The Catholic faith, with all of the elaborate liturgies and rich traditions, is a testament to the incarnational reality of Christ. Rather than simply receiving Christ spiritually, we consume what looks like bread and tastes like wine but which we profess is the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Jesus Christ. Rather than simply believing that we are forgiven, we profess our sins aloud and then hear the words of absolution extended as we are reconciled to God. Though not dogma, we profess to have the crown of thorns, nails from the cross, pieces of the true cross, and even the cloth wrapped around Jesus before He was laid in the tomb. The physical realities of the God-man are brimming in the Catholic churches around the world.
On a recent pilgrimage to Rome with some students, I was able to climb the Scala Santa or Holy Stairs. These twenty-eight steps of marble are believed to be the stairs Christ ascended as the Jewish authorities turned Him over to Pilate. Transported from the Holy Land to Rome at the request of Constantine’s mother, St. Helena, pilgrims have come for centuries to climb these steps on their knees as they recall the Passion of Jesus Christ. The ardent devotion of thousands upon thousands of pilgrims began to wear away at the stones and it was a desire of the Church to preserve them for future Christians. Around three hundred years ago, the steps were covered with wood to prevent their further deterioration.
A restoration process that has unfolded over the past few years led to the uncovering of the steps. As the restoration neared its end, for a few weeks during May and June, the Church allowed pilgrims to ascend the uncovered steps on their knees. The pilgrimage I was on happened to fall during the final week of the steps being uncovered.
Nine years ago, I climbed the steps during my first trip to Rome. Knowing the steps would be uncovered this time, I didn’t really consider how that would alter the experience of climbing them. The deep grooves in the marble, formed by thousands upon thousands of knees before me, made the ascent a bit more complicated than when it was on planks of wood. How many knees had been on these same steps? How many kisses had been placed on these marble slabs that formed the path Jesus took to condemnation? How many saints had made this same pilgrimage?
Looking up the steps, I saw my students and fellow teachers making the slow and painful journey to the top. Other pilgrims seemed to be in their seventies or eighties and I watched them literally crawl from step to step, gingerly seeking a place to set their knees. Standing at the bottom of the steps, I realized: this is the Church.
Crawling on our knees, praying, and all desiring to move in the same general direction of Heaven. And it made me wonder: how differently would I live if I encountered each person as a pilgrim struggling to get to Heaven on their knees? What if I saw each student as a person crawling to Heaven? What if the pushy people I encountered while waiting for the bus or metro or grocery store line are also just pilgrims on a journey to our eternal home?
Knee in groove after knee in groove, I was surrounded by the imperfect and persevering Church. There were the people behind me who kept getting too close or pushing my feet. Then the people crowding me on either side or who slowly cut me off as we moved step by step. All of these people were right alongside me, crawling to Heaven. And even if their methods annoyed me a little, they were on their knees, rosary beads slipping through their fingers or prayer booklets in hand or gazing upwards at the scene of the crucifixion. We were united in this communal effort to unite ourselves to the suffering of the Lord.
In the midst of it all I found my students. Some were very fervent and others were more lukewarm or filled with doubts. Yet there they all were, climbing the Scala Santa and placing their knees in grooves carved out by the generations of Christians who had come before them. Hailing from a country where old means something completely different, they were face-to-face with the ancient roots of our faith. The reality of Christ was before them and the witness of devout faith was etched in stone. May we continue to crawl towards Heaven, following in the grooves of our older brothers and sisters who have fought the fight and finished the race.