Prayer and devotion in Rome is a normal part of daily life for locals and pilgrims alike, and Thursday delivered a taste of some of the many spiritual sights and happenings in the city, featuring the unveiling of one of Rome’s most venerated relics and a prayer vigil for war-scarred South Sudan.
On April 11, just ahead of Holy Week, Rome’s famed “Scala Santa,” known in English as the “Holy Stairs,” one of the city’s most treasured relics, was unveiled after undergoing 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 Saint Helena, the mother of Emperor Constantine, after Christianity was declared to be the empire’s primary religion in the Edict of Milan in 313.
They’re located in a shrine just across the street from the papal Basilica of Saint John Lateran run by the Passionist Fathers, who have been involved in the lengthy process of restoring the shrine since the 1990s.
A popular pilgrimage site for those seeking a plenary indulgence, typically by climbing the 28 steps on their knees to a chapel at the top, has been closed since the summer of 2018 for restoration of both frescoes adorning the walls and ceiling and the wooden frames themselves.
An indulgence is offered to faithful who, by fulfilling certain acts and conditions of devotion, receive the full forgiveness of sin and its consequences.
The previous walnut wooden casing had been in place since 1723, when Pope Innocent XIII ordered it to be put on, since the steps had been worn down by millions of pilgrims who have climbed them over the centuries.
After Thursday’s unveiling, for the first time in 300 years pilgrims are able to climb the Holy Staircase on the original marble that 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.
Following an April 11 conference, Passionist Father Francesco Guerra, rector of the shrine, told journalists the restorations were necessary because “the wooden tables that covered the marble were worm-eaten.”
He said the community living at the shrine didn’t initially plan to restore the stairs, but seeing the condition of the frames, they decided to seek extra funding to include the stairs as part of a wider restoration project already begun on the frescos.
“The idea was very important, above all because we were able to do it,” he said, thanking all who collaborated and helped make the restoration possible.
Though the stairs are in the shrine, they fall under the care of the Vatican Museums, which oversaw the restorations with the help of the Patrons of the Arts, a group dedicated to raising money for restoration of artwork and artifacts in the museums.
Specific patrons’ chapters who helped fund the project include Texas, Florida, Great Britain and Asia.
Barbara Jatta, director of the Vatican Museums, was present at the packed presentation alongside numerous ambassadors, including U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See Callista Gingrich.
Speaking to Crux, Jatta said the restoration is among the more important works of restoration the Vatican Museum labs have done given the wide international interest.
“This is the sanctuary of the Holy Stairs…it is a sanctuary that has a lot of devotion, not only by Romans,” she said, noting that she has been coming since she was a child.
“Historically it’s a sanctuary that for centuries has welcomed pilgrims from all over the world, who recognize that in this particular staircase is one of the great symbols of the Passion of Jesus Christ,” she said, adding that participating in the restoration is “marvelous” and holds special significance on a personal level.
Once the wooden frames encasing the stairs had been removed, restorers made a few surprise discoveries: not only were there stacks of holy cards and papers with prayer requests dropped into small holes allowing pilgrims to peer in at the marble, but there was also the original spot where, according to tradition, traces of Jesus’ blood was uncovered.
Guerra said the community does not yet know what they will do with the holy cards and prayer requests, but it will read them and decide how they can be used or where they can be placed.
In addition to seeing the places where Jesus’ blood is believed to have dropped, Guerra said the most exciting part of the restorations for him was once the marble steps were cleaned and their condition became visible.
“When we understood that the faithful went up in this way (on their knees), this was a totally new, unpublished moment, because I could not have imagined them in this way,” he said, noting that while there were historical accounts of dips in the stairs due to centuries of use, “one thing is to read it, another is to concretely see the steps.”
Following the presentation of the restoration process, Cardinal Angelo De Donatis, the Vicar of Rome, presided over the unveiling and blessing of the stairs before celebrating Mass for those who attended.
On the other side of town, the community of Sant’Egidio led a prayer vigil Thursday night with incoming Vice Presidents of South Sudan Riek Machar and Rebecca Nyandeng De Mabior, who is also the widow of John Garang, a politician and revolutionary leader who died in a helicopter crash in 2005.
The vigil, organized to pray for peace in a warring South Sudan, followed an April 10-11 spiritual retreat at the Vatican organized by Pope Francis and the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, for the top politicians of South Sudan who as part of the new “Revitalized Agreement on the Resolution of Conflict in South Sudan” will assume their positions May 12.