By Joachim Teigen
Lent is a season of penance, fasting and prayer, and as millions of faithful come to churches around the world to receive the cross of ashes, the Pope takes part in a tradition that goes all the way back to the early centuries of the Church.
On the afternoon of Ash Wednesday, Pope Francis leads a penitential procession from the Basilica of San Anselmo to the Basilica of Santa Sabina in Rome. After a prayer in San Anselmo, the procession begins accompanied by the singing of the Litany of Saints, invoking the assistance of all the martyrs and saints for the 40 days ahead.
Arriving at Santa Sabina, the Pope celebrates Mass there, thus marking the beginning of Lent with a visit to the first of the several “station churches”.
The practice of visiting “station churches” goes all the way back to the early Christian practice of celebrating Mass in the catacombs where martyrs were buried. By the fourth century it had become tradition for the Pope to visit a church in every part of Rome during Lent to celebrate Mass with the faithful of his diocese.
The current order of station churches, beginning with Santa Sabina, was established by Pope St. Gregory the Great in the sixth century, with each station also being a visit to the relics of the martyr in that church.
The house church of Santa Sabina
As for the Basilica of Santa Sabina, it is not entirely clear why it was chosen as the first of the station churches. One theory has it that the climb to the church on top of the Aventine Hill in Rome is symbolic of Jesus’ climb to the hilltop of Golgotha.
But the basilica is also historically important, and stands where the house of the martyr St. Sabina stood in the second century. Her house was one of the many “house churches” used during the persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire, and it was later turned into a basilica, housing her relics to this day.
Various churches in Rome housing the relics of saints are assigned to all the days of Lent, encouraging the faithful to ask the intercession of the saints as they pray and fast with Jesus in the 40 days leading up to the great Easter celebrations.