The Scala Sancta and the holy doors of Rome

The Papal Basilica of St. Paul Outside-the-Walls in Rome. Photo: Kiev.Victor/Shutterstock

I was blessed to be able to travel to Rome during the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy. My friend Elisa and I decided to embark on a pilgrimage during my stay, climbing the Scala Sancta (Sacred Steps) and visiting each of the four holy doors in Rome. As excited as I was for the experience that she and I would share, I wasn’t fully prepared for the impact it would have on me.

I was stunned by the beauty of the Papal Basilica of St. Paul Outside-the-Walls when we approached. One of the four papal basilicas in Rome, it was home to a holy door that pilgrims entered to receive the indulgence associated with the Holy Year of Mercy. Some people choose to enter on their knees while praying for the intentions of the pope, while others entered in silent prayer and touched the door as they passed through. I opted for the latter, thanking God for the experience that I was about to begin with my friend.

The Scala Sancta and St. John Lateran

The next morning, we approached the Archbasilica of St. John Lateran where several of the Vatican’s prescribed pilgrimages began. The Scala Sancta are housed in an adjacent building. Since neither Elisa nor I had any real experience with the “right” way to begin a pilgrimage, climbing the Scala Sancta seemed as good a choice as any. 

The Scala Sancta are said to have been the steps in Pontius Pilate’s home that Jesus Christ climbed multiple times on the day he was sentenced to death. They were brought to Rome in 326 by St. Helena, Constantine the Great’s mother. The faithful climb the 28 steps on their knees, praying a devotion or their own choice of prayers and intentions. Those who do can be granted a partial or plenary indulgence, separate from the indulgence granted for the pilgrimage. It is meant to be a deeply moving and spiritual experience.

The stairs were littered with pilgrims ahead of us. Elisa and I both decided to start by praying the Hail Mary and the Our Father. We prayed that the Holy Spirit would guide us the rest of the way. We looked at one another, waited for the man ahead of us to advance, and knelt down to begin.

The actual stairs are marble, but are covered with wood that has been rubbed smooth and curved by the shapes of the knees and legs of pilgrims who have climbed them over the years. The climb wasn’t easy, but the discomfort helped to keep me focused on what I was doing and reflective about the pain that Jesus Christ endured for us. I prayed the Our Father the minute my knees hit the wood.

I was crying by the second stair. I could hear Elisa crying beside me, too. I saw a nun nearby kissing her rosary and leaning down to kiss the stairs. I continued to recite the Hail Mary and the Our Father, meditating on each and every word instead of just reciting them. I specifically thought about the words “thy will be done” in the Our Father. How often in my life have I listened to God’s will? How many times have I put his will to the side, focusing instead on my thoughts, wants, and desires?

I began to call to mind my sins. It was an examination of conscience like none other I’ve ever experienced. All the things I’ve done wrong in my life came flowing out of me, streaming down my face along with my tears. I acknowledged that the sins I was reflecting on were those I had already brought before the Lord in the sacrament of reconciliation. The scars of those sins remained. How was I ever going to allow God’s will to be done in my life when I was holding on to the past? He’d already forgiven me. I had to forgive myself. I realized that this is what an indulgence is all about.

Forgiveness and mercy were only possible because of the steps that I was climbing. It dawned on me then that these steps were the steps. I was in the presence of something that Jesus Christ, a real live man, had touched. C.S. Lewis’ quote came to mind: “He died not for men, but for each man. If each man had been the only man made, he would have done no less.” 

He did it for me. He knew every mistake that I would make in my life, and still he came, suffered, and died. He did it all for me anyway.

I thought about what God’s will would be for me once I left this place and completed this experience. My thoughts immediately turned to my husband and my children. I’d been working hard to make my little domestic church the focus of my life in a way I had struggled with in the past. I recalled a friend who recently told me, “God chose you to be her mother,” when I’d had a particularly trying day with one of my daughters. It dawned on me that God chose me for all of them. He chose me to be Marcus’ wife and the mother to three amazing girls. He chose me because he loves me, believes in me, and has faith in me. I am his beloved.

I echoed Mary’s words: “May it be done to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). I climbed to the last stair. I said one final Our Father. I made the sign of the cross, kissed my fingers, and touched them to the wood beneath my knees. 

Elisa finished only moments before me. We embraced and clutched hands, our faces stained with tears. We agreed that this experience was so much more than we could ever have imagined. These stairs, a tangible sign of God’s love for us and his mercy, were the perfect way to begin a pilgrimage.

The Archbasilica of St. John Lateran was full of visitors queuing to enter through security. Both Elisa and I have been blessed to visit the basilica before, so we didn’t intend to spend more than a few moments inside the church after we crossed through the holy door.  Like St. Paul Outside-the-Walls, the door itself was elaborate and beautiful. Pilgrims were primarily walking through the door and touching the bronze, making the sign of the cross as they crossed the threshold into the basilica. We followed suit, still reeling with the emotion we’d felt climbing the Scala Sancta. 

