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A Tradition Rises From the Ashes; Da Vinci Decoder

3/10/2006 - 5:45 AM PST

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Benedict XVI Revives a Lenten Practice

By Elizabeth Lev

ROME, MARCH 10, 2006 (Zenit) - Benedict XVI continued a 1,600-year-old tradition on Ash Wednesday when he celebrated Mass and the imposition of ashes at the station Church of Santa Sabina on the Aventine Hill.

To the thrill of medievalists, he also revived a usage discontinued since the 11th or 12th century of gathering for prayer at a collect Church of Sant'Anselmo before heading to the station church.

Station churches are traditionally the site where a pope celebrates Mass during Lent as well as certain holy days and feasts. In the ancient customs of Christian Rome, on Ash Wednesday the faithful would assemble at a collect church (Sant'Anastasia in the Middle Ages) and after praying together they would depart in procession to Santa Sabina where the pope would celebrate Mass for the congregation.

The origins of the station churches are unclear, but it appears that as the Christian community of Rome grew over the centuries, all the Christians of Rome could no longer fit in a single site, so the station churches -- meaning where the pope "stops" -- were created to distribute the bishop of Rome evenly around the city.

The stations were probably in use by the end of the fourth century when Christianity became the sole religion of the empire but the definitive list was compiled by St. Gregory the Great in the sixth century.

Austere Lenten practice meant the city more or less shut down for 40 days allowing people to spend as much time in prayer and at Mass as possible. The pope's presence every day in one church or another throughout the city ensured that every Roman or visiting pilgrim would have the opportunity of witnessing the papal example of penitence.

The selection of Sant'Anastasia and Santa Sabina was most likely connected to the idea that the privileged class of Rome should set an example of repentance for the rest of the city.

Sant'Anastasia rests on the slopes of the Palatine and was the preferred church of the ruling class of Rome. Santa Sabina dominates the wealthy Aventine Hill and was frequented by rich Roman matrons.

An interesting legend has it that during his time in Rome, St. Jerome served as priest of Sant'Anastasia. It is also well known that the Church Father acted as spiritual director to the ladies of the Roman upper class residing on the Aventine Hill, in particular Paula and her daughter Eustochium who lived on the Aventine.

Jerome was famous for his personal asceticism as well as his extremely strict penances so the choice of churches to open Lent seems to recall the thoughts and deeds of the great penitent saint.

So as we wince at renouncing chocolate, alcohol or cigarettes for 40 days, it is perhaps helpful to remember the Lents of old, marked by fasts and abstinence, yes, but also by a citywide call to constant prayer and Mass.

* * *

Welborn, Well Armed

At times it seems that Rome is the epicenter of the universe. Heads of state, movie stars, long-lost friends all seem to find their way here at one point or another. Add to that the special touch of Divine Providence, and every now and then you get to meet someone you've been longing to meet.

I'd heard a great deal about Amy Welborn, former writer for Our Sunday Visitor, now freelance author, lecturer and remarkable mother of five. Many people had directed me to her blog, "The Open Book," and I was curious to meet her.

Welborn came to Rome last week with her husband Michael Duvriel and three of her five children. While primarily a family trip, the English-speaking Catholic community in Rome seized the opportunity to have the author talk about her latest works debunking "The Da Vinci Code." A couple of mutual friends later, I was able to meet Welborn for a talk about her life, work and first trip to Rome.

Much became clear to me when Welborn told me that she had been a teacher for nine years and had a master's in Church history. Indeed her books, her studious rebuttals of "The Da Vinci Code" and her blog all speak of a mission to form and inform Catholics.

Welborn's first forays into literature were a children's book on saints and a series of apologetics books for young people. She says that through her writing, she "was able to continue teaching in a broader way." Her knack, she says, "is taking complicated concepts and making them more understandable especially for young people."

The author explained that she felt inspired to help kids "get past the idea that the Gospels are something far away from them that they can't relate to and see that they are a Truth with the answers to their lives today."

From adolescents to adults wasn't a big leap. Welborn's recent book, "Decoding Da Vinci: The Facts Behind the Fiction of the Da Vinci Code," was ...

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