I went on pilgrimage Rome in the Spring of the Jubilee Year 2000. I decided to save some money and share a room, and didn’t mind sharing with a stranger. When I arrived at the airport I tried to spot my room mate. The only other male traveling alone was a rangy man in jeans and a weatherbeaten face. He was leaning against the wall smoking a cigarette and looking fierce. OK. That must be the guy. Sure enough. Ian was an Irish bricklayer. On the first night he took me to task. I was “one of them clever ones” too good for him. He didn’t know why he had to share with me. I told Ian Our Lord was a carpenter so I reckoned he was closer to Jesus than I was him being a bricklayer and all. Me? I went to college and wrote books. I’m closer to the scribes and Pharisees. He seemed mollified.
As part of my pilgrimage Ian and I went with some fellow pilgrims to the church of Santa Croce in Gerusalemm. aka The Holy Cross in Jerusalem. In a side chapel there are relics of the crucifixion: the complete crossbeam of the good thief, a fragment of the true cross, a nail used to crucify Christ, a thorn from the crown of thorns, the titulus (the name plate which hung over the Lord) and the finger bone of St Thomas which was put into Our Lord’s wounds. You can learn more about the authenticity of the titulus here.
I had been a Catholic for about five years, but was still skeptical of relics. Then I studied a bit more and learned the story of St Helen and her discovery of the true cross. Taylor Marshall tells the story: essentially, St Helen, the mother of Emperor Constantine, was a Christian. She had a dream that she was to go find the true cross of Christ, and when she went to Jerusalem she found that the pagans had erected shrines to their gods over all the sacred sites for Christians. Nevertheless, the Christians remembered the sites and had kept relics safe. Helen had the site of the crucifixion excavated and three crosses were found. A sick woman was brought and one of the three crosses healed her so (as the story goes) the true cross was found.
But the story continues. Helen asked the Jerusalem Christians for the cross and they refused. Finally they gave in, but insisted that the cross not leave the holy land. Helen consented. Then she got workers to load up a cart with soil from Jerusalem and she put the relics of the cross on it and took the soil and the relics to a ship where she transferred the soil and relics to a ship and took them to her palace in Rome, thus never removing the relics from the holy land. A bit dubious, but I guess she kept her word.
Anyhow, the relics were placed in her imperial palace in Rome and have remained there since. I have not been able to corroborate this, but I read that recent excavations around the church of Sante Croce in Jerusalemme have shown confirmed that the church was originally part of an imperial palace on the site and soil analysis of the soil beneath the shrine where the relics are housed show that it comes from–you guessed it–Jerusalem.
So anyway, I learned all this and was pleased to visit the church in the jubilee year, but I was still sceptical. Sure, they were very ancient relics, but were they really authentic? It was ancient wood, probably from Jerusalem. But how could you know it was really the wood of the cross? Then I saw my friend Ian–he was standing before the relics weeping. “Look Father–here is the finger bone of St Thomas! Look. Here is the wood of the cross!”
Then he turned to me and said, “Don’t you think we should do the Stations while we’re here? Would you lead them?”
So I realized that his belief was stronger than my doubt. His faith was better than my cynicism, and I knelt with him and three other strangers and walked in the way of the cross, and I wept too and realize that this was my true discovery of the cross of Christ.
By the way, only authenticated relics may be venerated publicly, and an authenticated relic of the true cross will have been taken from these same relics in Jerusalem. Therefore, if you are venerating a relic of the true cross today at the Good Friday liturgy (which we will be doing at Our Lady of the Rosary Church) you really are connecting with the wood St Helen found in Jerusalem nearly 2000 years ago.