Friday, February 28, 2020

The Station of the First Friday of Lent

Many of the stories that form the corpus of Lenten Scriptural readings in the traditional Roman Rite are frequently depicted in frescoes in the catacombs, and on early Christian sarcophagi. We may safely assume that such readings were already part of the Roman Church’s lectionary before the end of the persecutions and the building of the earliest churches. When the tradition of the Roman station churches was formed, some of them were chosen in reference to those readings; an obvious example is the Saturday of the Third Week of Lent, when the Epistle is the story of Susanna, and the station is held at the church of a Roman martyr of the same name. In other cases, such as the octave of Easter, it is clear that the stations were fixed first, and many of the readings were chosen because of them.

There are also days on which it is impossible to determine whether the station church was chosen as an appropriate place for a particular reading, or vice versa, and indeed, it is quite possible that the liturgy was created all of a piece, including both the texts of the Mass and the station, which was considered an intrinsic part of the liturgy. Such a one is the station for today, which is held at the very ancient church of Ss John and Paul on the Caelian Hill.

The facade of the church of Ss John ad Paul, and the dome of the chapel which houses the relics of St Paul of the Cross. Photo by Agnese, from the first post of the 2018 Roman pilgrims Lenten series.
The Saints to whom the church is dedicated are two Roman brothers martyred by the Emperor Julian the Apostate, who reigned from 361-63. The traditional account of their lives states that they had been military officers under Constantine, and later served in the household of his daughter, Constantia, who at her death left them a large fortune with which to take care of the poor. When Julian, the son of Constantine’s half-brother, came to the throne, they refused to attend him at the court because of his apostasy from the Faith. The emperor would have used this as a pretext to seize the money left by Constantia, but granted them ten days to reconsider; the two Saints therefore gave all the money away for its intended purpose. A captain of the imperial bodyguards named Terentian was then sent to their house, bearing a statue of Jove and the Emperor’s promise that they would be greatly honored if they would worship it; otherwise, they would be killed. The words of their response are sung as the second antiphon of Lauds on their feast day: “Paul and John said to Terentian, ‘If Julian is thy lord, have thou peace with him; we have no other than the Lord Jesus Christ.’ ” They were beheaded at once, and buried within their own house on the Caelian hill, directly across from the imperial residence on the Palatine.

The traditional account also states that Jovian, who succeeded Julian as Emperor, immediately converted their house into a church. In reality, this was done about 30 years later by a Roman senator named Byzas and his son Pammachius, and the basilica was at first known as “titulus Pammachii – the title of Pammachius”; this is the name with which the station is indicated in the oldest list of Gospel readings according to the Roman Rite, the Wurzburg Lectionary (ca. 650AD), and earlier than that, as the location of a synod held by Pope Symmachus in 499.

Pammachius was a friend of St Jerome, and several of the letters exchanged between them survive. His wife Paulina was the daughter of another friend of Jerome, St Paula, but when she died in childbirth in 397, after roughly 12 years of marriage, Pammachius became a monk, and devoted his life to study and the works of charity. At the great port city of Rome, known simply as “Portus Romanus”, he and St Fabiola (yet another friend of Jerome) constructed a large hospice for pilgrims and the poor and sick, called a “xenodochium – a place for receiving strangers”, the first such institution founded in the West. (The site of it has been identified and excavated in modern times) In a letter praising his friend and this initiative, St Jerome states that in its founding, all the poor, needy and helpless have now become the heirs of Pammachius and his deceased wife Paulina. “Other husbands scatter on the graves of their wives violets, roses, lilies, and purple flowers, and assuage the grief of their hearts by fulfilling this tender duty. Our dear Pammachius also waters the holy ashes and the revered bones of Paulina, but it is with the balm of almsgiving.” (Letter 66, cap. 5; PL XXII, col. 642). Pammachius died during the Gothic sack of Rome in 410, and is honored by the Church as a Saint.

A detail of a painting of St Pammachius, from the church of Ss John and Paul. (Image from Wikimedia Commons by Alekjds, a.k.a. our friend Fr Alek Shrenk; CC BY-SA 4.0.)
Roughly a third of a mile to the east of Ss John and Paul, there now stands a large modern hospital complex known as San Giovanni Addolorata. Underneath it are the remains of a very large Roman house of the early imperial era, which belonged to the one of the city’s oldest families, the Valerii. In the early 5th century, a daughter of this family, St Melania the Younger, another friend of Jerome, inherited it as part of her father’s enormous fortune. In the year 406, she and her husband Pinianus decided to sell the bulk of their property and devote themselves to the poor, but in fact, the house was so large and luxurious that they were unable to find a buyer until after the sack of 410, when the building was severely damaged, and its value thus greatly reduced. By the year 575, when most of Rome had been reduced to a pitiable state, another xenodochium was founded within the ruins of the house, and named for the Valerii.

