Letter from Rome
For pilgrims flocking to Rome’s famed Scala Santa last week as they commemorate Jesus’ crucifixion and death and ultimately his Resurrection, the opportunity to climb the famed relic on bare marble for the first time in 300 years is something many said has brought them closer to God.
Giuliana Saginario said: “When the stairs start, you feel pain and you are afraid that you won’t make it to the top. Then you unexpectedly think, this is nothing compared to what our Lord suffered. So, little by little, as you climb, you stop feeling the pain [and] you are no longer afraid.”
Rome’s famed Scala Santa, known in English as the ‘Holy Stairs’, one of the city’s most treasured relics, were unveiled on April 11 following nearly a year of restoration.
Tradition holds that the stairs are those that once led to the praetorium of Pontius Pilate in Jerusalem and were brought to Rome by St Helena, the mother of Emperor Constantine, after Christianity was declared to be the empire’s primary religion in the Edict of Milan in 313.
Throughout the centuries they have been climbed by millions of pilgrims, who traditionally climb the stairs on their knees.
For the first time in 300 years pilgrims are able to climb the Holy Staircase on the original marble Jesus himself is believed to have walked on the way to his trial before Pontius Pilate. The marble will be exposed for 60 days, from April 11 until the June 9 feast of Pentecost, before the new wooden frames protecting them will be restored.
Pasquale Capobianco, who climbed the stairs with Saginario, said that going up without the wooden frames was a reminder to him that Jesus is “the cornerstone” awaited by the people, so “it’s right that they are stone and that each one of us, with a little extra suffering, sees the reality in the era that Jesus climbed them”.
“To give yourself on these stairs like (Jesus) did makes you human,” Capobianco said, but added that “it’s also painful, because the stairs aren’t easy to climb on your knees, and you see the many sacrifices that people have made even until today and the hope that they place in the stairs. We hope that the Lord welcomed our prayer, we need it so much”.
George Moser, a 21-year-old student from Austria, said that for him, “when you recognise that (the stairs) could be the stairs that Jesus went on to Pilate, it’s impressive. I was here a few years ago, so I know them”, he said, but with the bare marble it “now is more impressive, you can really feel the scene from 2,000 years ago”.
Similarly, a Polish pilgrim named Jaroslaw said that he has climbed the Scala Santa before, but came back to climb the bare marble.
As he made his way to the top, “I thought about the time when Christ was going up these stairs 2,000 years ago and it was very terrible because Christ knew that he would probably be crucified, but the most important thing was to fulfil the will of our God the Father”.
“During this time on the stairs, I thought about what I have to do in my life to fulfil what the Father God expects from me.”
For Graziella and Fabio Delnero, who live in Rome and climb the stairs on their knees every year, the opportunity to climb the stairs on the marble is “exciting”, but they were deterred by the large crowds and line stretching to the end of the piazza where the chapel housing the stairs is located.
“By faith we know they are the stairs Jesus walked, so without the wooden cover it’s even closer to the presence of Jesus,” Fabio said, adding that while he was disappointed they weren’t able to climb the stairs on Holy Thursday, they plan to come back when there are fewer people “and climb them on our knees like always”.
In comments to journalists, Passionist Fr Francesco Guerra, who is rector of the chapel housing the stairs, said the number of people who have come to climb the stairs this year “is much more” than expected, and has already exceeded the numbers who came for Holy Week during the Jubilee of Mercy in 2015.
“These lines were normal on Fridays in Lent during Holy Week, but now I think it’s more extraordinary” because the original marble is exposed, he said.
Fr Guerra noted how most pilgrims climb the stairs slowly, which he said breaks the rhythm of a fast-paced society.
“I admire these people a lot for their patience and for the ability they have to be silent inside and to pray,” he said, pointing to the long line of pilgrims waiting to enter the chapel.
“The fact of climbing the stairs on the marble directly, which tradition tells us Jesus climbed going to Pontius Pilate, means in a way to feel closer to him. It’s not that the wooden frames block this, but people know that this is an extraordinary moment,” he said.
For journalist Olivier Bonnel, who’s from France and who works in the French section of the Vatican’s communications department, while he speaks to pilgrims about their experiences at the major holy sites in Rome this week, there is another historic religious icon in the back of his mind: the Cathedral of Notre Dame.
The cathedral is “a gothic treasure, a spiritual and patrimonial treasure”, Bonnel said, recalling the many visits to Notre Dame he made throughout his life.
“I’ve always been touched by this beauty and this statue of Mary next to Jesus on the altar, which fortunately was not touched by the fire and the collapse of the ceiling,” he said, adding that for him, this is a sign “that despite the damage, the cathedral was ‘protected’ by the Virgin”.
“In France, we are a very secular country, but fortunately these debates don’t matter anymore,” he said, explaining that while he is sure polemics will return, “right now in these last few days, we’ve seen that all people understood this cathedral is part of us, even for non-believers”.
Elise Harris is Senior Correspondent at Cruxnow.com