This article by Henri de Villiers was originally published in French on the blog of the Schola Sainte-Cécile. Since it is fairly lengthy, it will be presented in six parts over six weeks, each covering the Lenten stations celebrated that particular week. Today’s article includes the general introduction; there is only one station this week, that of Ash Wednesday.
Part 2: The First Week of Lent
Following the example of the Pope in Rome, the Bishop of Paris led his people in prayer during the stational liturgies of Lent. As in Rome, these liturgies included a procession followed by a Mass in the most notable sanctuaries of our city.
ORIGIN OF THE STATIONS
Among the ancient Romans, the word station designated an outpost of armed men or sentries keeping watch. Christians took up this terminology very early, at least from the 3rd century. Tertullian in particular frequently uses this term; for him (cf. De oratione XIX) a Christian’s station was the “guard” that the faithful—”the soldiers of God”—kept on certain days through fasting and ardent prayer, as a way of crowning the holy sacrifice of the Mass:
The station has taken its name from the example of the army—for we are indeed the soldiers of God— because in the camp neither joy nor sorrow interrupts the soldier’s station duty (Tertullian, De oratione XIX, 5).
In Tertullian’s time, the station days were Wednesdays and Fridays throughout the year. On these days, the fast lasted until the hour of None (around 3 p.m.). The Wednesday and Friday fast—universal in the East and West—had been established from the earliest days of the Church, as attested by the Didache, the ancient Christian work from the 1st century, contemporary with the New Testament itself:
“But let not your fasts be with the hypocrites; for they fast on the second (Monday) and fifth (Thursday) day of the week; but rather fast on the fourth (Wednesday) day and the Preparation (to the Sabbath, i.e. on Friday)” (Didache VIII, 1).
During Lent (and later during the season of Septuagesima), Monday was added to Wednesday and Friday as a third station day in the West.
In Rome, the practice of the stational liturgy is attested under Pope Hilarius († 468); it was reorganized both by his successor Simplicius (468-483) and especially by St Gregory the Great (590-604). At the hour of None, the Roman people convened in a church—called the church of the collect—that had been announced by the archdeacon at the end of the preceding station. There, the Pope sang an oration, the collect of the day (collecta meant the prayer over the people assembled at that place), and then a large procession was organized towards another church—the church of the station. Walking in procession behind the cross borne by the stational subdeacon, the faithful and the clergy chanted the litanies (including the invocation Kyrie eleison). At the church of the station, the Pope celebrated Mass and often gave a homily.
Originally, stations were held in Rome only on penitential days: Ember Days, Advent, and Lent. But in Rome, contrary to the custom in Africa and the East, Saturdays were fasting days as well (Ember Saturdays therefore have stations). Then, very early on, the collect, procession, and station were also performed on Sundays and great feasts, which were not fasting days (Christmas, Easter and its octave, Advent and Lenten Sundays, for example). This stational liturgy lasted in Rome up until the 12th century, when it fell into disuse. The exile in Avignon dealt it a serious blow. Some elements nonetheless have survived until our time. Thus, the term given to the first oration at the beginning of the Mass—the collect—and the singing of the Kyrie eleison are vestiges of the ancient church of the collect and the stational procession. Above all, the Roman Missal has preserved until the present day the practice of naming the churches where the Roman stations were carried out from the time of St Gregory the Great (one also finds mention of the churches of the collect in mediæval manuscripts). Pope St John XXIII restored the ancient usage of the Roman stations during Lent. The practice was partially taken up again by St John Paul II, Benedict XVI and Francis, who have hence several times celebrated Ash Wednesday Mass in the church of Santa Sabina, as indicated in the Missal of St Pius V.
THE LENTEN STATIONS IN THE ANCIENT USE OF PARIS
One might be tempted to think that the Lenten stations in Paris were nothing more than a clever local adaptation of a purely Roman papal liturgy, imported just as it was during the Carolingian era. We should note, however, that the existence of stational liturgies in Gaul is attested from the 5th century, before the importation of the Roman liturgy. Curiously, the framework of the Parisian stational liturgy remained limited to Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays of Lent, probably the sole days that were stational during Lent in Rome before the 6th century. The survival of this quite archaic trait until the end of the 18th century is very interesting. In Rome, Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays of Lent were characterized by a more marked penitence, and included the singing of a Tract during Mass (which the other Lenten ferias did not). These same days also had special Epistles and Gospels during the three weeks of preparation for Lent (Septuagesima, Sexagesima, Quinquagesima), readings which the majority of medieval diocesan uses (including Paris) preserved, but which fell into desuetude in the missal of the Roman Curia on which the Missal of St Pius V is based.
The order of the Lenten stations in Paris is not mentioned in Parisian missals. It is only known through the Processionals and is described very precisely in the Parisian Ceremonial published under Cardinal de Retz and edited by Martin Sonnet in 1662.
Lenten stations were held in Paris on Ash Wednesday and then all Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays beginning with the first week of Lent until the Friday before Palm Sunday (Passion Friday). They were characterized by a procession that set off from Notre-Dame and headed for another church where the stational Mass of the day was sung. These stational churches—as noted in the Parisian Processional of 1662 (ch. VIII, 18)—are among the most ancient, dignified, and noteworthy in Paris. In fact, this stational itinerary through ancient Christian Paris can lead us to rediscover large swaths of our patrimony, often, alas, destroyed by the Revolution and then by the attentive care of Baron Haussmann, a Protestant.
This stational itinerary of Lenten Paris follows a rigorous geographical plan, beginning with the nearest church on the first day—Saint-Christophe, on the Place Notre-Dame —and finishing with the furthest on the last day—the Royal Abbey of Montmartre. During the first week of Lent, one visited three of the most ancient churches of the Île de la Cité. During the second week of Lent, it was the turn of the three most ancient churches of the neighbourhood and faubourg of Saint-Jacques du Sud to be visited. During the third week of Lent, one processed towards the great abbeys of the southeastern region. On the fourth week, one headed towards the ancient churches near the city on the right bank of the Seine, in order to finish, during Passion Week, with the abbeys further north from there. Note that the procession and the stational Mass were suppressed if a double or semi-double feast fell on the day.
Here is the list of stational churches of Parisian Lent:
- Ash Wednesday: station in the church of Saint-Christophe près l’Église Métropolitaine (Sanctus Christophorus prope Ecclesiam Metropolitanam).
On the Place Notre-Dame there used to be a collection of buildings that in 690 housed a convent of nuns, then in 817 a hospice for the poor and infirm, and subsequently for travelers and foreigners. It was known as the Saint-Christophe hospital, and had its own chapel. This church was rebuilt a bit further north of the square in the 9th century and transformed into a parish in the 12th century. The canons of Notre-Dame administered this collection of buildings from 1006. Rebuilt in 1494, the church was demolished in 1747 in order to allow for the construction of the Hospice des Enfants-Trouvés (a hospice for abandoned children).
 Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann was appointed by Emperor Napoleon III to carry out a massive renovation of Paris.