Tuesday, March 02, 2010

The Roman Stational Churches: An Explanation and Historical Consideration

Each year, but at Lent in particular, one will run into various mentions of the "stations" or "stational churches." These mentions may come in articles, books or conversation, by looking at the Missale Romanum of the usus antiquior, or also within some editions of hand missals for the laity -- sadly, this is not always included, and while the logic is understandable, I would take this opportunity to encourage those who are re-publishing such pew missals anew today to consider inserting these stational references; it would likewise be nice to see them appear within the context of similar liturgical resources for the modern Roman liturgy, but I digress.

Wherever one might have run into the reference, for many people it might be a curious point. They may know that it has something to do with various churches within Rome, or Masses at those churches, but beyond that, it may be a bit of a mystery as to what it all means and what it exactly was.

In point of fact, these references provide a wonderful remembrance of the liturgy as it was expressed in Rome, particularly in relation to the Pope, and further gives insights into our own venerable Roman liturgical tradition.

In view of this, it seemed worthwhile to offer some basic historical consideration of the Roman stations.

Stational Terminology

It may be helpful to first consider some of the terminology that is wrapped up around the stations, not least of which the very term "station" itself.

"Statio" or "Station"

The term "station" was used in different senses in earlier times. Some early Christian references speak of "station" in the sense of keeping a fast. An example of this is found in the 2nd century document, the Shepherd of Hermas:

As I was fasting and seated on a certain mountain, and giving thanks to the Lord for all that He had done unto me, I see the shepherd seated by me and saying; "Why hast thou come hither in the early morn?" "Because, Sir," say I, "I am keeping a station."

"What," saith he, "is a station?" "I am fasting, Sir," say I.

-- Shepherd of Hermas, Parable 5: 1-2

However, this is only one sense of the word. Many liturgical writers will point to "station" as a military term, suggesting it was given a Christian application. Archdale King for instance, in the The Liturgy of the Roman Church (LRC), notes: "'Station' is a military term, which, in the ecclesiastical terminology of the 2nd-century, implied a day on which Christians 'mounted guard', choosing for this purpose the actual hours at which the imperial legionaries were accustomed to change guard." He continues, giving a possible rationale in view of the idea of spiritual combat: "'Christians', declared Tertullian (ob. c. 220), 'are the militia of God'; while St Ambrose said in a sermon that 'our fasts are our encampments against the attacks of the evil one; and we call them 'stationes' because we assist on our feet (stantes).'" (See p. 433-437, Appendix VIII, "Roman Stations")

Elsewhere, in the Handbook to Christian and Ecclesiastical Rome by Turker and Malleson, a summary is provided of various proposals given in an attempt to discuss the origins of the term:
"Much has been written as to the meaning of the term Station. Isidore says it means the observance of a stated day and derives from statuere... Others derive it from stare, to stand, the attitude adopted during the long prayers of the Station... Lastly, it has been derived from the military term, the watch or guard assigned to the Christian soldier.* [* Tertullian speaks of "processions, fasts, stations, prayers;" and says that at the Stations the Christian soldiers stood on guard, and watching in prayer. The military term for this act of prayer, says Ugonio, came into use during the persecutions. He suggests it meant that here was the church's battle time, the vigil of the church militant, its penance -- and after that victory. (Stazioni, P. Ugonio.)]

-- Handbook to Christian and Ecclesiastical Rome: The Liturgy, Turker & Malleson, p. 169-170

All that said, whatever the origins of the term, the meaning of "station" as it came to be used was in reference to "a solemn liturgy celebrated by the Pope or his delegate, either in one of the basilicas or, with the growing cult of the martyrs, in a cemetery" (Archdale King, LRC, Appendix VIII), which liturgical rites sometimes had a processional aspect attached to them.


"Collecta" is a reference that one does not see or hear as often, as it appears neither in the Missale nor in any pew missal to my knowledge, but it is a term which is wrapped up with the stational liturgy and merits our attention. Indeed, our consideration of this would be incomplete without it.

In some instances a church was met at before to proceeding to the church designated as the statio for a given day. This place of departure came to be known as the collecta. The origins of this usage is likewise the subject of speculation. Some suggest it may have come in reference to the "assembly" of the faithful, while others suggest it referred to the prayer of and over the assembled faithful.


Litania is a term which is sometimes used in reference to the processions that can accompany the stational liturgy, for reason of the litanies that accompanied those processions.

