Franciscans in the Holy Land Continue “Unwelcome Ritual” of Honoring the Cross of Jesus

Franciscans in the Holy Land continued their time-honored tradition of celebrating the Finding of the Cross this year despite strong opposition by Jews and Muslims. The annual feast included a Mass at the Basilica of the Holy Sepulcher and a procession with a piece of the cross that held the crucified body of Christ.

According to Fr. Pierbattista Pizzaballa, Custodian of the Holy Land, the Feast of the Finding of the Cross dates back to the fourth century when St.

Helena, mother of the Emperor Constantine had a dream wherein she was told to return to Jerusalem and find the cross of Christ. The cross, and those of the two thieves crucified with Christ were found at the bottom of an ancient cistern where they were dumped and covered with garbage soon after the crucifixion.

The discovery also included nails believed to be those used in the crucifixion, and the title, “INRI” which Pilot affixed to Jesus’s cross. Pagan statues of Venus and Jupiter had been erected on the spot, and Helena ordered them destroyed. When she presented her findings to Constantine, he issued a declaration banning the further use of crucifixion.

Records from the era indicate the cross was proven to be Jesus’s when a noble woman suffering from a serious illness was miraculously healed by touching it. Later, a large section of the cross was removed and sent to Rome. Since then, pieces of the cross have been given to pilgrims and sent to Catholic institutions around the world.

The Basilica of the Holy Sepulcher includes the place where the cross was found as well as the tomb where the body of Jesus was placed. Fr. Peter Vasko, president of the Franciscan Foundation for the Holy Land (FFHL), pointed out that despite opposition, the Feast of the Finding of the Cross is an important observance for Christians in the Holy Land whose numbers have dwindled in recent years.

The Finding of the Cross is celebrated by the Franciscans in May. The Eastern Rite observes the feast in September.