Relics of the true cross

Question: What is the history of the cross on which Christ died? Do we know for sure that it is authentic?

- H.H.Toms, River, N.J.

Answer: In the fourth century, a great campaign was undertaken to rediscover the places and things in the Holy Land associated with the life, death and resurrection of Christ. St. Helena, the mother of the emperor Constantine, led this campaign. Toward this end, St. Helena had the hill of Calvary excavated and three crosses were discovered. One of these was determined to be the cross of Christ. Initially, the relics were left in the care of the bishop of Jerusalem.

The history of what happened to the relics of the cross after that is both confusing and complex and is beyond the scope of this short answer. However, there are reliable records that the relics were venerated in Jerusalem, Constantinople and Rome during the following centuries. From those cities, portions were distributed to cathedrals and monasteries throughout Europe. Then came the Reformation and a campaign to dispose of relics of various kinds since the reformers thought that these were the objects of spiritual and material commercialism.

The Basilica of Santa Croce in Rome is probably the best known location housing relics of the cross today. However, a large number of churches throughout the world claim to have small pieces of it. The Cathedral of the Madeleine in Salt Lake City, of which I was rector for many years, has a reliquary that contains a piece of the wood brought from Santa Croce in the 1920s.

There is no way of knowing whether the various relics of the cross throughout the world are genuine or not. Indeed, there is no way of knowing whether the crosses that St. Helena found were those of Jesus and the two thieves. When we are dealing with objects that far back, we have to be cautious about making unwarranted claims.

This does not mean that the Church should get rid of all relics about which there is question. Relics of Christ's passion and death bring home to us the important truth that Christianity is not a matter of ideas only. Relics have a venerable place in Christian devotion and they are made holy not least by the fact that they have been the objects of veneration and prayer over the centuries and have strengthened the faith of many.

No Communion

Question: I know that a person should not go to holy Communion when they are in mortal sin. However, I sometimes feel that I should not go to Communion when I have just had a bad week and was not true to my faith in small things. So I sometimes stay away. What do you think of this?

- Name and address withheld

Answer: I commend you on the way you take holy Communion so seriously. On the one hand, holy Communion is a means of the forgiveness of venial or lesser sins. At the beginning of Mass, we communally confess our sins to God and to each other. So, a good case can be made that you should not stay away from Communion because of lesser sins. Rather, these are forgiven at Mass.

On the other hand, there is something to be said for not receiving holy Communion occasionally so that our consciences might be sharpened and as a means of helping us take the moral obligations of Communion more seriously. It is, in any case, good to remember that we never receive Communion with complete worthiness. Keep in mind the words: "Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed."

Msgr. M. Francis Mannion is a priest and theologian of the Diocese of Salt Lake City. Send your questions to Pastoral Answers, Our Sunday Visitor, 200 Noll Plaza, Huntington, IN46750or to mfmannion@osv.com. Letters must be signed, but anonymity may be requested.