was part of God's plan and purpose for the world.

Thinking the emperor cruel and unjust, Valentine would invite young lovers to come to him in secret, where he joined them in the sacrament of matrimony.

Valentine's guidance for happy and holy unions became so famous that he was obliged to dedicate one day of the year to a general benediction for the matrimonial state.

When the emperor learned of this "friend of lovers," he ordered the bishop be brought to the palace.

Impressed with the young bishop's dignity and conviction, Aurelius tried to convert him to the pagan Roman gods and save him from otherwise certain execution. Valentine refused to renounce Christianity.

In February 273, Valentine was clubbed, stoned and then beheaded on the orders of the Roman prefect Placidus Furius.

According to the prayer cards I bought in the town, Valentine's life, given to the apostolate and ennobled by his martyrdom, induced the citizens of Terni in 1644 to proclaim him both the patron saint of their city and of lovers.

Valentine's impact finds expression in a series of events, which began last month and continue into March.

The events started in January with ...

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