“The Crucifix bathed by the tears of Heaven, the Pope alone in the plaza”
— Andrea Tornielli
Vatican News Editorial
March 28th, 2020
Recently, I wrote that the extraordinary Urbi et Orbi blessing on March 27 received a universally positive response, even among many of Pope Francis’ usual critics. However, since then, the situation has somewhat changed. Reports began to emerge from the Italian press that the crucifix of the Church of San Marcello al Corso, which warded off a plague in Rome during the sixteenth century, and which was present in St. Peter’s Square during the Urbi et Orbi, had suffered severe damage after exposure to the rain during the ceremony. The wood was even described as being on the “verge of exploding.”
Papal detractors on social media immediately seized on this opportunity to criticize Francis once again. Their comments on social media made assertions such as, “This is a divine sign that God is displeased with Francis,” and, “Was it all worth it so that Francis could put on his show?”
I hope that these nasty comments come from the fringe, and that more mainstream papal critics were not compelled to rethink their praise for the beautiful ceremony that had taken place days before.
Of course, such criticism doesn’t make sense. We have already seen how these critics typically exhibit a lack of discernment on how to interpret divine signs properly. Why should anyone see this damaged cross as a divine sign and not, for instance, the fact that the number of COVID-19 cases in Italy has begun to subside? Also, the idea that Francis was just “putting on a show” with his Urbi et Orbi blessing is yet another example of the non-falsifiability of the negative portrayal of the pontiff used by such people. Before Francis “put up a show,” he was criticized for simply abiding by “worldly” safety measures, and for not leading his flock in prayer. After he did just that, they said it was “just for show.” It’s a no-win situation.
I do want to make it clear that it is indeed legitimate to criticize Francis for being careless with this historical crucifix. His actions in this regard are not infallible, and they certainly do not demand submission of mind and will from the faithful.
Still, this sort of negativity goes beyond legitimate criticism. As I have written before, for some of his critics, Francis can’t get anything right; he’s wrong, no matter what he says or does. Even after something that was hailed by prominent papal critics as the pinnacle of his pontificate, they still must find some stain. When criticism ceases to be constructive and becomes an end in itself, it ceases to be “legitimate criticism.” It is simply hatred.
Fortunately, it seems that the damage to the crucifix may not be as severe as the earlier reports led many of us to believe. The Rector of San Marcello’ Church, Fr. Enrico Casini, told Crux that “what was said” in the media reports about the extent of the damage “was not correct”. He stated that “it is possible” that the crucifix suffered “a little bit” of damage, but “it’s something light that can be fixed in a short time.” In fact, Fr. Casini said that the crucifix already “needed” restoration in the first place, so it might return even “better than before” after it is restored.
Fr. Casini also told Crux that representatives from the Vatican’s restoration labs “confirmed with us that there is nothing serious.”
Yesterday, the crucifix was again used during the Palm Sunday Papal Mass. It can be seen with more detail here. Whatever the damage caused by the rain, it is certainly much less than what we were led to believe by the reports shared by the papal critics. The rhetoric of wood exploding seems to be hyperbolic at best, false at worst.
This is indeed good news, but it got me thinking: why exactly is this crucifix so important? Is it because it is a Church relic or a historical artifact? Yes indeed, but we should dig deeper. Is it because it was involved in a miraculous event, namely in stopping an epidemic several centuries ago? Yes, that certainly makes it even more special, but that is not its true significance. This crucifix already existed before it was associated with any miraculous events. Why? For the same reason all crucifixes exist.
We must be careful not to fulfill the age-old proverb, “When the wise man points to the moon, the fool looks at the finger.” The crucifix of San Marcello exists in order to depict the death of Jesus Christ. During His passion, Jesus was horribly disfigured in order to save us all from the wages of sin. This is what this crucifix represents. This is what every crucifix represents. And this is why the crucifix is an important religious symbol to Catholics.
There is something paradoxical about complaining that an image that represents the disfigurement of the Son of God to save us all from death has itself been disfigured to save many lives from a deadly epidemic. It’s as if we’ve forgotten the lesson the crucifix seeks to give us. When we gripe about how the object is no longer in pristine form, we overlook how the object points towards the desecration of the most sacred Being who ever existed in material form. In other words, we overlook the telos of the object in order to admire the object itself.
As Rome-based art historian Liz Lev said in the same Crux article, those who lament the loss of “a precious piece of art such as the crucifix — a work that no one cared about until last week — run the risk of idolatry” because to them, “the object itself is more important than what the object stands for.”
Given the age of this relic, using it would always imply some risks. Had this crucifix not been used on March 27, it would have remained safely enclosed within the walls of a church. But would it have truly fulfilled its purpose when outside those safe walls people were suffering and dying by the thousands?
What the crucifix represents is the source of our faith. In his introductory speech to the 2015 Synod on the Family, Pope Francis said that the deposit of our faith should not be “a museum to view, nor just something to safeguard,” but “a living spring from which the Church drinks, to satisfy the thirst of, and illuminate the deposit of life.”
Liz Lev rightfully brings attention to the fact that “the damage to the actual body of the real Christ was far worse.” In this sense, the damage done to the crucifix “is secondary to the symbol of hope.” This hope was what melted the hardened hearts of the critics that day, when they stood with the Holy Father in prayer for an end to this scourge. Bringing hope to a suffering world was one of the main reasons we needed this Urbi et Orbi blessing. The crucifix of San Marcello played a pivotal role in bringing us that hope, something it could never have done if it simply remained the memorial of a miraculous healing that few but historians and occasional tourists have ever heard of.
Let us continue to press forward with the same hearts that stirred in us on the day of the Urbi et Orbi. Of course, it is a good thing to hope and pray that this magnificent crucifix will be restored to its former glory. But most importantly, let us keep praying for our brothers and sisters affected by the novel coronavirus, and let us not be distracted by issues that veer towards sentimentalism rather than charity.
Let us remember last year’s Easter vigil, when Pope Francis invited us to have not a “museum faith,” but an “Easter faith.” I dare to say, what we experienced during the Urbi et Orbi was precisely that Easter faith. Let us look to the crucifix of San Marcello, not as an object, but for who it represents, so that we may have an Easter faith. The time is ripe for this is Holy Week.
Pedro Gabriel, MD, is a Catholic layman and physician, born and residing in Portugal. He is a medical oncologist, currently employed in a Portuguese public hospital. A published writer of Catholic novels with a Tolkienite flavor, he is also a parish reader and a former catechist. He seeks to better understand the relationship of God and Man by putting the lens on the frailty of the human condition, be it physical and spiritual. He also wishes to provide a fresh perspective of current Church and World affairs from the point of view of a small western European country, highly secularized but also highly Catholic by tradition.