There can be no doubt that the traditional Epistle of today’s station, Isaiah 58, 1-9, particularly the last part of it, refers to the Christian charity which Saints like John and Paul, Pammachius and Melania exercised on behalf of the poor on or near the site of the church. “Deal thy bread to the hungry, and bring the needy and the homeless into thy house: when thou shalt see one naked, cover him, and despise not thy own flesh. Then shall thy light break forth as the morning, and thy health shall speedily arise, and thy justice shall go before thy face, and the glory of the Lord shall gather thee up.” (vss. 7-8)

The Gradual of the Mass is taken from Psalm 26; as with so many chants of the Roman Rite, the text is taken from one of the Old Latin versions of the Bible which predate the Vulgate. “One thing I have asked of the Lord, this will I seek after; that I may dwell in the house of the Lord. V. That I may see the delight of the Lord, and may be protected by his temple.” This is certainly a reference to the unique fact that Ss John and Paul were buried not in a catacomb, or at any rate, outside the city, as Roman law prescribed, but within their own house.


The Gospel, St Matthew 5, 43 – 6, 4, is part of the Sermon on the Mount, in which the Lord speaks of the spirit in which the works of charity are to be done, not only to our friends and neighbors, but also to our enemies. “Love your enemies: do good to them that hate you: and pray for them that persecute and calumniate you.” (vs. 43) This may perhaps be taken as a reference to Julian, the last pagan Emperor, and a persecutor of the Church, by whom John and Paul were martyred. The basilica also sits next to a large temple dedicated to the divinized Emperor Claudius, who did not persecute the Church, but did expel the Jews from Rome, with many of the first Christians among them, as recounted in Acts 18, 2 and Suetonius’ Life of Claudius (cap. 25). More importantly, the Christians’ refusal to participate in the worship of the divinized Emperors was one of the principal reasons why they were persecuted by the Romans.

The white blocks of marble seen in the lower middle of this photo (also by Agnese, from the first post of the 2015 series), supporting the church’s bell-tower, are just a small part of the surviving section of the podium of the temple dedicated to the divinized Emperor Claudius. Much more of it can be seen when one goes through the door to the left, under the house of the Passionist Fathers, who were given charge of the church by Pope Clement XIV (1769-74).
Likewise, the words of verse 47, “And if you salute your brethren only, what do you more? do not also the heathens this?” may also be understood in reference to Julian, who reverted to heathenism, and like so many pagans before and after him, thought to inspire men to do good solely by philosophy, while living without the grace of Christ. As part of his scheme to revive the largely moribund worship of the Greco-Roman gods, he hoped to institute a program of charitable endeavors to be run by pagan priests (which they greeted with apathy), in emulation of those of the Christians. In one of his letters, he famously complained that “… it is disgraceful when no Jew is a beggar, and the impious Galileans support our poor in addition to their own; everyone is able to see that our co-religionists are in want of aid from us.”

The Wurzburg Lectionary is not a lectionary in the proper sense of the term, in that it does not contains the actual readings, but merely lists them by their first and last words, together with their liturgical date, and the Roman station church whenever one is assigned. During the actual Mass, the reading was done out of a Bible, and many ancient Bibles have markings or marginal notes that indicate liturgical readings. The Gospel for today is therefore noted in the Wurzburg Lectionary as follows:

On Friday, at (the title) of Pammachius. A reading of the Holy Gospel according to Matthew. Canon 40. Jesus said to the disciples, “Ye have heard that it hath been said” (vs. 43) up to “and thy Father who seeth in secret will repay thee.” [Fer(ia) vi, in Pammachi, lec(tio) s(a)n(cti) ev(angelii) sec(undum) Mat(thaeum). k(anon) xl. D(i)x(it) Ihs discipulis suis audistis quia dictum ÷ usq(ue) Pater tuus qui videt in abscondito reddet tibi. – “Canon” refers to an ancient chapter system for the Gospels known as the Eusebian canons.]

Verse 4 and verse 6 of Matthew 6 both end with the words “and Thy Father etc.”, and per se, it is impossible to tell whether the Gospel was meant to end at the one or the other. (The numbered chapters and verses of the Bible are a much later invention.) In fact, already in the 9th century, there are lectionaries that end the reading at verse 4, and others that end it at verse 6. However, the antiphon at the Magnificat for Vespers is taken from verse 6, and is attested in almost all of the ancient antiphonaries, a fact which argues for the longer version of the reading. “Tu autem cum oraveris, intra in cubiculum tuum, et clauso ostio, ora Patrem tuum. – But thou when thou shalt pray, enter into thy chamber, and having shut the door, pray to thy Father.”

Folio 25v of a late eighth-century lectionary produced in northern Italy (perhaps in Verona or Monza), with the Gospel of the Friday after Ash Wednesday in its longer form, Matthew 5, 43 – 6, 6; most of the final verse is on the following page. (Bibliothèque nationale de France, Département des Manuscrits, Latin 9451; image cropped)
If the Gospel was originally read in its longer form, including verses 5-6 of Matthew 6, this may also be an oblique reference to Ss John and Paul. The Latin word “cubiculum – chamber” literally means “sleeping place”; the Christians also used it to mean a burial chamber within the catacombs, an expression of the belief that death is really a sleep which will end at the final resurrection. Many of these chambers, though certainly not all, were created for wealthy persons, as evidenced by the beautiful decorations still preserved within them; had Ss John and Paul been buried in a catacomb, they most likely would have been laid in such a space. Instead, they were buried within their own house, which therefore became the “chamber” in which they await “the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.”

A painted cubiculum within the Roman Catacomb of Priscilla.

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: