How I Discovered the True Cross

The Reliquaries with the Finger of St Thomas and the Titulus

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.


  • Dr. Eric

    I was there too during the Jubilee (the days before and after the 4th of July). I can vouch for the powerful experience one gets being the presence of the True Cross and the other relics.

  • Brian

    I wish more study was done on these relics. There’s a lot of interest in biblical history, and I wish that enthusiasm was harnessed toward these relics so that there could be some pressure for the Church to allow them to be studied.

  • Frank Weathers

    Your post reminded me to unearth this one I shared prior to coming to Patheos. What a great movie this would make: The Quest for the True Cross”

  • David

    I understand your realization of the importance of some things regardless of the earthly truthes about them. I when I first came to Georgia to live there was a woman who claimed to have visions of the Blessed Virgin. I was very skeptical. As it turned out, my mother also had heard of these visions and when she visited she asked me to take her. The day was May 13th, an anniversy of the apparition, over 80,000 people showed up to pray the Rosary, all 15 decades (at that time). The miracle was in witnessing the prayer of the 80000, many of whom spent the entire time on their knees. My mother, at the time was in her late 60′s and needed a hip replacement. The closest we could park was about 1 mile away. She walked that mile with no pain (2 miles round trip) and we stayed for the entire Rosary. I don’t know if that woman really experienced an apparition or not but there certainly was Grace in abundance. A phenominal sight.

  • Ann

    Thank you for sharing your journey. Years ago when I was a member of the Legion of Mary, we were often given religious articles that had belonged to elderly Catholics; their children and grandchildren were no longer going to Mass, so they bundled up everything and brought it to the rectory. I was going through another box of holy cards, etc., when I came across a cross that was inlaid with what looks like ivory. It opens on the back, and inside is a bit of something like wood, with a Latin paper inscription that says “This is from the true cross.” Now-there is no paperwork, no authentication of it. I have loaned it to various people who had horrible injuries in accidents, or strokes,(all recovered) or in one case, a lady was diagnosed with cancer. When her pastor blessed her with this cross, the cancer seemed to disappear by the time she saw her doctor for treatment. Again-no authentication papers. I intend to keep it, though and hopefully someone in my family (nearly all fallen away at this point) will give it to another person who will treasure it.

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  • Waldo

    I like …”For those that don’t believe no prove will be suficient, and for those that do believe no prove is necesary” and the admonition of Jesus to Thomas”….because you have seen you believe, blessed are those that have never seen but do believe”.

  • Gail Finke

    Thank you for this piece on what I think is the real balance we must have between skepticism and faith. It is not right to say, “whether this is really the True Cross or not makes no difference,” nor is it right to say, “this most certainly is (or is not) the True Cross.” There are some things that just can’t be known with the kind of scientific, chain-of-evidence certitude we are used to demanding. For me, even after many years as a revert, the miracle of the Eucharist is enough. For years I used to agonize about some of the other things — the bleeding hosts, the Shroud, the bodies that don’t decay, the apparitions — what was I supposed to believe about them? I was raised in a secular home, I am not comfortable with miracles. I suspect that I am one of those people who would never have enough proof, no matter what, and I used to think that made me an inferior sort of Catholic, someone who just didn’t have what it took to believe the way she should. Now I’ve come to see it as a sort of wound that might or might not ever heal. I have come to feel comfortable with some things just being a mystery. I don’t have to know everything. Our church is old, it is made up of many cultures, it is full of things that are weird and beautiful and unknowable. It is bigger than me. If I can’t participate in everything, well, I am still a part of it. I can look at things and say, “I don’t know about that — and that is okay.” Unless it is against the faith, I don’t have to have an opinion. And sometimes other people’s faith, faith I don’t have myself at the moment, spills over to me. That is a gift from God, whose Grace is often found in odd places and at odd times.

  • Howard

    I wish the Church would permit a scientific examination of a fragment of the True Cross. It would really be interesting to know what kind of tree it was made from, if it is still possible to determine that. I don’t know if any of the DNA would still be sufficiently intact to determine this, or if a microscopic examination of the cell structure could tell an expert, but it would be nice to know.

  • Fr. John Sims Baker

    I recommend Evelyn Waugh’s novel Helena. It is a novel, but it gives a great understanding of St. Helena’s sense of vocation to find the True Cross.