Saturday, April 13, 2019

The Holy Stairs Unveiled in Rome

Two days ago, one of Rome’s most important and beloved sacred monuments was made accessible to the faithful after the completion of a lengthy and very much needed restoration. The Holy Stairs are said to be the very ones which the Lord climbed on the way to His trial before Pilate, discovered by St Helena and sent to Rome; since the reign of Pope Sixtus V (1585-90), they have been housed within a special shrine across the street from the cathedral of St John in the Lateran. The fresco work on the walls to either side of the stairs and on the ceiling above them was in dire need of cleaning and repair, which necessitated closing them off completely, although the shrine itself remained open. The restoration is now completed, and pilgrims now once again are able to honor Christ’s Passion by climbing them, which is always done on one’s knees.

Photo courtesy of Joacob Stein.
By the year 1732, most of the individual stairs had deep grooves worn into them, and in a few places, had been worn completely through, by the passage of so many centuries of pilgrims. They were therefore encased in thick walnut covers to protect them, although they could still be seen and touched through slots in the wood. These covers are themselves in need of repair, so while they are being worked on, pilgrims can ascend on the bare marble of the original stairs. (For the sake of those who have mobility issues, it should be noted that the grooves and the smoothness of the marble make the climb much more difficult than it is when the stairs are covered.) The wooden covers will be put back on after Pentecost. In this report from Catholic News Service, made when they were first removed a few weeks ago, you can see the many pieces of paper on which people had written prayers and then slipped them between the covers. There are also certain spots on the stairs which are seen marked off with grills (these have now been removed), traditionally said to be marked with drops of Christ’s Blood.
The great Catholic novelist Evelyn Waugh had a special devotion to St Helena, and in his fictionalized account of her life, gives a very funny explanation of how the Holy Stairs might have come to Rome in the first place. When St Helena arrives in Jerusalem, she is taken on a tour of the local governor’s palace, which he refers to, in the language of British Imperial administration, as “Government House.” (The book is filled with clever anachronisms of this sort.)

“Helena, alighting, seemed to regard the place critically. The major-domo ... tried to put a good face on it by remarking that this was originally Pilate’s Praetorium. It might have been. No one was quite sure. On the whole most people thought that it was, though certainly much altered. Helena was plainly impressed. The major-domo went further. These marble steps, he explained, were the identical stairway which Our Lord had descended on his way to death. The effect was beyond his expectation. The aged empress knelt down, there and then in her travelling cloak, and painfully and prayerfully climbed the twenty-eight steps on her knees. ... Next day she ordered her private cohort of sappers to take the whole staircase to pieces, number them, crate them and pack them on wagons. ‘I am sending it to Pope Sylvester,’ she said. ‘A thing like this ought to be in the Lateran. You clearly do not attach proper importance to it here.’

Then, having rendered Government House uninhabitable she bade her court find billets where they could, and herself settled in a single small room among the nuns of Mount Zion where she did her own housework and took her turn in waiting at table.

The Holy stairs left for the coast in a train of wagons. Macarius (the bishop of Jerusalem) and his chapter (sic!) watched them go aghast. Royal collectors had been known to strip whole provinces of their works of art. The Church of Jerusalem had unique treasures - the crown of thorns, the lance, the shroud and many others. Were they to lose now, in the hour of liberation, what they had guarded so devotedly through all the years of persecution? They conferred and decided to make one great present. They would thus at the same time express their loyalty to the throne and emphasize their right of possession in all they had. They gave Helena the Holy Coat, which a soldier won at dice and sold later to a disciple.” (This last item is kept at Trier in Germany, where St Helena did indeed live for a time; it was exposed for the veneration of the faithful in 2012.)

The Holy Coat of Trier, during the exposition of 1933

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