Author's Note: Hello, my name's Andrew and I'm also a seminarian at the North American College studying for the Diocese of Little Rock, Arkansas. I'll be writing some of the posts about the Lenten station churches. Feel free to visit my blog as well for more of my experiences in Rome.
The Thursday after Ash Wednesday finds the Catholic community in Rome journeying to the Basilica of San Giorgio in Velabro. The first mention of the location is as one of the original nineteen diakonia established by Pope Gregory the Great to help assist the poor of the city. Gregory founded this ancient charity service on the site of the martyrdom of St. Sebastian, the leader of the Praetorian Guard under Emperor Diocletian in the 1st century whose conversion to Christianity cost him his life. Located in the agricultural area of Velabrum (lit. swamp), the basilica became a haven in the 8th century for many immigrants from Greece, who fled to Rome during the iconoclast controversies. As a tribute to their artistic work and their contribution to the Church, Pope Zachary, himself of Greek descent, brought to the basilica of Saint Sebastian the relics of St. George of Lydda and renamed it in honor of him.
Originally from the area of Lydda in Palestine, George, like Sebastian, was a high-ranking member of the Praetorian Guard under Diocletian, serving in Nicomedia in western Turkey, the main imperial city of the time, and thus one of Diocletian's personal guard. When Diocletian ordered the arrests of all Christians in the Praetorian Guard (likely done after the death of Sebastian) George denounced him publicly and called for him to renounce his edict. Diocletian did not wish to lose such an excellent and eminent member of his guard, but George would not renounce his faith in Christ and thus refused all bribes of titles, land, and fortune. Having given his considerable personal wealth to the poor of the area, George was tortured and then beheaded outside the walls of Nicomedia. He became a very popular saint in the Church in the East. Later, during the time of the Crusades, his reputation spread westward as well, and he became a popular patron, especially for the English. St. George is perhaps best known today for slaying a menacing dragon, a mythical tale with medieval rather than ancient origins.
The basilica named after him has had several famous titular cardinals. Foremost among these was Cardinal Odo Colonna, who later became Pope Martin V. His election marked the end of the Great Western Schism, a dark and damaging time of the Church's history when three men claimed to be the rightful pope. Centered around the issue of the whether the pope should return to live in Rome or continue to reside in Avignon, France, Martin moved his residence back to Rome despite the fact that the city was at this time literally a dump, populated by only a few thousand people (after a height of 2 million in imperial times) with much of the city center being used as pasture for sheep. Martin embarked on an ambitious campaign of attracting and funding artists and architects to restore Rome to its former glory. His efforts did much to legitimize and advance the fledgling Renaissance, which had started in Florence but spread throughout Italy (thanks, in large part, to Martin) and then throughout all of Europe. Nearly 500 years later, the basilica served as the titular church of Cardinal John Newman, perhaps the most famous convert to Catholicism from the Church of England, as well as an important theologian and later the father of modern Catholic apologetics.
The 13th century apse fresco by Peter Cavallini of (from L to R) St. George, the Virgin Mary, Christ, St. Peter, and St. Sebastian
The basilica also has a colorful modern history. Major renovations were undertaken in the 1920s to return the church to its ancient appearance, returning the floor to its original level and reopening the ancient windows which allow more light into the nave. The result is one of the better representations in the city of what an ancient Roman basilica would have looked like. In 1993, after Pope John Paul II had issued some strong condemnations of the Mafia, a car bomb outside the facade blew off the entire front portico of the church and damaged some of the structural walls. Fortunately, the bomb fragments were catalogued meticulously, and the church has been largely returned to its ancient appearance.
Today's liturgy was hosted by members of the Venerable English College, one of the two English seminaries in Rome and the oldest English institution outside of Great Britain. It is designated as "venerable" because of the 44 students who, having been ordained priests in Rome, returned to their homeland and were executed by order of Queen Elizabeth and, after her, King James I. At the time, being a Catholic priest was a capital offense under English law and so the men of the English College knew they were returning to an inevitable fate. The seminary became known in Rome as a kind of school for future martyrs, and such great figures as St. Philip Neri and the popes of the time hailed the priests in training for their mettle and determination in the face of such oppression. The "Seminary of Martyrs" was and continues to be a sign of that heroic courage which is at times necessary in our path of following Christ.
The Martyrs' Picture, Durante Alberti (1580), located in the Venerable English College. In front of this picture, the community would gather to sing the Te Deum upon receiving news that a graduate of the college had suffered martyrdom for the faith in England.In today's readings, Moses tells the Israelites that he has set before them life and death, prosperity and doom, and from these they must choose. In the Gospel from Luke, Jesus tells his disciples, “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it." The ancient examples of St. Sebastian and St. George, along with those of the more recent English Martyrs, are powerful reminders that it is in giving ourselves away that we truly find and save ourselves. As modern Christians of the Western world, the prospect of suffering physical martyrdom is less likely now than at other periods in our history, yet the spirit of the martyr is one that we all can adopt. In every sacrifice and trial of our daily life, we are to bear our crosses willingly and happily with Jesus as our model and our strength. It is in this dying to self that we choose true life. As our Lord himself says, "What profit is there for one to gain the whole world yet lose or forfeit himself?" At the beginning of this Lent, let us then resolve to embrace the crosses placed before us, whatever they may be, and thus draw ever closer to that one who conquered death and is Life himself, Jesus the Christ.
God be with you today and always!