Vatican backs efforts to restore Holy Stairs Shrine

A major refurbishment of the Santa Scala is underway

According to tradition, theScala Santa, or Holy Stairs, are the ones Jesus climbed when Pontius Pilate brought him before the crowd and handed him over to be crucified. It’s said that Constantine’s mother, St Helen, brought the stairs to Rome from Jerusalem in 326 AD.

The 28 marble steps are covered with thick wood panels, now worn smooth from centuries of human traffic. A minimum of 2,000 pilgrims a day visit the shrine, and many of them climb the stairs on their knees, pray at the Sancta Sanctorum– the first private chapel of the Popes – and venerate a silver and jewel-covered Byzantine image of Christ.

The sanctuary, which is dedicated to the Passion of Christ, is entrusted to the care and protection of the Passionist fathers, who have a special devotion to Christ’s passion.

The sanctuary’s rector, Passionist Father Francesco Guerra, said that the Holy Stairs shrine is a unique place of worship in Rome.

“When we pray and at the same time we do something that is physical” – like climbing the stairs on one’s knees – “we may in some way feel that we may touch what Jesus touched at that time, and we feel that we are near Jesus,” he said.

Father Guerra said many people who come to the sanctuary are experiencing a difficult moment in life and they offer “their own suffering to Jesus to be near him, to be helped by him”.

Renewing faith

US art gallery curator Mary Angela Schroth is coordinating the Holy Stairs project. She said it was difficult and slow-going to get the needed funding and support to restore such a complex and large sanctuary.

“It’s not glamorous like the Sistine Chapel. This is the people’s sanctuary” – a place that has been popular with and loved by simple people of faith for centuries, she said.

The Sanctuary of the Holy Stairs’ restoration “is really a project to renew faith” and support people’s “spiritual experience of the Holy Stairs” not just preserve its historic art, Schroth said.

The Vatican Museums are overseeing the restoration project, which should take another five years to complete, culminating in the cleaning of the frescoes along the Holy Stairs; the frescoes depict Christ’s journey from the Last Supper to his passion, death, resurrection and ascension into Heaven.

The work is being funded through the Vatican Museums’ Patrons of the Arts chapters and donors in Britain, Florida, North Carolina and South Carolina.

The preliminary studies needed for restoring the entire sanctuary had been completed more than a decade ago. “The last piece of the puzzle was the financial support, so that’s why the patrons got involved,” said Legionaries of Christ Father Mark Haydu, director of the museums’ Patrons of the Arts office.

Father Haydu said sacred art is invaluable, not just for its material beauty, but also for its power to help transform people’s lives.

“If it can even bring solace to someone who’s suffering, if it can convince someone mired in a challenge, a difficulty, a weakness, that they can’t find the moral courage to overcome, and have a spiritual experience before the passion of Christ, for example,” then the Church needs to care for that heritage, too, he said.

Carol Glatz writes for Catholic News Service