Roman Holiday
Rediscovering an ancient pilgrimage

From the cover of Roman Pilgrimage


Lopez: Why have the tombs of the martyrs long been a meeting place for Christians?

Weigel: Veneration of the martyrs is as ancient as the Acts of the Apostles. In Rome, martyrs’ homes often became house churches, which evolved into basilicas, which were then transformed architecturally and aesthetically over the centuries, as Liz describes in our book.

Lopez: Knowing that, in times of persecution, Christians in Rome would head to the tombs of the martyrs, are we in solidarity with the Christians today who face the threat of martyrdom when we pray at these spots?

Weigel: To be sure. Indeed, during the station-church pilgrimage of 2011, which Liz, Stephen, and I made in full, the general intercessions at every Mass included prayers for the persecuted Church throughout the world, especially in the Middle East.

Lopez: Who are the martyrs “nunc” the book is dedicated to?

Weigel: Men like Shahbaz Bhatti, the Pakistani martyr who will, I am confident, be canonized some day. Men the Chinese Communist regime would just as soon have the Church forget, like Bishop Francis Ford of Maryknoll, martyred by the Maoists. The men and women who put their lives at risk by professing Christ every day in North Africa, sub-Saharan Africa, the Levant, Pakistan, and the house churches of China.

Lopez: Can stones be “witnesses,” and what can they tell someone in 2014?

Weigel: The sanctity of holy places like the station churches comes not so much from the stones as from the prayers and witness of those who have prayed in these sites for centuries. Yet there is something splendidly tactile about the station-church pilgrimage, during which one encounters the chains that bound Peter and Paul in their imprisonments, bits of the gridiron on which St. Lawrence was martyred, the pillar of flagellation from the Passion, and so forth. All these things remind us that Christianity is not a “narrative”; Christian truth is firmly tethered to history, to times we can know and places we can still touch. 

Lopez: Why Mass? How important is the Eucharist to this pilgrimage?

Weigel: Absolutely central, for in the daily celebration of Holy Mass during the pilgrimage, the Eucharist is literally viaticum, “food for the journey” — not just at the hour of death, but for the journey throughout daily life.

Lopez: How would this pilgrimage make a difference in the observing and fasting of Lent?

Weigel: It makes a lot of difference, and you don’t have to be in Rome to do it (which is the whole idea of the book), although if you do make the pilgrimage in Rome, or at least a part of the pilgrimage, it’s a marvelous way to learn the city, early in the morning before the cacophony begins. But “doing Rome at home” through Roman Pilgrimage also makes a difference, in that it allows readers to become vicarious pilgrims who are taking the time and making the effort to dig a little more deeply, each day, into the Bible and some of the greatest of early Christian literature in the texts that form the literary backbone of the liturgy of each day.

Lopez: Pope Francis held what are believed to be the bones of St. Peter in his arms during the creed at the recent closing Mass of the Year of Faith Pope Benedict instituted last fall. What was the significance of that action?

Weigel: It illustrated what I said a moment ago: that Christianity begins with real things happening to real people, in real places and at times we can know with real historical certainty. How did a Galilean fisherman, probably illiterate, from east of nowhere, get to the center of world power and, after being butchered to amuse the mob, eventually get himself the world’s greatest tombstone (which we know as the Patriarchal Vatican Basilica of St. Peter’s)? That’s the question the relics and the basilica demand be confronted: How did that happen? And the answer, which is central to Pope Francis’s insistence on evangelical Catholicism, is that that day laborer from the shores of the Sea of Galilee became a friend of the rabbi Jesus from Nazareth, whom he eventually came to know as the risen Lord Jesus Christ — and that knowing led him and others to convert the world.

Lopez: Your reflections in Roman Pilgrimage cite the Liturgy of the Hours often. How important is that prayer to the life of the Church? Would it help the “evangelical Catholic” effort if more lay people prayed it in the Church?

Weigel: The Church has long believed that the entire day should be sanctified by prayer, in a daily rhythm of praise, repentance, supplication, and thanksgiving. The monthly prayerbook Magnificat helps busy people do this in a modified, simplified, and yet serious way. But the Liturgy of the Hours is the prayer of the whole Church, not just the prayer of clerics and consecrated religious who are bound to pray it by canon law or vows. I’ve been praying it for almost thirty years and have found the Divine Office a bottomless ocean of inspiration. So yes, Evangelical Catholicism is certainly advanced by a more widespread use of the Liturgy of the Hours in the Church.