A HOLY STAIRWAY THAT’S TOUGH ON THE KNEES AND THAT’S JUST THE START IN GAINING A PILGRIM’S GRAND SLAM DURING ROME’S JUBILEE YEAR

ROME- Amid a black cloud of habited nuns, all of us playing kneesies with a rising series of walnut planks, I wonder if a cluster of orthopedic surgeons will be at the top, offering a Jubilee Year discount on arthroscopic carving.

 

“It will be good for your soul,” Brother Marcelo, a Benedictine monk in Boston, had promised, hyping the spiritual joy of climbing the Holy Stairway.

But bad for the cartilages and ligaments, I am thinking about this ascent on bended, creaking knees. I doubt that the sisters surrounding me, four abreast on the stairs, are bothered by such thoughts. Darkly clad, they must be powered by lightness and purity.

Thunk! Thunk! Thunk! Thunk!

Bone sounds against wood that now protects the marble staircase, said to have belonged to Pontius Pilate in Jerusalem, and up which Christ was dragged to receive the fatal judgment.

Thunk! Thunk! Thunk! Thunk!

A constant staccato as the otherwise silent, prayerful procession moves ahead slowly, like a lazy, backward waterfall.

Heaven knows, doing this penance (for whatever literary sins committed over the years against you, kind reader?) won’t hurt me. But if I give up and stand up, will a lightning bolt from heaven strike me?

Better not take a chance. Onward and upward, wishing I had the relics of Thomas (Satch) Sanders: the knee pads he wore in college on his way up to glory with the Celtics, before Red Auerbach told him they weren’t manly.

Twenty-eight steps is the route to the Papal Chapel, a solemn journey of about five minutes in an elegant building that used to be a papal palace. Just across the street from the basilica of St. John Lateran.

Pilgrims from Mozambique and various other civilians await their turn in the movable flock as my partners in climb and I make it to the landing, and can legitimately use our feet again.

My friend, Aurelio, says, “We can walk down on the adjoining stairs. It’s too crowded to make the trip in reverse and further risk that dread affliction, housemaid’s knee.”

Hallelujah.

The Holy Staircase, supposedly located in Pontius Pilate’s prefecture, was considered a prize find of an avid Holy Land relics collector of the 4th century, Helena (eventually St. Helena), mother of Constantine, the first Christian emperor of Rome. She claimed that spots, glass encased, are drops of Christ’s blood.

Who could estimate the numbers that have knee-bumped-and-jerked their way to the top of Pilate’s peak? For centuries pilgrims have gravitated to Rome and this “stairway to heaven,” as one of them whispers to me.

“A religious theme park?” suggests Desmond O’Grady in his fascinating new book, “Rome Reshaped (Jubilees 1300-2000).” O’Grady writes, “There have been pilgrims at least since the 2nd century. One example is Hegesippus, a converted Jew, who came to Rome in about 180 and wrote an account.”

However, this is the year of years, not only a Jubilee – celebrated every 25 years – but the only one to coincide with a millennium. So how can you be in Rome and not feel the pull of pilgrimage, the heritage of Hegesippus? Moreover, it’s considerably easier than in his day. I mean, staying at the Cavallieri Hilton with its superb spa has an edge on those bygone bathless inns where your roommates were fleas in the mattress. If there was a mattress.

According to O’Grady, a pilgrim’s grand slam (or “spiritual Olympics”) consists of visiting each of the town’s seven heaviest-duty churches, called basilicas: St. Peter, St. John Lateran, St. Paul Outside the Walls, St. Mary Major, St. Sebastian Outside the Walls, St. Laurence Outside the Walls, Holy Cross. Plus the Holy Stairway.

“That’s what we have to do then,” Aurelio had said. “On foot, like the pilgrims of old.” She showed me a map. “They’re very far-flung. But it’s only about 28 miles.”

The map also indicates that each may be reached by public transport, I pointed out.

“But that would be cheating,” she said.

“Cheating in a holy cause, though,” I said.

Before setting out, we asked an Italian friend, Giovanni Clerici, if he’d care to come along.

“Ah, so you are pellegrini?” he said, smiling and shaking his head negatively.

“Huh?” Aurelio said. “Didn’t Pellegrini play third base for the Red Sox when they won the ’46 pennant? Eddie Pellegrini?”

“Perhaps,” Clerici said, “but it is also the Italian word for pilgrims. But, tell me, do you have the proper dress for pilgrims? Sackcloth and ashes, I believe. Quite important, as you will read in the old journals.”

