CNS story: Scala Santa chapel: Under the soot and grime, a visual treasure. This is about a renovation of the chapel at the top of the Scala Santa, the stairs said to have been part of Pilate’s palace, said to have been climbed by Jesus during his passion, said to have been transported by Helena to Rome. The old Catholic Encyclopedia, however, notes that there’s no mention of them prior to 845. The current enclosed location dates from 1589 (see Wikipedia), but people still follow the old tradition of ascending the narrow staircase on their knees, praying at each step.
Martin Luther climbed these steps on his 1510 pilgrimage to Rome.
J. H. Merle D’Aubigne described the scene in these words:
He at first gave himself up to all the observances which the Church enjoined for the expiation of sin. One day wishing to obtain an indulgence promised by the pope to all who should ascend on their knees what is called Pilate’s Staircase, the Saxon monk was humbly creeping up those steps, which he was told had been miraculously transported from Jerusalem to Rome. While he was performing this meritorious act, he thought he heard a voice of thunder crying from the bottom of his heart, as at Wittenberg and Bologna, “The just shall live by faith.” These words twice before struck him like the voice of an angel from God. They now resounded unceasingly and powerfully within him. He rose in amazement from the steps up which he was dragging his body: he shuddered at himself; he was ashamed of seeing to what a depth superstition had plunged him, therefore he fled far from the scene of his folly.
Luther’s own account ends with him getting to the top and shrugging his shoulders, saying to himself, “Who knows whether it is so?”
During my own pilgrimage to Rome in 2005, I saw the Scala Santa from across the street, but didn’t go in.