Fragments of the Cross

Jan 31st, 2012 | By | Category: Blog Posts

At the end of November, for the first Sunday of Advent, our family made a short pilgrimage to the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington D.C. Five or six minutes into Mass my 13 month old boy decided he could have no more of it and committed himself to a first class melt down. In consideration of the hundreds of worshipers there, who were beginning to look our direction to see whether or not we were torturing our child, I decided it would be best to remove my boy from the worship space. We exited in dramatic fashion of course, with his flailing legs coming close to bloodying any worshipers in his way.

“Fragment of the True Cross in a Gospel Cover”
Vatopaedi Monastery, Mount Athos

Any chance of coming back before the Eucharist had vanished so I prepared for an hour of exploration in the great basilica with my little boy. At one point we made our way to the reliquary, where, for the first time, I saw a fragment of the cross upon which Christ had been crucified. My first reaction was not wonder and awe, but skepticism. The relic encased was no bigger than the point of a pen. How could anybody know if it came from the cross of Christ? As I thought through it, my rationalistic mind did battle with another part of me that was utterly fascinated with the small speck of wood. Part of me became amazed while another part refused to rejoice over what had to be impossible. Nonetheless, I couldn’t wait to show what I had found to my wife and daughter after Mass.

My wife, like me, first expressed some skepticism. We both hid this skepticism from our daughters. My five year old, however, expressed pure belief and complete amazement. She starred into the glass with a look of wonder and completely forgot everything around her. She tried to find words to communicate what she was feeling; “Daddy, it’s like really really real.” This little fragment of wood had catapulted her faith from fairy tale to concrete reality. She talked about the relic the whole way home. She told grandma and grandpa what she had seen. The cross was real, Christ was real. For her, the wonderful story of Christ’s passion had just entered a new dimension.

I thought about my daughter’s experience in December when I read Leonardo De Chirico’s Reformation 21 article, “The Vatican Files VII.” In this article De Chirico discusses the year of St. Paul, celebrated from June 28th 2008 to June 29th 2009 in the Catholic Church. One of De Chirico’s greatest points of contention is that on the one hand the Catholic Church claims to be Pauline, while on the other hand she venerates relics. I found it interesting that he would make this objection considering that some of the first relics in the Church were Pauline. In Acts 19:11-12, St. Luke writes:

God did extraordinary miracles through Paul, so that even handkerchiefs and aprons that had touched him were taken to the sick, and their illnesses were cured and the evil spirits left them.

The problem with dismissing relics is that it’s only possible to do so when speaking of relics in general. Once any particular relic is brought up, say wood from Christ’s cross, or parts of St. Paul’s handkerchief, dismissal seems sacrilegious while belief seems sanctifying. This is because every relic is connected to Christ, the divine made physical. Every relic lifts the fog of unbelief because every relic offers its own concrete testimony to Christ’s redemptive work in this world. I would like to ask Leonardo De Chirico whether or not he approves of this practice recorded in Scripture concerning Paul’s handkerchiefs. If fragments of those handkerchiefs turned up in his congregation would he want them to be taken to the sick? It would be hard to condemn the practice recorded in Acts without doing violence to Scripture or adopting a dispensational idea about the role of relics in the life of the Church.

It might be easy to dismiss relics altogether on the simple grounds that fraudulent relics have been proven to exist.  This sort of thinking, however, would never be applied elsewhere in the Christian life.  Such an idea is analogous to arguing that orthodox doctrine should be dismissed simply because heresies have been proven to exist as well.  Such an idea is absurd.  The same Church that Christ equipped to distinguish truth from error can also distinguish a true relic from a fake.  All Christians should honor true relics and all believers should mimic the faith of children.  As my daughter taught me, the Church is trustworthy, and she will lead us into a deeper knowledge and joy of the resurrected Christ.


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  1. “How could anybody know if it came from the cross of Christ? ”

    I remember hearing on an Eastern Orthodox podcast about a related question, “Suppose a parish contained relics the first century saint, Saint Veronica. What neither you or the parish realize is that Saint Veronica never actually existed. Would it be wrong to venerate her relics?”

    His answer was beautiful, “It would be wrong if we worshiped the saint, but the Orthodox and Catholics do not worship saints. They worship God through honoring the way he showed his glory in the lives of the saints. That honoring would still exist whether or not the saint existed or the relics are real.”

    This is not just a hypothetical situation. St. Veronica likely never existed and was a middle age misunderstanding of the Shroud of Turin which is the Vera Eikon (true image of Christ). But she is part of the Stations of the Cross devotions which started at that time. The hierarchy knew this but still approved the Stations of the Cross. Did the Church make a mistake? Should we change it now that we know better? No on both counts. The Stations of the Cross are mythic in the classical sense. The are icons. They point to a reality beyond the things the things of this world and anyone reading the prayers of the stations sees that the points on the stations of the cross are opportunities to ask for grace.

    If you only see with your eyes then much of Catholicism and Orthodoxy is nonsense. A man dressed in a funny costume is holds up a piece of bread and people beat their chests and kneel. It’s precisely because Catholics and the Orthodox see the greater reality that the full meaning of true devotion is open to us.

  2. Anil Wang writes: St. Veronica likely never existed and was a middle age misunderstanding of the Shroud of Turin which is the Vera Eikon (true image of Christ).

    The Armenian Church, which was in schism with the Catholic Church long before the middle ages, also venerates a relic of an image of Christ imprinted on a cloth. I found that out when I visited the Armenian Museum in the Armenian Quarter of old Jerusalem. Within the Armenian Church of St. James, (located in the Armenian Quarter within the walls of Old Jerusalem), is an artistic rendering of that “true image of Christ”. See these pictures:

    I don’t know if the Armenians ever publicly display their “Veronica cloth”, or the history of that relic, but I find it fascinating that such an ancient church would also venerate a relic containing the true image of Christ’s face.

  3. There are a few relics for the image of Christ beside the Shroud of Turin:

    So it’s no surprise that the Armenians have one as well. Historically it does seem that such a cloth (or cloths) did exist even if we’re not sure the circumstances those images were made.

  4. There is a “sister relic” to the Shroud of Turin: the Sudarium of Oviedo. And the existence of both is in agreement with what the Apostle St John wrote:

    “Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen cloths lying there, and the face cloth, which had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen cloths but folded up in a place by itself.” (Jn 20:6-7)

    Notably, there is a possibility that the posession of the Shroud of Turin by the West (currently the Holy See) might materially be an ongoing injustice, if the actual case is that it was the same relic as the Edessa “Mandylion” and that it was taken to France as a result of the sack of Constantinople in the infamous Fourth Crusade.

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