Some Background Context: The Ecclesiastical Organization of Rome

With those definitions aside, it would also be useful to consider the ecclesiastical organization of the city of Rome which plays a part in the Roman stational liturgy. A passage from the Ordo Romanus Primus, which is made within the context of Easter specifically, is apt for this purpose:
To begin with it must be observed that the city of Rome is divided for ecclesiastical purposes into seven districts, to each of which is allotted one district-deacon... Now, first, it is necessary to know, in order to understand how the number of the ecclesiastical districts and the number of the days of the week correspond, what order they successfully follow. On the first day of the week (that is, of Easter), the third district is responsible; on Monday, the fourth district; on Tuesday, the fifth district; on Wednesday, the sixth district; on Thursday, the seventh district; on Friday, the first district; and on the Sabbath, the second district. Each district, therefore, will have its proper position both in procession and in church, or wherever a particular day may constrain them to go or to minister by reason of its rank, according to the ancient constitution.

-- Ordo Romanus Primus, Appendix 1 (Atchley trans., p. 116-125)

The points I wish to draw attention to here are the separation of Rome into seven ecclesiastical districts and the fact of the liturgical representation of those same districts -- and here I would recall to your attention the tradition of the seven deacons of the Roman church and the seven acolytes which are found within the papal liturgy (which represented these seven regions); Archdale King further speaks about the Pope being "attended by seven deacons, seven subdeacons and seven taperers, corresponding to the seven regions into which Rome was divided." (See LRC, Appendix VIII)

Various clergy and faithful from these seven districts would then come to either the collecta or to the statio (depending upon whether there was a collecta assigned for the day -- which shall be discussed more in the next section). Each of these districts was also at one time represented by a silver processional cross (thus numbering seven in total) called the crux stationalis.

Two Types of Statio

Having considered the ecclesiastical organization of the city of Rome and how that was manifest (in its most rudimentary sense) within the stational liturgies (for other details might be explored in this same regard), we may now turn to consider the stational proceedings in greater detail.

We must begin by noting that there were two forms in which the statio might be used; first, the non-penitential, and second, the penitential. Let us look at each in turn.

The Festal Statio

In the case of a festal station (which is to say, those of a non-penitential variety) there was no collecta and thus no procession. Instead, the clergy and faithful would gather at the assigned statio and wait for the arrival of the pontiff from the Lateran. Sources tell us that this formed a sort of procession unto itself, but not in the same sense of the liturgical procession proper from the collecta to the statio. From the Ordo Romanus Primus we read:
At the break of day on festivals all the clergy go on ahead of the pope to the appointed station, excepting those whose duty it is to accompany him... and await the pontiff in the church, with the papal almoner and the bearers and the rest who carry crosses, sitting in the presbytery; the bishops, that is, on the left hand as they enter, the presbyters on the other hand on the right... Now when the pontiff draws near to the church, the collets and counsellors belonging to the district which is responsible for duty on that day, stand humbly awaiting him at the appointed spot, before he comes to the place where he will dismount: in like manner also the presbyter of the title or church at which the station is going to be held, together with the major-domos of the Roman Church, or the father of the hostelry, with the presbyter subordinate to him, and the sexton, carrying a censer out of respect to the pope; and they all bow their heads when he arrives. First the collets with the counsellors, then the presbyters with their [curates] having sought a blessing, separate into groups on either side, as their service requires, and go before the pontiff to the church...."

-- Ordo Romanus Primus, Appendix 1 (Atchley trans., p. 116-125)

Canon A. Croegaert in his work, The Mass: A Liturgical Commentary, likewise summarizes this particular manifestation of the statio as follows:
With regard to the actual celebration of the stations, it is important to distinguish clearly between those which occurred on feast days and those taking place on penitential days. On feast days, both the clergy and the people of Rome and the pope's retinue made their way directly to the church named as that of the stational celebration (statio)...

On feast days, there being no preliminary meeting at another church, and no procession, the clergy of the seven districts, the people, those who bore the seven stational crosses and the ministers charged with the guardianship of the sacred vessels, went directly to the stational church, where the priest in charge, the acolytes and the defensores waited before the door for the arrival of the pontiff, coming in procession from the Lateran.

-- The Mass: A Liturgical Commentary, Canon A. Croegaert, vol.1, p. 85-94

The Penitential Statio

This now brings us to the penitential form of the statio which was accompanied by a liturgical procession. Today, this is probably the type of statio which most comes to mind given that the stationes are especially thought of in relation to the Lenten season, when -- by a certain point in their history -- a statio was assigned for each day. (This was not always the case. For more on this, see Archdale King's appendix in The Liturgy of the Roman Church, where he surmises three possible periods of development.)

