by Mike Aquilina
Old St. Patrick’s is a hidden treasure in the city of Pittsburgh. Ringed by stone walls like a monastery, the church hides amid long rows of warehouses and meat packers. Its street side faces a rail yard. More than once, I’ve seen a rat scuttle by as I ducked in for a visit.
But inside its walls are paradisal beauties: a sculpture garden, hung all around with diamonds of ice in winter, brilliant with emerald life in spring.
Not two centuries ago, St. John Neumann was pastor in St. Pat’s neighborhood. He shared a rectory there with Blessed Francis X. Seelos. Both were Redemptorist priests. Fr. John, later to be bishop of Philadelphia, was known hereabouts for his cheer and his charity. Yet, after his death, his flock would learn of the severe penances he practiced, privately, all the while he smiled upon his people and loved them so well.
Such heroic penance seems a legacy of St. Pat’s. A later pastor installed what stands today as the church’s centerpiece, the sacra scala, or holy stairs. A sign at the entrance forbids anyone to set foot on the marble stairs; we may only ascend on our knees. From the bottom, it’s almost impossible to see the goal. But faith knows: The sacra scala ends at the foot of the church’s tabernacle.
I make a pilgrimage there whenever I can. Once I took my kindergarten-aged son to St. Pat’s, and he eagerly took the challenge of the stairs, racing up once on his knees, offering his prayer, coming down, and then racing up yet again. Ah, to be six again. He was praying, he said, for someone’s conversion.
I know whose. She’s a dear friend of ours. Once I took her, too, to St. Pat’s, and she—a conventional Protestant—described her experience in almost mystical terms. It was an emerald-green day, and she knew the presence of Jesus Christ.
Oscar Wilde wrote that, “where there is sorrow, there is holy ground,” and I’m willing to believe it. The graces we reap casually today were sown by the penances of generations long before us—butchers and rail workers and washerwomen taking one painful step after another. “We are afflicted in every way . . . always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you” (2 Cor 4:8–12).
We each take our turn, like St. John Neumann and St. Paul, making up in our own flesh what is lacking in the suffering of Christ, for the sake of His body, the Church (cf. Col 1:24). We pray sacrificially, we fast, we make pilgrimage, and we give alms penitentially—that is, till it hurts. Because then it heals, not only ourselves, but others.
The spirit of penance and mortification is a healing ministry in the Body of Christ, and it isn’t optional. The Master tells us that unless we deny ourselves and take up His cross daily, we cannot be His disciples. The Church, His people, needs our sacrifices.
And we needn’t knit a hairshirt in order to do our part. An ordinary parent’s ordinary day is covered with more rough spots than any coarse woolen garment. Right now, for example, my oldest child—who knows that I’m on deadline all day—is interrupting me with at least his fortieth question of the day. Each time I turn to answer him, I take another step. Each time my wife wipes up another grape-juice spill, or issues the seventh reminder for Mary Agnes to clean her room, there’s yet another rung on the ladder that leads to heaven.
We can make each sacrifice silently, with a smile, as St. John Neumann did, and we should offer each for a purpose, an intention: that this child might overcome his toxic temper, that the other child might be less lazy, that my siblings will return to the sacraments, that my ancestors may gain release from purgatory, that my far-off descendants will keep the faith.
The holy stairs are arduous. But for the price of a moment’s discomfort, we find ourselves at the throne of glory, where every prayer must be fulfilled.
We needn’t fly to Rome or Jerusalem to make a pilgrimage. Old St. Pat’s is one of our family’s favorites, and it’s just a 25-minute drive on a weekend. What treasures are hidden in the history of your local church—your communion of saints?
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Mike Aquilina is vice president of the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology and a general editor of The Catholic Vision of Love catechetical series. Please visit his blog
for more articles on the early church. “Pilgrim's Progress” first appeared in the Jul/Aug 2005 Issue of Lay Witness Magazine. Copyright Catholics United for the Faith
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