One of the best-kept secrets of lived Catholicism in Rome, the station churches pilgrimage, which dates back to the earliest centuries of Christianity, can now be experienced by the faithful worldwide in George Weigel’s latest book, Roman Pilgrimage: The Station Churches (Basic Books, 2013). The handsome, 460-page book includes contributions from art historian Elizabeth Lev and features the photography of Weigel’s son, Stephen.
George and and Stephen Weigel spoke recently with Catholic World Report about the new book.
CWR: Roman Pilgrimage is a day-by-day journey to forty historic churches in Rome. What is significant about these holy sites and this “pilgrimage” around the city?
George Weigel: The “station churches” of Rome take the pilgrim back to the very first centuries of Christian life in the city, as virtually all of them are associated with early Christian martyrs. To make the pilgrimage to the prescribed “station church” for each day of Lent is to relive the experience of the pope and the people of Rome in the first millennium, when popes led a daily procession through the city to the “station” of the day, where Mass was celebrated and the day’s fast broken by a post-Mass communal meal. In addition to being a marvelous way to deepen one’s experience of Lent (and Easter Week, for the pilgrimage extends through the Octave of Easter), the station church pilgrimage is also a splendid way to “learn Rome” and to explore some of its hidden artistic treasures.
CWR: Who do you envision reading this book? Is it just for those who are actually in Rome for Lent?
George Weigel: Roman Pilgrimage is a good way to “do Rome at home”—that is, to make the Lenten station church pilgrimage from your living room or study, a day at a time, reflecting on each day’s liturgical texts and getting to know each day’s stational church. So the book really is for everyone. Those planning on taking it to Rome as a companion to do at least a part of the pilgrimage might want to order the eBook, which is gorgeous (all photos are in color) and a lot easier to carry around.
CWR: The book is an insider’s look at one of the best-kept secrets of those who live in Rome, although it is certainly not new. What do you think makes this book “work” to bring the experience to those who may have never even stepped foot in the Eternal City?
George Weigel: In addition to being a guide book to more than three dozen venerable churches and their unique architectural and artistic histories, Roman Pilgrimage is a spiritual companion to Lent and a means of discovering the baptismal character of the Lenten season, which is for all Christians, not just the Church’s enrolled catechumens. In a sense, Lent invites every Catholic to re-enter a kind of catechumenate each year, examining conscience and pondering the ways in which we have and haven’t practiced the imitation of Christ during the previous twelve months. The splendid cycle of Lenten biblical and patristic readings at Holy Mass and in the Liturgy of the Hours offers an unparalleled richness of material for reflection, amplified by the experience of beauty as a “rumor of angels” that everyone takes from the experience of the station churches. Thus after making the “Forty Days” through the station church pilgrimage, we can renew the promises of our own baptism with real conviction, and fully appreciate being blessed with baptismal water at the Easter Vigil or on Easter Sunday.
CWR: Art historian Elizabeth Lev also worked on this project with you. What was her unique contribution to the book?
George Weigel: Each day, from Ash Wednesday through Divine Mercy Sunday, Liz Lev shares with readers of Roman Pilgrimage her unparalleled knowledge of the architecture and art of each of the station churches and does so with her customary brilliance, explaining how each church’s design and decoration evolved over the centuries and evokes the sacred memory of the saints entombed there.
CWR: Stephen, many of the objects you photographed have been shot perhaps millions of times before. How did you approach this book so that it wouldn’t be just a repetition of other Roman guide books?
Stephen Weigel: My goal for the project was to put the reader in the middle of the pilgrimage, not provide another guide book or textbook on Roman architecture. While there were obviously certain objects in the churches that made more sense to include in the book than others, I tried to focus on what drew my attention and capture what I believed people would, or perhaps should, notice if they were actually on the pilgrimage.
To accomplish this I avoided as much as possible viewing photography others had done of the churches so that for many of them I was viewing them for the first time when we arrived each morning. I would photograph during the Mass and generally no longer than 15 or 20 minutes afterwards. I felt that this made the experience and the photographs more authentic. Rather than painstakingly capturing each and every detail of the church, I was limited to what the pilgrims were able to take in.
CWR: George, you have gone “on pilgrimage” with the Station Churches many times. Stephen, I assume this was one of your first times really experiencing the pilgrimage. What sort of insights did the two of you have—as father and son and fellow pilgrims—in 2011 as you experienced the pilgrimage together during Lent and the Easter Octave?
George Weigel: I’d done bits and pieces of the station church pilgrimage while working on Witness to Hope, but Lent and Easter Week 2011 were my first opportunity to do the whole pilgrimage, which really does give you an experience of walking with Jesus “up to Jerusalem,” and then meeting him as the Risen Lord at Easter and during the Easter Octave. Writing a commentary on each day’s liturgical texts also gave me a deeper insight into the catechumenal and baptismal character of Lent, the recovery of which is one of the genuine achievements of the liturgical reform. The project was not without its challenges, including battles with bureaucracies both ecclesiastical and governmental, but being able to do it with Stephen, who was the best of company throughout and who did a stunning job with the photography, made it a very special time capped, that year, by the beatification of John Paul II on Divine Mercy Sunday. An amazing eight weeks.
Stephen Weigel: This is a tough question for me to answer as I didn’t really see myself as a pilgrim but as someone documenting the pilgrims and the pilgrimage as a whole. This is not to say it wasn’t a great experience and it was certainly evident that the pilgrimage was a moving experience for the many people I walked with and saw at the stations each day. I think that the station churches reach people on a very personal level. A woman, who was at the stations each day, spoke to me of her concern that the pilgrimage was meant to be experienced in person, not read about in a book. My response was that our hope for the book was to bring more attention to the station churches, enhance the experience of those able to make the journey firsthand, and allow others to remotely engage this experience that was obviously very important to her.