Charlie Davidson at the Andover Shop in Cambridge, Mass., had told me the same thing, although confessing that he was out of sackcloth and ashes. “But the latest papal encyclical says that khaki and oxford cloth will do.” A relief.

Clerici bade us “buon viaggio!” and we embarked on a $25 taxi ride to the most distant, St. Sebastian, well beyond the city, near the cobbled Appian Way. While Rome is hardly a place of peace and quiet, plain, understated St. Sebastian (San Sebastiano) and the ancient chariot highway are loaded with it. St. Sebastian, the well-known target of anti-Christian archers, appears as a wooden carving, blending into the brightly-hued and coffered ceiling. Golden-coiffed, a 10-footer covered only by a loincloth, he is a hunk, seeming impervious to the two arrows protruding from his neck and belly.

The church was empty, as were our stomachs. But a good lunch in the garden of the nearby Antica Hostaria l’Archeologia took care of that, shaded by a 400-year-old wisteria, once a vine, now a veritable redwood with a trunk 4 feet around.

A stroll along the deserted Appian Way evoked the days of Roman legions returning from triumphs, bearing treasure, and prodding prisoners who would become slaves. The birds were real, numerous, and melodic. Not the ones on the eternal tape in your brain, playing Respighi’s “Pines of Rome” as you walk the paving stones that jolted charioteers’ kidneys. Crumbling fortified towers line the bucolic route, along with walled estates. Centuries-old faces that hoped to be remembered stare at you in bas relief from deteriorating tombs. The Way is a crowded housing development of the dead.

Presently we reached an up-to-date road, bought luscious cherries from a man who directed us to a bus stop. Two bus rides later, St. Laurence (San Lorenzo) loomed on the spot where the namesake was martyred, incinerated in 258. It seems to brood, dusty and faded. But the crypt, containing the tomb of Pope Pius IX, is lined with brilliant mosaics in red, aqua, and gold, and delicate brick archways and marble columns open to the cloister garden.

A huge cemetery in the rear goes on for blocks and up a hillside, the residence of regiments of lively cats and, in grandiose sepulchers, apparently, former prominent citizens. But the one that caught my eye was the simple grave of husband and wife Oscar and Luisa Cadlolo (she died last year). The photo on the stone freezes them middle-aged on a happy day, up to their necks in the sea, smiling joyfully and waving to someone on shore. It remains the wave goodbye to their friends.

The next day put us in the company of true early pilgrims, who were often set upon by brigands. Whatever brigand pickpocketed me on the subway, en route to St. Mary Major (Santa Maria Maggiore), was slick, unnoticed, and $30 richer.

“At least they didn’t get your wallet,” consoled Aurelio. “Don’t you think it’s a deductible expense?”

It was an expensive deduction, I agreed. Maybe it could be considered a roundabout donation to the church to which we were traveling? Although the IRS might look at it differently. It would take a lot of gall after walking through the Porta Santa, the holy door. During a Jubilee, each of the Big Seven has such an entry. An explanatory sign, in English: “The door is Christ; pass from sin to grace.”

St. Mary Major is huge with lots of marble columns in sworls of amber, sea green, ruby, black, and cream. Decorated with frescoes, mosaics, paintings, and more gold than the Klondike, it’s pretty overwhelming.

I like the legend of its origin, which also brings the chilly Klondike to mind. On Aug. 3, 352, the Virgin Mary, showing up in a dream of a wealthy Roman named Giovanni, directed him to build a temple for her wherever he found snow. Snow in Rome is as likely as such a dream. But snow in August? A capital-M miracle. Yet there it was, like baked Alaska, on the Esquiline Hill. And there the church stands behind a massive facade with five doors and topped by a balustrade from which Mary and other saints peer.

At rush hour the bus to St. Peter (San Pietro) was as cozy as the Black Hole of Calcutta. Traffic was murder. You wonder how riders on innumerable motorscooters stay alive, leaking through the automotive morass like water through a screen.

The pope’s home dome has never looked spiffier, gleaming from cleaning and rehab that kept it hidden by scaffolding in 1999. Although too vast for my taste in churches, nevertheless it’s so tastefully done: ornate isn’t piled on ornate as in so many. If the pope ever comes up short he could hire out the hall for any number of sporting events, including arena football.

