In a tradition dating back to the fourth century, the Pope will spend Ash Wednesday at the Basilica of Santa Sabina, currently the worldwide headquarters of the Order of Preachers.
After the legalization of Christianity in 313, the faithful began a custom of processing through the streets of Rome to visit various churches and to honor the holy martyrs who were often buried there. Singing hymns and praying a litany of the saints, they would often be joined by the Bishop of Rome. During his pontificate, Saint Gregory the Great established the order of churches to be visited, and decided the custom should be a Lenten practice — a spiritual pilgrimage with Jesus and the saints.
Why Santa Sabina was chosen as the first church to be visited is not entirely known. Some say it’s because Saint Gregory fell in love with the church when he found refuge there during the plague. Others believe it is because of Santa Sabina’s location on Aventine Hill. Any wishing to visit the church must make a steep climb, symbolic of the climb Christ made to Golgotha and his crucifixion. Still, others think it is because of the church’s historical significance.
Santa Sabina is one of the “house churches” in Rome. During the early persecutions of the Church, Christians would secretly gather in the homes of the faithful to worship. One of these homes belonged to a woman named Sabina, who was martyred in 125. Between 422-432, a basilica was built on the site of Saint Sabina’s home and named in her honor. Her relics remain there to this day, along with those of Saint Alexander, Saint Eventius and Saint Theodulus.
Although it has undergone a number of renovations over the years, Santa Sabina takes great pride in the fact that it still uses the original doors of the church, which are made of cyprus wood and carved with scenes from the Old and New Testaments, including one of the earliest depictions of Christ’s crucifixion.
In 1218, Santa Sabina was given to the Dominicans by Pope Honorius III, two years after he approved the foundation of the Order of Preachers. Since then, it has served as the generalate and headquarters of the Master of the Order of Preachers and the Dominican curia.
For nearly 100 years the Pope joined the Dominicans at Santa Sabina for Mass on Ash Wednesday, until the papacy moved to Avignon in 1309. Thankfully, Pope Leo XIII revived the tradition of starting Lent at Santa Sabina, and it has been the normal custom ever since.
Today that custom begins with a short prayer at the Basilica of Sant’ Anselmo, the international headquarters of the Benedictines. From there, the Pope, the Benedictines, the Dominicans and all present process up the hill while chanting the Litany of the Saints. Once they arrive at Santa Sabina, the Pope offers Mass. After the homily, he blesses the ashes, which are then sprinkled on his head by the Titular Cardinal of Santa Sabina. The Pope then distributes ashes to the cardinals, Dominicans, Benedictines and members of the faithful.
Since the Dominicans were founded to reconcile those who had fallen away from the faith, the custom is an important one. It reminds all of us that we are to be preachers of mercy, especially during the season of Lent.