Faith & Life


A Glimpse of the Tradition, History, and Fate of the Holy Cross

By Cathi Douglas     11/5/2019

Because Jesus died for us crucified on a cross, the Cross and crucifix are central to our Catholic faith.  

“Rather than venerating an instrument of torture, Christians see in the cross a powerful symbol of triumph, redemption and transformation because of the One who hung upon it,” says Msgr. Art Holquin, pastor emeritus of the Mission Basilica San Juan Capistrano, “triumphing over the powers of darkness and death and through his glorious resurrection, vanquishing death forever.  

“Hence, the cross for Christians is the very quintessential sign of hope and promise. For those who surrender to the cross and the One who triumphed upon it, death gives way to unending life and grace.” 


Was the cross really cross-shaped? 

Some scholars say that Jesus’ cross was not a stake bisected by a horizontal beam, but rather an upright stake upon which the condemned were bound with hands tied above their heads.  

They also claim that Jesus was tied, not nailed, to the cross by His hands and feet. In the New Testament, the book of John and the story of doubting Thomas, however, refer to him asking to see the marks of the nails in Jesus’ hands to confirm that he is really encountering the resurrected Christ (John 20:25). In addition, Psalm 21:16 says, “They pierce my hands and feet.”  

“Our best estimation of the shape of the cross comes from surviving archeological depictions from Roman antiquity,” Msgr. Holquin says. “Since crucifixion involved the nailing of hands and feet, there are variations of a both a crossbeam for the hands as well as merely a large stake where the hands were raised and nailed above the head. It certainly was not a beautiful, polished, artifact that is the focus of present-day veneration.” 


What happened to the cross after Jesus rose from the dead?  

Many Catholics believe that Helena, the mother of Constantine the Great, discovered the cross upon which Jesus was crucified. 

Helena was almost 80 when, in 327-8, she made her pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Jerusalem had been desecrated in 130 by the Emperor Hadrian, who had built a pagan temple on the supposed site of Jesus’s tomb near Calvary. Helena ordered its demolition, then selected a spot to start digging for relics. 

Three crosses were found, and the true one was identified when a sick woman was cured after touching it. Helena, according to tradition, brought the remnants of the cross back to Rome.  

“In time, smaller portions of the cross were distributed for veneration to other churches,” Msgr. Holquin says. “Early on, it was never the intention that the cross would remain completely intact. Piety of the faithful demanded that it be accessible for veneration to larger groups of people scattered throughout the world.” 


Where is the cross today?  

Though most of the True Cross seems to have disappeared, perhaps its physical location doesn’t really matter to the faithful, who revere its image as a central part of the faith. 

“The most solemn day for veneration of the cross is Good Friday where, within the Liturgy of that Day, the ritual of the ‘veneration of the cross’ is incorporated,” Msgr. Holquin notes, “a ritual we have in the Good Friday liturgy to this day.”