Breaking tradition, the pope opened Peter’s Porta Santa last Christmas Day with merely a push instead of breaking in. Customarily, at the conclusion of a previous holy year, the door had been shut tight and bricked in. The ritual of his predecessors had been to hammer away like a safecracker for a while at the doorway before workmen finished the job of clearing away the rubble.

Pope John Paul II felt a gentle rather than jarring touch was called for this time, saying, “Open to me, Gate of Justice; this is the Gateway of the Lord.”

The ceremony hadn’t been so benign in 1575 when Pope Gregory XIII pounded a hole in the pre-loosened bricks, reports the author O’Grady. A crowd estimated at 300,000 stormed the door, hoping to be among the first through Porta Santa, and “in the crazed scrimmage six people had been killed.” That was one way to meet St. Peter.

The tune “I Dreamt I Dwelt in Marble Halls” is inescapable as you roam the airy expanses. A big toe of St. Peter’s bronze statue has been worn to the bone (do statues have bones?) by hordes of touchy-feely types playing “this little piggy” in search of good fortune. Well, why not? I grasped for an instant, thinking, “This little piggy will go to market for a replacement one day.”

Past Peter’s tomb, at the rear, is Bernini’s dove as the holy spirit. Winging through a golden sunburst window, surrounded by a jam of angels, this bird holds you, and might even give an atheist pause.

One more day for these pilgrims. Taxiing again, way out west, we found St. Paul (San Paolo) beside the Tiber a delight. “Nobody goes here,” said the driver, Mario Floris. “It’s too far from the center.”

But there were people, savoring the parklike atmosphere of more trees and greenery than decorate the other six basilicas. St. Paul is a forest of marble columns, fronted by a colonnade that encloses a courtyard garden distinguished by hedges and palms and a statue of Paul. A triangular portico and a gold cross top the pillared facade that blazes in gold mosaics and a figure of Christ that can be seen for a long way.

Four rows of columns march along the lofty, stunning nave and into the transept, where the decor of malachite, lapis lazuli, and marble is lavish-plus. Saints stare down gravely from near the ceiling, maybe reminding you not to miss the frescoes of Paul’s life. More intimate is the barrel-vaulted chapel of St. Benedict, with much gold leaf, and the rose garden in the cloister.

Back in town, a trolley was the vehicle to Holy Cross (Santa Croce in Gerusalemme). Smaller, less showy than its colleagues in the basilican grand slam, Holy Cross is restful, dimly lighted, squeezed between two nondescript buildings. But its trove of treasures amassed by the indefatigable sacred-souvenir-hunting St. Helena on her sweep through Jerusalem in 326, would impress anybody, even a skeptic.

Behind glass in St. Helena’s Chapel are a piece of the cross to which Christ’s companion in crucifixion, a thief, was nailed. Also fragments of Christ’s cross, a nail that pierced him, two thorns from his crown. And St. Thomas’s thumb. The chapel, the story goes, is built on dirt she brought back from Golgotha.

Is any of it genuine? Who knows?

St. Helena is prominent in frescoes, a forerunner of today’s philanthropic donors getting their due. You can get a Christ baseball cap, T-shirt, holy honey and soap, as well as memorabilia in the gift shop.

Close by, only a minor walk along the old city wall, is St. John Lateran (San Giovanni Laterano), number seven in the pilgrimage. Some old men were playing cards in the shade of a marble St. Francis as we approached the elegant facade, a sparkling alabaster edifice of five doorways, five second-story portals, balconies, and a balustrade on high on which saints pose.

I was basilica’d out. Within, all was a magnificent blur of altars, tombs, statuary, paintings, archways, a reliquary bearing splinters of Saints Peter and Paul’s skulls. I had no more adjectives left. Next door, in the domed baptistery, was a grand tub. I would gladly have crawled in for a bath or a nap.

“One to go,” enthused Aurelio. “Across the street. Scala Santa – the Holy Stairs.”

It is not quite the battle of wounded knee, but we make it. Pilgrim’s progress of a sort.

Friend Clerici greets us at the Cavallieri Hilton with, “Ciao, pellegrini! But why are you wearing shoes?”

Why not?

“But I thought you read O’Grady’s book. Here . . ..” He has it opened to page 94, and intones: ” ‘Devout Pope Clement VIII walked barefoot to the Jubilee churches each month during the Jubilee of 1600.’ That is the real pilgrim’s way.”

OK, so we cheated. Please don’t tell the pope.

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