Once upon a time: Beginning steps on the journey to heaven

By Monsignor Xavier Mankel

Newspapers are filled these days with “back to school” news about youngsters’ beginning steps as they begin pre-K, or kindergarten, or any of the other early steps we all take, which, in retrospect, were tiny steps indeed.

But at that moment, “the first time through” involved giant steps.

Remember the first day of first grade and other first days, too: the first day of middle school, high school, college, graduate school or beyond; the first day of marriage; the first time we came to Mass, etc.?

Once through the experience, everything was OK. But the times leading up to these first steps are special times in life. There are formal “steps” to priesthood. In times past, there were tonsure, porter, lector, exorcist, acolyte, subdeacon and deacon as steps to the priesthood.

Nowadays, the steps are simpler in number, but still steps. In the banking world, there is a hierarchy: clerk, assistant teller, teller, cashier, branch manager, manager, vice president and then president.

The list goes on and on.

And there are holy steps (stairs) in the Church. There are priests, monsignors, bishops, archbishops, cardinal deacons, cardinal priests and cardinal bishops. Then there is the Pontifical Sanctuary of the Holy Stairs.

According to the Passionists Congregation and its Santuario della Scala Santa, there is no pilgrim who has come to Rome without desiring to visit the Pontifical Sanctuary of the Holy Stairs. It is one of the most important and renowned sanctuaries in the Roman Catholic Church. Situated near the Basilica of St. John Lateran, the sanctuary houses the Sancta Sanctorum, recognized as the first private papal chapel.

The sanctuary gets its name from the 28 marble steps of the Holy Stairs. According to an ancient Christian tradition, St. Helena, the mother of Constantine, had the stairs transported from Pontius Pilate’s palace in Jerusalem to Rome. It is believed that Jesus climbed these stairs several times the day he was sentenced to death, thus, they are known as the Scala Pilati or Scala Sancta (the Holy Stairs or Pilate’s Stairs).

It is also known that the stairs were originally placed in the complex of the Lateran Palaces (Patriarchium), the ancient seat of the papacy. Under the supervision of Sixtus V in 1589, the stairs were placed in front of the Sancta Sanctorum, creating the core of the sanctuary that can be seen today. The sanctuary was restored by Pius IX (1846-78), and an adjoining convent was built and entrusted to the Passionist Fathers on Feb. 24, 1853. Following the example of many saints and illustrious and devoted men and women before him, Pope Pius IX climbed the stairs many times throughout his lifetime, until the eve of the capture of Rome and his voluntary reclusion in the Vatican in 1870. The sanctuary, as part of the Holy See, according to the 1929 Lateran pact between Mussolini and the Roman Catholic Church, has all the rights of extraterritoriality, according to the Santuario della Scala Santa.

Based on the most recent decree issued by the Holy Penitentiary, “all the faithful who climb the Holy Stairs or the two adjoining staircases while meditating on the Passion of Christ may acquire”: a plenary indulgence each Friday during Lent and on Good Friday or during the rest of the year, according to the indications of the Holy Father, if the faithful has first confessed, received Communion and recited a prayer (such as the Our Father, Hail Mary or the Gloria); and a partial indulgence every day of the year, if this pious practice is carried out with a “contrite heart.”

In the chapel of the Sancta Sanctorum, according to the Santuario della Scala Santa, after climbing the last step, the pilgrim finds himself in front of the iron grating, which protects the Sancta Sanctorum.

According to medieval historians, this was “the most venerated sanctuary in Rome” and was, until the Renaissance, the private oratory of the popes.

Today it remains a testament to the splendor of the ancient Patriarchium and to 1,000 years of papal history. The founder of the chapel remains unknown; however, it was originally dedicated to St. Lawrence, and in the ninth century it was called the Sancta Sanctorum, due to the numerous important relics housed within.

The first mention of the chapel is found in the Liber Pontificalis, written in the time of Pope Stephen III. More testimonies began to appear from the year 1000 onward, particularly as regards the Holy Week liturgy and the possession of the Lateran. Gregory IV had a private apartment built near the chapel to allow him to pray there and preside over the clerics of the Curia more easily.

The popes, including Leo III, Innocent III, Honorius III, Nicholas III and Callistus III, competed with each other to adorn and restore the Sancta Sanctorum. The latter two were particularly important in this process, and it is to them that we owe the present form of the chapel. Under the supervision of Nicolas III, frescos attributed to the school of Cavallini, Cimabue and others were created, as was the mosaic above the altar and the Cosmati floor. Callistus III later built the reinforcing wall at the back of the chapel. The chapel sustained no serious damage during the sack of Rome in 1527, and the later building and work of Sixtus V preserved the main features of the Sancta Sanctorum.

The most ancient and venerated object in the Sancta Sanctorum is the image of the Holy Saviour. The next time you have the opportunity to recall an impressive set of stairs (like staircases in the old St. Mary School in Knoxville or the front steps to St. Elizabeth Church in Elizabethton), remember our history of holy stairs.

Monsignor Xavier Mankel is a vicar general and historical archivist for the Diocese of Knoxville.

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