Reflections: The Piety of the Steps
Fr. Rob Jack STL
Piety is a gift of the Holy Spirit through which one cherishes and passes on the history of one’s faith as a source of one’s human and Christian identity. When we place around ourselves pictures of our families and friends and our pets and personal mementos, we practice a type of natural piety.
The supernatural gift of piety is a Gift of the Holy Spirit. We practice it by surrounding ourselves with holy objects, such as statues, pictures, rosaries, medals, etc. and performing meaningful deeds. They remind us of the presence of God. They ground our faith. They motivate us to pass the faith forward.
In the City of Cincinnati, every Good Friday, people flock to the steps that lead to Holy Cross-Immaculata Church on Mount Adams and slowly climb them. They come with different practices. Some say a prayer on each step. Some pray the rosary. Others may pray for sick friends or peace in the world. Whatever the reason, they are making a primordial human act. They are reaching up to God. Some bring friends, children and even grandchildren to pass on this simple yet powerful devotion. When they reach the Church at the top of the hill, they can go to the Sacrament of Penance or just say a simple prayer in Church in thanksgiving to the Mother of God, and God Himself, for another year on this earth.
What are some lessons we can learn from this yearly devotion? The first is that faith is familial. We pass it on from parent to child to grandchildren. Of all the things we provide for our children, the most important is the gift of faith. It is the one thing we carry with us at the moment of our death. We also see as we climb the steps that we are part of a much bigger human family, the family of the Church. Faith connects us to each other in even deeper ways than blood. It is interesting to note that Archbishop Purcell promised to build a Church dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God, on the highest hill in Cincinnati as a sign of thanks for surviving a dangerous storm at sea. She looks over the whole city. She is truly, from the vantage point Our Lady of Cincinnati, our Mother and Protectrix. Every citizen of Cincinnati, believer and non-believer, friend and foe, is under her maternal care and protection. It brings me comfort to look up to the Church on Mount Adams and see the statue of the Virgin Mary looking over all of us with her arms extended. Her intercession to Jesus holds the key to many of the problems we face as a society.
A second Lesson is that, as sinful and wounded human beings, we desire to repair what we have broken and we know that God’s grace and the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary are necessary to do this. We have to train not only our souls, but also our bodies. Our whole person is involved in the shaping and renewing of our life. We “climb the mountain of the Lord.” Over the Church of the Immaculata is a statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Mother of God. As Catholics, we recognize that Jesus himself has given us Mary as our Spiritual Mother, sure guide to Him and an advocate on our behalf that we may be pleasing to Him. Mary points to Jesus. Mary points to the Cross. Mary’s most important duties are to be the Mother of God and the means for us to truly get close to her Son. We have Mary in our sight as we climb the steps, but we know that our journey does not end with her, but with her Son.
A third Lesson that comes from walking the steps is the power of piety and tradition. These actions remind us that our lives are seriously weakened without the active and loving presence of God. These steps are not superstitious actions to get God to give us what we want, but a real reminder of what God has truly given us in human history: God has sent his Son Jesus Christ to save the world from sin and death and provide a new and true path to life. He does this by dying on the cross out of love for His heavenly Father and the human race, with whom God the Son shares a full human nature. Prayer and acts of self-denial reminds us that we are not the center of the universe. When we place ourselves in faith at the service of God, life opens up in profoundly new ways.
So whether we climb the steps on Good Friday or simply observe others as we drive by, remember that Easter is not about bunnies and little chicks and chocolate, but the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, Jesus Christ, who makes of his own free will an offering of himself on the wood of the Cross for the redemption of the whole world. That news is worth passing on. That news, and the gifts of grace that come from it, make the climb worth it.
Father Rob Jack is an instructor of Systematic Theology at the Athenaeum of Ohio/Mount St. Mary’s Seminary of the West. He holds a Master of Divinity degree from the Athenaeum, and a Licentiate in Sacred Theology from the International Marian Research Institute.