In the new book Roman Pilgrimage, written with Elizabeth Lev and Stephen Weigel, George Weigel, biographer of Pope John Paul II — who is to be canonized this April — opens with a quote from the late pontiff: “To go in a spirit of prayer from one place to another . . . helps us not only live our lives as a journey, but also gives us a vivid sense of a God who has gone before us and leads us on, who himself set out on man’s path, a God who does not look down on us from on high, but who has become our traveling companion.”
Weigel, distinguished senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, talks about the Station Churches of Rome — a pilgrimage that has had a recent revival — with National Review Online’s Kathryn Jean Lopez.
Kathryn Jean Lopez: What is so important about the concept of a pilgrimage, and why have people “in virtually every time and place known to history” embarked on them?
George Weigel: There seems to be something about pilgrimage hard-wired into homo religiosus. In biblical religion, of course, that instinct to go from one place to another in a spirit of prayer is aroused by the central fact of revelation. Faith in the God of the Bible is not a matter of our search for God, but God’s search for us — God coming into history (first in the people of Israel, then in the Church) and asking us to follow the same path through history that He is taking. That understanding of God-in-history and us-in-history is also one of the central contributions of Biblical religion to Western Civilization: the idea that life is not just one damn thing after another, or a great and repetitive cycle, but an adventure, a journey, a pilgrimage with a starting point and a destination. And as I point out in Roman Pilgrimage, the station-church pilgrimage reminds us that the end of the journey is the wedding feast of the Lamb in the New Jerusalem. Not a bad destination, that.
Lopez: Is this book just for Catholics? What’s in it that is of interest to everyone?
Weigel: No one does the art and architecture of Rome better than Liz Lev, and her commentaries on the station churches are masterpieces of the art historian’s and art guide’s craft. I’ll risk a charge of special pleading and say that very few people have photographed these sites, the familiar ones and the unfamiliar ones, as well as my son, Stephen (you really get a sense of the quality of his work in the eBook version of Roman Pilgrimage, where all the photographs are in color, and can be zoomed in to a remarkable degree of resolution). Then there’s the history of the churches, and indeed the cultural history of Rome, both of which one meets along the station-church path. Several of my evangelical Protestant friends have told me that they’ve appreciated my commentaries on the Biblical texts of Lent, and those texts, plus the patristic texts on which I comment, are surely not for Catholics only.
Lopez: How is the station-church pilgrimage “an itinerary of conversion”?
Weigel: Conversion is not a one-off deal in the spiritual life; conversion, deeper conversion, is a lifelong process of practicing the presence of God and the imitation of Christ. The station-church pilgrimage is an opportunity to enter into that process of purification and spiritual strengthening in a unique way that touches the heart, the mind, and the senses as well as the soul.
Lopez: It’s a pilgrimage steeped in history. How was it that some English-speaking seminarians revived it?
Weigel: The station-church pilgrimage evolved in the middle centuries of the first millennium as the ordinary way the pope celebrated Mass with the people of Rome during Lent. The practice atrophied over time, especially after the papacy’s exile in Avignon, but its memory remained in the liturgy of the Church, where the “station” of the day was listed in every Roman Missal until the new missal of Paul VI in 1969. In the mid 1970s, American seminarians and student priests began walking to the daily station church in Rome during Lent, and from that modest beginning (in which major Church leaders like the current archbishop for the military services, Timothy Broglio, were involved) has come today’s experience of the station-church pilgrimage, which is led by the North American College (the American national seminary in Rome) and involves hundreds of Anglophones living, studying, and working in Rome. Thus an ancient Roman tradition has been resurrected in 21st-century guise by the church of the New World — another sign of the vitality of the Church in the United States.