Roman liturgy, Midwestern seasons

Outside San Clemente, Rome 2018.

Today’s station church, San Clemente, marks something of a milestone. San Clemente was where the station liturgy broke off two years ago in what was to become the longest fortnight in human history, “two weeks to flatten the curve.” In fact, in my experience of the station pilgrimage, the second Monday of Lent at San Clemente seems associated with portentous events. It was to San Clemente that I trudged through the slush in 2018, the last time that Rome got snow.

Snowmen, Piazza Navona

This is, of course, a happier memory than the onset of COVID. I have to admit that when I was back in Minnesota for Christmas this year I was secretly hoping for a big snowfall, since the Eternal City probably won’t be due for fluries for another decade or so. I was not disappointed. I find the real Midwestern seasons delightful, perhaps more so now that I don’t get to experience them very often. (I’ll be the first to admit that visiting Minnesota in winter and getting to shovel snow once every six years is a decidedly different experience than living through a Minnesota winter and having to shovel snow six times a week.)

Pope Liberius marks out the location of Santa Maria Maggiore in the snow.

Each season presents its special challenges and its own delights–roasting hot dogs in the fireplace or sipping lemonade on the porch–and the alternation makes you appreciate these more. The legendary founding of one of last week’s station churches–Santa Maria Maggiore–perhaps reflects both the rarity of Roman snow and how desperately one yearns for it in the stultifying heat of August. The Blessed Mother, so the story goes, indicated to Pope Liberius where she wanted the basilica built by directing a snowfall to the spot on an August night in 352.

It seems to me that the Church’s liturgical year envisions real seasons with sharp contrasts–more Midwestern than Mediterranean–and, as I reflect both on myself and on the way we observe the calendar as a community, I’ve noted the tendency to flatten out those contrasts in the name of convenience. Even ordinations get scheduled during Lent. Rather than celebrate Christmas parties during the Christmas season, we cram them into the last two weeks of Advent, turning that season of sober expectation into an extension of Black Friday. The twelve days of Christmas become a kind of liturgical hangover. A bit more penance and self-restraint might actually reduce our stress levels.

Sant’Anselmo in the snow.

I’ve heard of Catholics observing meatless Mondays because the Friday observance was too disruptive of their social lives. I’d point out that the whole idea of penance is not really to be convenient–though sometimes I find myself playing the same game. Another Jesuit mentioned something he was doing for Lent the other day, and I thought, “That might really benefit me, too, but I’d have to change my schedule.” Um, yeah.

It is probably easier to let comfort slip into the more austere seasons of the liturgical year than the other way around, but the corollary is that we put less effort into our feasts too and everything ends up just a little lame. It’s like filling up on saltines at a restaurant and then not having enough room for the main course.

So here’s to putting a little bit of that Upper Midwestern climate back into the liturgical year. Transportation may be easier on one of Rome’s gray, run-of-the-mill, cool-but-not-cold winter days, but none of these are as memorable as the time it snowed. Slip-sliding home from San Clemente–that was a Lent to remember.

Author: Anthony Lusvardi, SJ

Anthony R. Lusvardi, S.J., teaches sacramental theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. He writes on a variety of theological, cultural, and literary topics.

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