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ROME — For the first time in almost three centuries, the stairs that Jesus is said to have climbed to receive his death sentence from Pontius Pilate are accessible to pilgrims in their original version.
Since 1723, at the request of Pope Innocent XIII, the Scala Sancta (Holy Stairway) was covered by a wooden casing in order to avoid the wear of the stone.
But now, until June 9, the Solemnity of Pentecost, pilgrims are able to touch and climb the ancient marble as it used to be 2,000 years ago. Christian tradition says the Holy Stairs were brought from Jerusalem to Rome by St. Helena, the mother of Emperor Constantine, at the beginning of the fourth century; they are now located in the Scala Sancta Sanctuary, just across the street from the Basilica of St. John Lateran.
During the reopening ceremony Thursday, Cardinal Angelo De Donatis, the vicar general of the Diocese of Rome, blessed the Holy Stairs, allowing a group of faithful to get down on their knees and climb the steps.
The reopening of the steps is the culmination of 20-plus years of restoration work in the whole structure, officially known as the Pontifical Sanctuary of the Holy Stairs, which was originally designed by architect Domenico Fontana in the 16th century to house the sacred steps.
The restoration process was started by the Congregation of the Passionist Fathers, who were entrusted with the care of the sanctuary from the adjoining convent by Pope Pius IX in the 19th century. Funded by numerous donors and philanthropists, the restoration work was then entrusted to the Vatican Museums, successively led by Carlo Pietrangeli, Francesco Buranelli, Antonio Paolucci and Barbata Jatta.
After the restoration of the private chapel at the top of the stairs, known as the Sancta Sanctorum, the work focused on the surrounding frescoes, which feature stories from the Old and New Testament. Commissioned by Pope Nicholas III, they were painted during the 13th and 14th centuries. For the past two years, the renovation was dedicated to the Holy Stairs.
“No one had ever thought [they’d] be able to climb the marble stairs,” Paolo Violini, the head of the restoration of the staircase, said, explaining the idea to reopen them publicly came spontaneously after seeing the beautiful white marble after the wooden cover was removed.
“At the beginning, it was simply restoration work, maintenance work of the wood covering them. But we thought this opportunity was important — we wanted to grant it to those approaching the sanctuary with much devotion,” he said, explaining that no one had seen the original marble since the 18th century.
During the news conference for the unveiling of the restored Holy Stairs, before the blessing ceremony April 11, Father Francesco Guerra, the rector of the sanctuary, mentioned the surprise of the restorers who removed the wooden cover.
“The steps were deeply consumed. There was a central furrow on each of them, except for the last one,” he said. “Such erosion was caused over time by countless pilgrims who, going up on their knees [as is the reverential custom], rested on the step below with the tip of their shoes, pushing on it to climb the next step.” He added: “This was not the only surprise we had. We found a red porphyry cross embedded in the second step. Another one was found on the 11th step, which was the most worn of all the steps and where, according to tradition, Jesus fell down, breaking the marble with his knee and leaving a blood trail that was then protected with a small grid. A third bronze cross was then found on the last step.”
A hole was formed in the grid of the 11th step, as the faithful used to put their fingers in it, trying to touch the sacred blood spot. Underneath the wood, the restorers found thousands of notes, letters, intercessory prayers, coins and photos that had been slipped into the space over the past three centuries.
The sanctuary of the Holy Stairs, erected by Sixtus V between 1588 and 1590, has always been a privileged place of prayer for the popes. As managing scientific officer at the Vatican Museums, Guido Corini pointed out that the Holy Stairs symbolize the religiosity of Rome.
“During the Middle Ages, people from all around the world used to come to Rome to see these relics,” he said. “When Sixtus V decided to preserve it, the tradition was already rooted. Not only did those who climbed the Holy Stairs feel the pain, but they also received a powerful catechesis simply looking up.” This impression echoes Guerra’s reflections on the significance of such a place for the faithful. According to him, being able to touch the steps trod by Christ is a way of touching God and deeply impacts pilgrims. “Climbing the 28 steps on one’s knees, one comes into contact with one’s physical pain, but also with the moral pain that is wearing one out,” he said.
A Sign of Life, Not Death
The Passionists, who have been running the sanctuary for 150 years, have witnessed the spiritual strength of the Holy Stairs. Founded at the beginning of the 18th century by St. Paul of the Cross with a special emphasis on the passion of Jesus Christ, the Passionists live a life close to monastic ideals, in the service of others, through social services, prayers and missions abroad. The Passion of Christ remains at the heart of their catechesis.
“We live our special spirituality by continually accepting the small sufferings of the everyday life, but knowing that the Lord faced them for us with human spiritual strength,” Father Gianvito, who joined the sanctuary three years ago, told the Register. Such awareness, in his opinion, allows Christians to spend very intense times of sharing with the Lord, especially during Lent, as they are invited to make penitential acts and get closer to God through the sacraments.
“It invites us to meditate,” Passionist Father Ottaviano d’Egidio, former superior general of the order, told the Register. “The People of God need to be able to meditate on what Jesus experienced when he offered himself in his death and then rose again. To this extent, the stairs are not a sign of death, but a sign of life. The Passion occurred, but such passion lead to resurrection,” he said.
Comparing the stairs to a bridge between the passion of Christ and the passion of human beings in our troubled times, Father d’Egidio invites the faithful to think about the message the stairs offers them today. “To climb the steps is to look at Jesus [who] forgives his persecutors on the cross,” he said. “His forgiveness is the message that the stairs offer us today. They make us meditate on Jesus crucified and on the crucifixes of our suffering world.”
Solène Tadié Solène Tadié is the Europe Correspondent for the National Catholic Register. She is French-Swiss and grew up in Paris. After graduating from Roma III University with a degree in journalism, she began reporting on Rome and the Vatican for Aleteia. She joined L’Osservatore Romano in 2015, where she successively worked for the French section and the Cultural pages of the Italian daily newspaper. She has also collaborated with several French-speaking Catholic media organizations. Solène has a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from the Pontifical University of Saint Thomas Aquinas, and recently translated in French (for Editions Salvator) Defending the Free Market: The Moral Case for a Free Economy by the Acton Institute’s Fr. Robert Sirico.