The Sign of the Tau: On the Death of Father Mike Scanlan

The Sign of the Tau: On the Death of Father Mike Scanlan January 7, 2017


I just got back from a pilgrimage, and found that Father Mike Scanlan was dead. 

My Eastern Catholic church’s catechism students took a trip to see the relics at Saint Anthony’s— the first time I’d been to a Latin church in six months. And it is a very Latin church, Italian-looking, a huge claustrophobic stone rectangle hung wall to wall with in glass cases, each case in turn full of reliquaries, each reliquary containing a piece of a saint. There were tiny specks of of yellowed bone and bigger chunks that could have been pebbles; there were jagged daggers of splintered bone and jars of fragments. There were thin bone chips that looked like dried-out sponge. There were brown dots labeled “Ex carne,” literally “from the meat,” pieces of very old flesh. There were tiny rags of garments. There were round tubes of dust. There was a tooth. Everything was yellowed, aged and dirty-looking, against clean red cloth in sparkling gold reliquaries.

The very eager tour guide there gave a long, impassioned presentation on relics and why we keep relics. He emphasized that we are one with Christ– that all of these people, these saints, are Christ. Their bodies are part of the Body of Christ.

It really struck me, for a moment, that the owner of each of these dirty little fragments had died with Christ, and was going to rise again with Christ. Somehow I could see myself running to this church after the return of Christ and finding nothing, every reliquary open, every scrap and bit of dead saint disappeared. I saw myself gazing at the grisly statue of Saint George, lying dead with his throat slit, and then feeling a tap on my shoulder–and looking around to see the real Saint George alive again.

Some day, this will come to pass. I can’t say when, but it will. The day will come when the tombs all give up their relics and the saints will walk again. We will see it with our own eyes.

The tour guide held up the tau cross he was wearing around his neck, for everyone to see.

“Does anyone know what this is?” he asked.

“It’s a tau,” I said.

“What?” he said.

“It’s a tau. A tau cross. It’s shaped like the Greek letter tau, and it’s a cross.”

“What does it symbolize?” he asked me, loudly, for the benefit of the other tourists.

“It symbolizes Christ,” I said, “And the Franciscan order.”

A Greek tau is shaped like the letter “T,” more or less like a cross with the head cut off.  The Hebrew tau looks different, but I’m told it looked cross-like at one point in history. Saint Francis used to trace a tau on people’s foreheads when he blessed them. I’m told he did this because of the angels in Ezekiel. who marked a tau on the foreheads of the people who grieved and lamented the evils in the city. Everyone who grieved was signed with a tau. All who were in the city was killed, beginning with those at the temple, but those signed with the Tau were spared.

This will come to pass someday. I don’t know when. The day will come when all who grieved and lamented, all who were signed with the Tau, will be shown mercy. All who refused the Tau will die, starting with the ones in the temple. We will see this with our own eyes.

Father Mike Scanlan never blessed me by tracing a tau on my forehead. He prayed over me with both hands sometimes, and sometimes he made that limp sign of the cross with two fingers in the air, as most Catholic priests do. Sometimes he kissed me on the forehead– I was so young, and he was so old, that that was a harmless gesture.

I’ve had my terrible experiences with the Franciscan order, but Father Mike wasn’t like the other Franciscans I knew. He was a good friend– one of the only priests I met in the Latin rite who didn’t seem confused when I went to him for a blessing.

I went to confession to him, during the episode where the abusive “Father Reginald” was misusing his authority to separate me from my friends in the community without letting me tell them why. Father Scanlan had tried to help, but there was nothing he could do. He himself was very old, getting weak and losing his memory; Father Reginald was young and charismatic and looked just like a prayer card painting of Saint Francis. Father Reginald was the authority. Father Scanlan was the funny old priest who used to be in authority.

“I’m sorry,” he said, looking genuinely heartbroken. “I’m so sorry. You’re very close to Jesus right now. You’re very close to Him.”

It didn’t feel like consolation, but it was the closest thing to a consolation I had at that time. It’s something I’ll never forget. He couldn’t help me, but he suffered with me. That’s what Christians ought to do– everyone marked with the Sign of the Tau ought to suffer and grieve with those in grief.

I ran out of the confessional without receiving a blessing, a tau or otherwise, at that time.

About a year later, though, just before he retired and left the university, I went to Father Scanlan after Mass and asked for a blessing.

I pointed to my pregnant stomach. “It’s a girl,” I said. “We just found out.”

He smiled, a little sadly, and I knew why. His memory was going at that point. I could see that he didn’t remember exactly who I was but knew that he ought to.

But he blessed me and the baby inside of me.

Somehow I knew, at that moment, that I’d never see him again. He was going to go away to the friary at Loretto, and I’d never get a chance to visit. Someday, he would die, and I wouldn’t see him again until we were in Heaven with all who were marked with the Sign of the Tau.

Part of this came to pass today.

I came back from the pilgrimage, to find that Father Scanlan’s pilgrimage was over. He’s gone away.

May we meet him when the tombs give up their relics in the end.


May God grant eternal memory to him, and to all who have gone before and left their relics on this earth, bearing the Sign of the Tau.

(image via Wikimedia Commons)

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