From time immemorial, it has been the custom of the church of Rome not to fast on the day of the Lord’s Resurrection, even in Lent and Holy Week. The Roman Lent was originally six weeks long and therefore comprised forty-two days, but only thirty-six days of fasting, which St Gregory the Great (590-604) describes as “the tithe of our year.” (“anni nostri decimas”, Hom. XVI in Evang.) The Roman Missal preserves a reminder of this in the Secret for the Mass of the first Sunday of Lent, which speaks of the “sacrifice of the beginning of Lent.”

Not long after Gregory pronounced this homily, however, the four days preceding the first Sunday were added to the fast (perhaps by Gregory himself) to bring the number of days to exactly forty, the length of the fast kept by the Lord, as well as by the prophets Moses and Elijah. This extension of Lent back to Ash Wednesday, which was once commonly known as “in capite jejunii – at the beginning of the fast”, is a proper custom of the Roman Rite, attested in the earliest Roman liturgical sources from the mid-to-late 7th century. It was copied by the Mozarabic liturgy which was formerly used in Spain, but never by the Ambrosian liturgy of Milan, and indeed, the Milanese traditionally make a point of eating meat on this day. In the Eastern rites, Great Lent begins on the Monday of the first week, two days before the Roman Ash Wednesday.

In military language, the Latin word “statio” originally meant “a soldier’s post or station”, but from very ancient times, the Church adopted it to mean the act of keeping a fast. It occurs in this sense already ca. 150 AD as a technical term, transposed into Greek (στατίων), in the work known as The Shepherd of Hermas (Parable 5, 1-2), which was composed in Rome by the brother of Pope St Pius I. Likewise, St Fructuosus, the bishop of Tarragon in Spain, who was martyred there in 259, was offered a drink on the way to the amphitheater where he was to be killed, but refused it, because it was only mid-morning, and not yet time to break the fast. And thus, his acts tell us, having kept the “statio” of Wednesday in prison, “he hastened to complete that of Friday with the martyrs and prophets in the paradise which the Lord hath prepared for them that love Him.” The Christian life is thus portrayed as a struggle, which the Christian wages by fasting, a discipline commended by Christ Himself in both His words and deeds; as Tertullian says (De Oratione 19) Christians are “God’s soldiery.” “If the Station has received its name from the example of military life — for we withal are God’s soldiery — of course no gladness or sadness … abolishes the stations of the soldiers: for gladness will carry out discipline more willingly, sadness more carefully.”

Since the Church originally enjoined a very strict fast of one meal per day in Lent, to be taken in the evening, on all its members who were physically capable of observing it, the term “statio” then evolved to mean a particular aspect of the liturgy in Lent. Over the course of the day, people would gather at one of the churches of Rome, which came to be called a “collecta.” The precise origin of this term is uncertain; it may perhaps have had the word “ecclesia” understood, i.e., “the Church gathered.” The Pope himself would come to the “collecta” in the mid-afternoon, dress in his sacred vestments, and then walk with the clergy and faithful to another church nearby, the “statio”, where the Mass of the day was celebrated. Along the way, they would sing the “litania” (from a Greek word meaning “entreaty” or “supplication”), a series of invocations to the Saints and petitions addressed to God.

Although the form of this observance has changed in many ways over the centuries (the “collectae” are essentially not done anymore, and the Popes now usually keep only one of the stations, the first one on Ash Wednesday), to this very day, groups of pilgrims still keep these Lenten stations in the city of Rome every year. The Pontifical Academy for the Cult of the Martyrs still organizes a Mass at each one of the station churches and holds a procession beforehand.

(A Lenten stational procession arrives at the Basilica of the Twelve Apostles on March 15, 2019, the Friday of the first week of Lent. Photo by Agnese Bazzucchi, courtesy of New Liturgical Movement.

In his Apostolic Constitution Veterum Sapientia, St John XXIII emphasizes that Latin gives students “direct access and the capacity to understand well… the sources” of various disciplines, among them, the sacred liturgy. Pope Benedict XVI repeats this point in his motu proprio Latina Lingua, commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of VS: “… knowledge of the Latin language and culture is proving to be more necessary than ever for the study of the sources from which … numerous ecclesiastical disciplines draw, such as, for example, theology, liturgy, patristics, and canon law…” And likewise, he describes the Latin editions of the Roman Rite’s liturgical books as their “authentic form.” The study of Latin gives us the opportunity to embrace the full riches of the Western Church’s prayer life in all its manifestations, and all of the history and culture that come with it.