Walking Through Bay Leaves in the Footsteps of Ancient Christians
by Kasia Parys - 3rd of March 2017
One of the unique Roman traditions in the weeks preceeding Easter has been brought back to life in the last years: the Roman Stational Liturgy. Each day of the 40 day Lent, people gather for a religious service in a different church in the centre of Rome. For the last years the gatherings or stations have been actually two every day, one for the early birds at 7 am, in English, organized by the Pontifical North American College, and the other around 5 pm, in Italian and Latin, conducted by local golden-agers from the Pontificia Accademia Cultorum Martyrum (Pontifical Academy of Martyrs).
Following the Roman Stational Liturgy is a way to visit the oldest and very often the most beautiful churches in Rome. Probably the most spectacular and sensorial experience is the service in the basilica of Saint Clement, by the Colosseum, held on the 2nd Monday of the Lent (this year on March 13th). On the occasion, the cosmatesque marble floor of the church is covered by bay leaves that emanate an incredibly aromatic fragnance while stepped onto. Walking over the bay leaves that were used to make wreaths of glory was deeply symbolic and meant rejecting the vainglory as an act of penitence. Just smell, sink your eyes into the glittering golden mosaics, listen to the traditional latin chants and feel like in heaven!
The modern observance of the stational liturgy traces its roots back to the practice of the Bishop of Rome celebrating the liturgies of the church year at various churches throughout the city, a tradition dating back as far as the fourth century. The reason for such itinerant worship was practical: with the church in Rome being composed of diverse groups from many cultures, regular visits by the bishop served to unify the various groups into a more cohesive whole. Another reason, particularly following the legalization of Christianity in A.D. 313 which permitted public worship, was to commemorate certain feast days at churches with a special link to that celebration. Therefore, Good Friday came to be celebrated at the Basilica of the Holy Cross in Jerusalem and Christmas at St. Mary Major, where a relic of the manger was venerated. As time passed, a fairly fixed calendar was developed, having the order of the places at which the pope would say Mass with the church community on certain days throughout the year.
At a certain point in the Middle Ages the Pope stopped celebrating for the people, except for some rare occasions, but the stational liturgy continued without him. Not anymore a city unifying factor, the tradition acquired new character: now it was all about the cult of the saints and the relics. Inside the stational churches the faithful, mostly pilgrims, could venerate the remains of the martyrs and get indulgences granted by the pope especially for that occasion. Also nowadays, towards the end of the stational service, the reliquaries are exposed at the altar.
The Schedule of Station Churches for 2017 can be found here.