Friday, March 26, 2010

Santo Stefano Rotondo

Author's Note: This is the final station church post from this author. It's been a pleasure writing for you fine folks over the last month or so. You're always welcome to stop by my blog, This Present Time. Have a blessed Holy Week, everyone. Happy Easter!

On this final Friday of Lent -- Good Friday technically falls within the Easter
Triduum ("three days") -- the pilgrim community of Rome journeyed to the station church of the day, the Basilica di Santo Stefano Rotondo. Also sometimes referenced by its location on the Caelian Hill, St. Stephen in the Round is an ancient basilica dedicated to both St. Stephen, the first martyr, and St. Stephen I, the first king of Hungary.

Santo Stefano Rotondo (19th cent.), Ettore Roesler Franz

Inspired by the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, which had been built by Constantine and his mother St. Helen in 326, St. Stephen's was constructed and dedicated by Pope Simplicius in the late 5th century on the site of an old Roman army camp on the Caelian Hill. The basilica was one of the first churches in the West to be built "in the round," as opposed to the traditional rectangular style. The pastoral setting on the Caelian Hill and the basilica's circular structure would have given the church the distinct connotation of a tomb, since the tombs of emperors and great statesmen were located and constructed in the same way. The intention by Pope Simplicius was to give the Christians of Rome an experience, without leaving home, of what it would have been like to visit Christ's tomb and the church that surrounds it in Jerusalem. For a city that has such a legacy of martyrs, it was fitting as well that Pope Simplicius brought the relics of St. Stephen -- one of the first seven deacons of the Church and its first martyr -- to Rome to be placed under the main, tomb-like altar.

The original church structure was larger than the current one, which underwent heavy renovations in the early and late middle ages. Nonetheless, the basilica remains one of if not the oldest existing examples of the "in the round" style of Christian churches. For this reason, it's fairly important architecturally; I remember studying it in my high school art class! The church is also famous for the series of 34 frescoes along the outer wall which depict various religious martyrdoms in Biblical and ecclesial history. Commissioned by Pope Gregory XIII in the 16th century, the frescoes were thought to have been an encouragement to the seminarians of the German (and Hungarian) College who maintained and worshiped at this church. Because of the political and religious unrest of the time, as well as battles against the Turks in Hungary, many Catholic priests were returning to their home countries to face certain death.

The Mass readings for today speak of persecutions against those who are just, life and death situations for the righteous. Jeremiah feels his life is threatened by those whom he is prophesying against, and Jesus knows that the Jews are wanting to stone him to death. Though today we may not often face the prospect of certain death at the hands of others, we can relate with feelings of being persecuted unfairly. In our lives, whether it's for what we have said or not said, done or not done, or perhaps because of what we believe, we often suffer deeply from unjust causes or in unnoticed ways.

The Stoning of St. Stephen (c. 1660), Pietro da Cortona

Perhaps we can take some solace in today's Responsorial Psalm, "In my distress I called upon the Lord, and he heard my voice." Our faith, rooted in hope, teaches us that God will justify those righteous men and women who are faithful to his truth. Indeed, he has already done so and continues to do so through the once-and-for-all sacrifice of his Son Jesus, whose Passion and Resurrection we are preparing to celebrate. We don't always feel or see this reality daily, but we know it to be true. For those who witnessed the deaths of early martyrs like St. Stephen, it might not have looked like God had heard their voices in distress. Yet, we know that he did and we celebrate today the glory of their sacrifice. In our contemporary struggles, we have hope that we, like them, can persevere in faith, knowing that if we do, we will see what Stephen saw when he said, at the point of his death, "Look, I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!" (Acts 7:56)

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