Next time you get to Rome, buy a copy of Wanted in Rome, an entertaining and informative local weekly newsletter. Unlike the other English-language publications for sale at the newsstand, Wanted in Rome is really for residents, so it gives great insight into what it's like to actually live there, not just visit. One recent article caught our eye, so we reprint it for you here.
"Nobody ever said that the path to salvation was easy, but struggling up the Scala Santa across from the basilica of S. Giovanni in Laterano on your knees is one of the more uncomfortable ways of getting there.
It's not clear who is having most difficulty - the young, elegant girl in the black suit or the old lady with the swollen ankles. While the aged pilgrim is suffering at every move, the girl is having a hard time reconciling piety with an extravagant coat and a chic handbag, which she nearly forgets every time she moves up a step.
Pilgrims have been shuffling up this staircase ever since St Helena, mother of the first Christian Roman emperor Constantine, had it transported to Rome from Jerusalem in 326 AD, where she had gone to look for the cross of Christ among other things. Tradition holds that these are the 28 marble steps from the palace of Pontius Pilate that Christ walked up on the day of his trial, and Roman Catholics believe that ascending them on your knees grants full remission of purgatorial punishment for sins. While lesser relics go in and out of fashion, the Scala Santa is a timeless crowd-drawer on any day of the year, and it is a particular favorite on Fridays during Lent.
The continuing popularity of relics was demonstrated in January of this year, when a relic of Padre Pio was brought to Rome for the first time, to the church of Nostra Signora di Guadalupe e S. Filippo on Via Aurelia in the northwest of the city. The item in question was the bandage bloodied by the stigmata on the monk's chest, which is usually kept in S. Giovanni Rotondo in Puglia, together with his remains. What was meant to be a low-key celebration with a small procession attracted over 5,000 faithful from all over Rome and beyond. A priest from the church attributes the turnout partially to the holy man himself, who, he says, is popular for his humanity and his mercy, but also to the importance of relics for Roman Catholics. "It is not a matter of superstition, like an amulet or an evil eye," he stresses. "It is like keeping objects of a loved one near to oneself. It is the start of the path to becoming closer to a person who lived a virtuous life, but of course it takes a lot more to become like a saint."
No matter what your religious beliefs or your doubts about authenticity, the incalculable array of relics in Rome's churches cannot fail to fascinate. Some are important sites of pilgrimage, such as the church of S. Croce in Gerusalemme, which was built in the fourth century to house St Helena's trophies from the Holy Land. A stark chapel contains fragments of the cross of Christ and a nail used in the crucifixion, and part of the wooden tablet bearing the inscription "Jesus of Nazareth king of the Jews" in Greek, Latin and Hebrew. Further attractions include the horizontal plank from the cross of the good thief and part of a finger of the apostle Thomas (allegedly the one which, according to the gospel of John, he poked into the wound in Christ's side to dispel his doubt about the resurrection).
Other churches have lesser-known relics. Few visitors to the baroque church of S. Agnes in Agone in Piazza Navona ever notice St Agnes's tiny skull in a simple wooden reliquary. In the mid-1300s 12-year-old Agnes was stripped of her clothes and thrown into a brothel because of her Christian beliefs, but her hair miraculously grew to cover her nakedness, frightening away potential suitors. Useful as this was to preserve her virginity, it did little to save her life, since the miracle was considered an act of witchcraft and she consequently had her throat cut in the manner of her namesake, the lamb. The brothel was where the church now stands, underneath one of the arches of the stadium that gave its shape to Piazza Navona.
If venerating staircases, bandages and dust seems peculiar, the relics in the church of Ss. Vincenzo e Anastasio on Piazza Trevi demonstrate that anything can be revered. Here, the liver, spleen and pancreas of every pope who lived in the nearby Palazzo Quirinale, from Sixtus V (1585-1590) to Leo XIII (1878-1903) are safeguarded. The innards of the holy men were removed after their death when their bodies were prepared to be set aside as separate relics in their parish church."
By Silke Buhr
Published by Wanted in Rome, March, 2002