The current tradition of the pope honors this penitential pilgrimage.
In recent years, Pope Francis has continued an ancient tradition on Ash Wednesday that includes a penitential pilgrimage to the Basilica of Santa Sabina in Rome. The pope walks on foot to this church after celebrating the Ash Wednesday liturgy.
It is a tradition that was revived by Pope St. John XXIII in the 1960s, but has a long and ancient history that stretches back to the early Church.
During the early centuries of the pontificate in Rome, the pope would make a pilgrimage to Santa Sabina barefootto atone for his own sins and to begin Lent on the “right foot.” The pope would traditionally begin at Santa Anastasia (or at the Lateran Basilica where the pope had his residence for many centuries) and proceed with all the cardinals and other clergy to Santa Sabina, one of the earliest churches in Rome.
This may not seem like a major gesture, but think for a minute what it would have been like to walk barefoot in ancient Rome. While there did exist a primitive sewage system with pipes that ran underneath the streets, this did not cover the entire city and many second-story apartments did not have such a luxury. Therefore, some would deposit their waste on the streets below, making the road a filthy thing to walk upon. This is in addition to the waste that came from horses and other animals that were brought through the streets and the sharp jabs and pokes that come from walking on any road, especially Rome’s ancient cobblestones, barefoot.
Suffice it to say, walking barefoot through the streets of Rome would have been a great penance, especially for someone who was the leader of the Roman Church.
This extraordinary practice should help us evaluate our own Lenten practices, considering how serious we approach Lent and if we are willing to do the difficult things in life to atone for our sins.
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