Before Pope Francis met President Obama on Thursday at the Vatican, his @pontifex Twitter account issued a call to conversion. To miss the possibilities for conversion in Rome is to miss all which makes it the “Eternal” City.
A few years ago, before my first trip to Rome, one of the wisest and yet most practical people I know said that, for a Catholic, turning down the Via della Conciliazione — the road to St. Peter’s Basilica and the tomb of the first pope — would be like “coming home.” And so it is.
But there is no homecoming without a meal — without substance. And George Weigel’s new book Roman Pilgrimage, done in collaboration with Elizabeth Lev and his son Stephen, provides nourishment for both the inquirer and the believer, from a city whose bread and butter is Catholicism. Stephen Weigel is responsible for the photos in the book, and Elizabeth Lev provides art-history expertise. Rome, without the right tour guide, can be a dizzying succession of one church after another, all blending into a confusing uniformity. With the right guide, however, it can be a truly illuminative way.
Some of us who have tried it both ways say you have not been through the Sistine Chapel and the Vatican museums, among other Roman destinations, unless you’ve been there with Lev as your guide. Roman Pilgrimage is true to its title: A walk through the “station churches” — destinations of Lenten devotion in Rome — it’s a pilgrimage in a book. It covers art, history, and spirituality and is replete with both fact and apostolic zeal. Although long planned, and begun before Pope Francis was elected a year ago, it’s very much in line with the program of the new pope: inviting Christians to be Christian, and opening a door of welcome to all. No mere tourist map, it is an invitation to lived Christianity, with some of the saints and martyrs whom one meets in the stones and on the walls throughout Rome.
The book opens by quoting Pope John Paul II on the exercise of pilgrimage: “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.”
Roman Pilgrimage makes not just Roman churches but the Catholic faith itself come alive through an encounter with Biblical religion, what Pope Benedict XVI described as “the adventure of God.” It’s an adventure, Weigel writes, that “consists in the fact that ‘God did not remain within himself: He came out from himself.’” On pilgrimage, there is a purification, as the pilgrims are drawn into God, for the purpose of renewal — to be missionaries who live to witness to the Gospel and offer men and women “friendship with Jesus.”
The Roman Pilgrimage walk, in its most literal sense, is centered on a pilgrim tradition dating back to the fourth century and revived in recent years by seminarians based in Rome. “The Roman Christian practice of visiting the tombs of the martyrs,” Weigel writes, “praying and celebrating the Eucharist at these sites, is the foundation on which the Roman station-church pilgrimage of Lent arose.” For each day of Lent, and shortly thereafter, Weigel takes the reader into a church of Rome — from St. Sabina on Ash Wednesday to St. Mary Major on Easter Sunday and to the Basilica of St. Pancras at the top of the Janiculum on Divine Mercy Sunday a week later — and describes (and illustrates) its treasures, its history, and its lessons.
Roman Pilgrimage is, as Weigel puts it, a “rediscovery of the baptismal character of Lent.” This rediscovery is of ecumenical benefit. Lent has often been trivialized as a no-chocolate-or-booze season for Catholics; this book is an invitation to go deeper. Prayer, fasting, and charity — the disciplines of Lent — exist to help the penitent live a more integrated life in the “fabric of the life of grace.” “Lent, which had an intensely baptismal character centuries ago,” Weigel observes, “became almost exclusively penitential: a matter of what Catholics must not do, rather than a season focused on the heart of the Christian vocation and mission — conversion to Jesus Christ and the deepening of our friendship with him.”
This revival of Lent in the Catholic Church has involved the rediscovery of the Forty Days as a season shaped by the catechumenate: the period of education and formation through which adults who have not yet been baptized are prepared to receive Baptism, Confirmation, and the Holy Eucharist, the three sacraments of Christian initiation, at the Easter Vigil. The baptismal character of Lent is not for catechumens only, however. The adult catechumenate . . . offers an annual reminder to the Church that all Christians are always in need of conversion. The Church’s conversion, the Church’s being-made-holy, is a never-ending process.
In recent decades, Catholics in America have internalized a certain secularization, a cultural belief that religion is something to compartmentalize, to privatize, to keep to a Sabbath day (and only an hour at that). Self-professed Catholics have run for office with language about being “personally opposed” on matters of human dignity. Roman Pilgrimage is an accessible coffee-table textbook for a revival of real faith.
“To make the pilgrimage of Lent is to follow an itinerary of conversion,” Weigel writes. “Lent affords every baptized Christian the opportunity to reenter the catechumenate, to undergo a ‘second baptism,’ and thus to meet once again the mysteries of God’s mercy and love.” This call to conversion takes on some added timeliness, not only because we’re all getting older and we never know our final day or hour, but also because it is the central message of the pope who has graced the covers of Time, The Advocate, and Rolling Stone: mercy, reconciliation, and healing.
While the Roman station-churches pilgrimage does have an unmistakable Lenten rigor to it, Weigel emphasizes that the book does not have to be put away come the Easter season. “The station-church pilgrimage can be, and in fact is,” Weigel writes, “walked on many levels, not unlike the city in which it takes place.” Along “the pathways of the station-church pilgrimage (and at whatever time of year it is walked), the 21st-century pilgrim or visitor passes through multiple layers of the history of Western civilization and has the opportunity to ponder the rise and fall of empires — as well as the continuities of culture that endure despite radical changes of political and economic fortune.” He adds that “this layer of the station-church pilgrimage is open to everyone, whatever an individual’s religious ‘location’ or lack thereof. It can be a deeply moving reminder of the fragility of civilization as well as of the richness of regenerative powers embedded in the West.”
There’s a groundedness to this walk, in a time of uncertainty. And it’s made all the more exciting by the fact that it is a tradition made popular since the mid 1970s by young men — mostly seminarians and student priests from the North American College in Rome — who wake up before dawn, to prayerfully participate in and to celebrate Mass throughout the city.
Roman Pilgrimage does make for a nourishing feast for the coffee table, but the younger Weigel’s photographs really jump off the screen of the e-book. However a reader accesses Roman Pilgrimage, it’s a journey of “sanctity and profound Christian conviction.” In a time that seems to have a tolerance only for nebulous spirituality and superficial religion, it provides a way of proposal and rediscovery, where at every turn is a meeting with one — a saint, a martyr, the Savior — who walked this walk before and guides anyone willing through the next step.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online and founding director of Catholic Voices USA. This article was adapted from the April 7 issue of National Review.