St. Peter’s Basilica 

We weaved our way through Rome, walking past the Colosseum and stopping for lunch and a coffee as we made our way to St. Peter’s Square. It was a beautiful day, and the pleasure of reconnecting with one another meant that there was rarely a gap in our conversation as we approached the Papal Basilica of St. Peter in the Vatican. 

Elisa and I paused for a moment to take in our surroundings before we entered through the holy door at St. Peter’s. Our day had been so amazing, and I was sad at the realization that it was coming to an end. Something about walking through the holy door here seemed so much more powerful than either of the previous doors. I hesitated as I entered, acutely aware of my unworthiness, yet at the same time acknowledging that the only reason anyone was worthy was because of Jesus Christ. I took a deep breath, let my hand linger on the brass of the door, made the sign of the cross, and entered into the church. 

Michelangelo’s “Pieta.” Photo: ppl/Shutterstock

Elisa and I hugged one another, both of us feeling overwhelmed with emotion.  We went to see Michelangelo’s Pieta, which Elisa confessed was her favorite. We continued to cry and embraced again. We were moved by the piece itself, the thought of the emotion the Virgin must have felt, and the sacrifice of her son. Though we went on to climb the cupola and celebrate with a drink in Piazza Navona, this moment was truly the end to our day.

St. Mary Major

Only one holy door remained. The next day, we approached the Papal Basilica of St. Mary Major refreshed and renewed. It took me a long time to catch my breath and prepare myself as we approached. I was consumed with prayer before we entered.  

“Father, help me,” I said as I touched the last of the four holy doors in Rome.  

“There’s no crying,” Elisa’s husband chuckled as he walked in behind me. I rolled my teary eyes, but I realized that he was right. There was no need for crying. I felt fuller in my faith than I had ever felt in my life. There was nothing to be sad about. I was not walking this journey, or any journey, alone.  

I have only just begun to process the experience I had in Rome. I thought that time would dull the memory, or at least make it less emotional for me to recount, but it hasn’t. What happened to me in Rome, on our pilgrimage, and while climbing the Scala Sancta, was the most holy experience I have ever had. It was a love story — a story about God’s love for me, steeped in compassion, mercy, and forgiveness.  

It was beautiful. 


The papal

The Scala Sancta: 

St. Paul Outside-the-Walls (above photo) The Papal Basilica of St. Paul Outside-the-Walls was built in the early fourth century under the order of the Roman Emperor Constantine. It is situated over the grave of St. Paul the Apostle. The church was rebuilt identically to its previous form in the 1800s after it was destroyed by a fire. Visitors are able to look through a window and see the tomb of St. Paul, located under the papal altar. Feast day: The Dedication of the Basilicas of Sts. Peter and Paul, Apostles, is Nov. 18. 

The Archbasilica of St. John Lateran in Rome. Photo: Borisb17/Shutterstock

St. John Lateran The Archbasilica of St. John Lateran is the oldest papal palace and the cathedral church in Rome. It is situated on the grounds of a Roman fort from the second century and became the property of the Church in the fourth century. Home to one of the four holy doors in Rome, it was also the starting point for several pilgrimages set forth by the Vatican during the Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy. Feast day: The Dedication of the Lateran Basilica is Nov. 9.



The Papal Basilica of St. Mary Major in Rome. Photo: Nattee Chalermtiragool/Shutterstock

St. Mary Major The Papal Basilica of St. Mary Major is built on the ruin of an ancient church from the fourth century that was divinely inspired by the Blessed Mother. It is the only one of the four papal basilicas to retain its original structure, though it has been added to over the years. The basilica houses a museum with both historical items and treasured artwork that celebrate the history of the basilica. It is most famously known as the home of a relic of the Holy Crib, pieces of the manger of Jesus Christ.  Feast day: The Dedication of the Basilica of St. Mary Major is Aug. 5. 


The Holy Door is the northern entrance at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Photo: nomadFra/Shutterstock

St. Peter’s Basilica; the holy doors (left) Built in the fourth century under the order of Emperor Constantine, St. Peter’s Basilica is situated over the tomb of St. Peter.  It underwent extensive reconstruction from the 15th through 17th centuries. It is home to some of the most magnificent artwork in the world, including Michelangelo’s “Pieta.” Visitors to St. Peter’s may also choose to visit the Vatican Museums, the Sistine Chapel and St. Peter’s Square and climb the dome of the basilica. Feast day: The Dedication of the Basilicas of Sts. Peter and Paul, Apostles, is Nov.18.





The Scala Sancta in Rome. Photo: Kiev.Victor/Shutterstock

The Scala Sancta The Holy Stairs are the 28 steps that were located in the home of Pontius Pilate and would have been climbed by Jesus Christ on the day he was sentenced to death. They were brought to Rome by St. Helena, Emperor Constantine’s mother, in the fourth century. Today, they are located in a building adjacent to the Archbasilica of St. John Lateran. Pilgrims may climb the stairs on their knees and in prayer in order to receive a partial or plenary indulgence. 









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