Those stationes which had a procession (or what is also referred to as the litania), and hence also a collecta to first gather at, were those which had a penitential character -- a particularly Roman quality. Hence, within Lent, each day -- but for the Sunday -- had a collecta assigned to it.

On these occasions, the faithful and the clergy, including the Pope, would first assemble at the collecta church. The Pope would there be received and vest for the procession. After some prayers within the collecta church, the stational procession, with the seven stational crosses of the seven districts as well as the seven deacons and seven acolytes of the same, would form a procession and make their way to the statio, accompanied along the way by the singing of litanies and other chants of a penitential character -- an impressive sight and experience it must have been; indeed, a medieval biographer of St. Gregory the Great, John the Deacon, speaks about great throngs of people of varying ages and professions from all parts of the city of Rome who joined in these processions, and Gregory himself speaks of this popular stational fervour in some of his homilies.

Turning again to Archdale King and Canon Croegaert, they give a more detailed sense of the liturgical ceremonial which was involved in the arrival of the Pope at the collecta and its corresponding procession:
The stational liturgy began normally at about the hour of none, that is 3:00 in the afternoon. The Pope, with his clergy and faithful, assembled in the basilica which had been appointed as the assembly place (collecta). A prayer, called the 'oratio ad collectam' or 'collecta', was then said, and a procession was made to the church at which the stational Mass was to be celebrated. Preceded by the cross, the whole assembly sang psalms, antiphons and the litany of the saints, whence the name 'litany' was given to the procession... The sacred vessels and all other things required for the celebration of Mass were carried in the procession by the assistants. The Liber Pontificalis says that in the year 795, Pope Leo III (795-816) ordered twenty silver vessels to be made, which were carried by the acolytes in the procession to the stational church...

-- Archdale King, Liturgy of the Roman Church, Appendix VIII

Canon Croegart:
On days in which there was a penitential procession... and in the penitential seasons, the clergy and people of Rome first assembled at the church designated as the collecta. Here, the pope was ceremoniously received and led to the secretarium where he vested and from whence he made his way to the altar to the accompaniment of the singing of an antiphon and psalm. Having reached the altar, he ordered the singing of the doxology Gloria Patri and bowed low in prayer. After singing the final antiphon, he rose and kissed the altar, then greeted the congregation, saying Dominus vobiscum, and bade them join together in silent prayer: Oremus. The deacon then immediately gave the command Flectamus genua and all -- clergy and laity -- knelt in prayer until the deacon (in later times, the subdeacon) gave the signal Levate! When they had risen, the pope gathered together (colligere) the prayers of them all in a concise concluding petition (collecta). Only then did the procession form up behind the stational cross. On these occasions the procession was swollen by vast crowds from each of the seven districts, led by silver stational crosses belonging to each district. At the stational church, the pope blessed incense proffered to him and then made his way to the secretarium where he vested for Mass. Meanwhile, the litanies sung in the procession were concluded with the petition Christe audi nos and a threefold Kyrie (the Kyrie was not sung at the Mass). When he had vested, the pope left the sacristy and the singing of the Introit was begun.

-- The Mass: A Liturgical Commentary, Canon A. Croegaert, vol.1, p. 85-94

As noted above, upon arriving at the stational church, the vesting of the Pope for Mass would occur and the stational Mass would commence -- which takes us beyond the scope of this article, being a worthy topic in its own right.

One point is worth noting, however. In earlier times, it was during the course of the stational Mass, just after the communion of the Pope, that the announcement would then be made as to the location of the next stational Mass. Eventually this was replaced by a more structured, pre-determined format: "There does not seem to have been at first any fixed order of churches, and it was consequently necessary to announce the next place of meeting during the course of the Mass. Later, a table of stations came to be inscribed in the liturgical books, as we see in the Comes of Wurzburg, a Roman lectionary of the 6th-7th century." (King, LRC, Appendix VIII)

Concluding Thoughts

The total number of stations within the liturgical year was comprised of eighty-nine days, occuring at forty-three Roman churches and as some authors have noted, despite having gone through periods of decline and disuse (particularly after the departure of the popes to Avignon), with some attempts at revival in the intervening period, it is rather remarkable that these stational references remained within the Roman missal up to modern times. For that we can be thankful, as it provides a wonderful reminder of the papal liturgy of Rome as it was manifest for many centuries, and of the richness of our Roman liturgical history generally.

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