Last week I enjoyed a wonderful five days in Rome. While I’d previously spent a fair amount of time in the city, this was my first return following my conversion to Catholicism in 2010.
I remember a visit in 2007 where I attended a general audience with Pope Benedict XVI and being profoundly moved, even as a Protestant, at the sheer power and draw of the papacy. Since that time, my understanding of the role of the successor to Saint Peter has been considerably enriched and it was with deep appreciation that I attended an audience with Pope Francis last Wednesday. As the Holy Father made his way through St. Peter’s Square—and the nearly 50,000 in attendance snapped photographs, cheered, and passed their babies to be blessed by him—I couldn’t help but to reflect on the rich symbolism at play.
There we were, joyfully witnessing the current successor to St. Peter while only a few hundred feet away from the tomb of St. Peter, as well as many of the other popes throughout the ages. This unbroken chain of succession is something that no other institution on this earth can boast of—giving further witness to the fact that the Catholic Church is more than merely a human institution. Our roots and our origin are to be found in the eternal and the divine. All of this—the churches and cathedrals, the papacy, etc.—are earthly ministries meant to point us toward our heavenly home.
Yet nonetheless, our heritage is essential. Our churches, our stories, and our history shape us and can and should play important roles in enhancing our spiritual lives. That’s why I brought along George Weigel’s newly released Roman Pilgrimage: The Station Churches (Basic Books, 2013) to accompany me on this past trip. As Weigel explains in his recent CWR interview with Carrie Gress, Roman Pilgrimage documents an important tradition that up until recent years had been neglected. He explains:
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.
The book is a real treasure and is a perfect Christmas gift for any Catholic family. As Weigel notes in the introduction, it’s primarily designed to be used at home during the Lenten season, but of course, it’s also a helpful addition to any pilgrim exploring the eternal city. Here are just a few examples:
While at St. Peter’s in Chains, the church that holds the chains believed to have held Peter while imprisoned, Weigel invites the reader to consider more than just the historical significance of relics. Relics are meant to challenge our present living. St. Peter and his relics speak to us today, observes Weigel, by making us ask ourselves the question: “Am I becoming a saint?” Indeed, the path to sainthood is the only thing that can deliver us from slavery and the chains that bind us in this present life.
Consider, too, the Basilica of St. Paul’s Outside the Walls built on the site where Paul is believed to have been buried. Paul, who converted to the faith after being a great persecutor of Christians. Here, Weigel provides a reflection on the true nature of freedom, a freedom that allows us doing the right thing at the right time. This freedom—a “freedom for excellence”—as St. Paul came to understand, provides the courage to endure all that is necessary for the sake of the gospel.
Back at St. Peter’s Basilica, we encounter Peter, a fisherman who has become a radical disciple of Christ, eventually charged to lead his Church as the first pope. In following Christ, he offered his own life—a life the Church now remembers and celebrates in the Church built above his burial site. “Peter is here because Peter met the Risen Lord,” Weigel reminds us. The resurrection and the hope of Easter is a narrative of life, not death, and the ministry of Peter, and his successors, is one that proclaims that message to the world.
Clocking in at almost five hundred pages, the book takes the reader through every day of the Lenten season and the Octave of Easter. Enhanced by beautiful photographs from Stephen Weigel (George’s son) and commentary from art historian, Elizabeth Lev, the book is part devotional, part history guide. And even though I have returned home from my own trip to Rome, thanks to this wonderful new work, this pilgrim’s journey is really just now beginning.