Rediscovering a relic of the True Cross

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The cross where Jesus Christ was believed to have died was uncovered when Emperor Constantine, after his conversion to Christianity, ordered Saint Macarius, Bishop of Jerusalem around 325 to 326 AD, to build a church superseding the temple dedicated to the goddess Venus. The temple was destroyed upon the orders of Saint Helena, Constantine’s mother, uncovering Christ’s Sepulcher, the three crosses and the Titulus which was used in Christ’s crucifixion. The Cross of Jesus was later identified when a gravely ill woman touched the third cross and recovered. Fragments of the cross were then distributed to churches and monasteries in Europe. The relic of the true cross was further dispersed when the knights that sacked Constantinople in 1204 carved it into pieces and divided it among themselves as booty.

One of the relics of the True Cross found its way to a German monastic community. And with the current decline of monastic communities and churches in Europe, it was forced to look for someone to pass the relic on. In 2005, Lutz Ruhloff, the president of the Phillipine-German Association in Oberhausen, invited Fr. Archie Cortez as guest to the 2005 World Youth Day in Cologne, Germany. Father Cortez in his visit met Msgr. Volker Bauer, from the Diocese of Essen who was at that time the custodian of the relic of the Holy Cross. His search for the ideal and willing candidate to look over the relic was finally over. Father Cortez, being a priest that belonged to a homegrown monastic community in the only dominantly Catholic country in Asia was chosen to bring home the relic and watch over it.

Upon returning to the Philippines, and after several months of seeking benefactors and raising enough resources, Father Cortez had a small chapel based on medieval designs built to house the Holy Relic. The relic is encased in a silver arqueta or ark engraved with Christian symbols with the Crucifixion—a pair of dice, the garment Christ wore, a hammer and nails, and a ladder—which is now ensconced in the altar of the chapel. It is authenticated by a Papal Seal and closely guarded by the local police 24/7.

The relic of the True Cross was then welcomed and blessed by His Excellency, the Most Reverend Fernando Filoni, D.D., the papal nuncio in the Philippines, last Jan. 30 in the presence of Most Reverend Florentino Cinense, D.D., the bishop of Tarlac, together with the Most Reverend Paciano Aniceto, D.D., the archbishop of San Fernando Pampanga; Most Reverend Ernesto Salgado, D.D., archbishop of Nueva Segovia; Most Reverend Diosdado Talamayan, D.D., archbishop of Tuguegarao.

Also present as witnesses were Most Reverend Antoinette Cabajog, D.D., bishop of Surigao; Most Reverend Sofronio Bancud, D.D., bishop of Cabanatuan; Most Reverend Roberto Mallari, D.D., auxialliary bishop of San Fernando Pampanga, and foreign delegates and priests from different dioceses and archdioceses.

The Monastic Life

Father Cortez and his colleagues at the Servants of the Risen Christ found their sanctuary at a quiet 43-hectare hilltop at San Jose, Tarlac. There they practice their daily commitment to Ora et Labora (prayer and work). Everyday, they would rise up at 3:45 a.m. At 4 a.m. they would say their private prayers, and at 4:15 they would gather for their community prayer. Asked why they chose to wake up that early, Father Cortez replied that they would like to “be among the first beings to praise God” and “to praise God before the birds sing theirs.” They would then spend their day in prayer, reflection, and recreation. Their sleeping time is at 9 p.m.

The arrival of the Holy Relic brought some changes to their monastic life. Father Cortez and his colleagues had to make adjustments to accomplish their new assignment of bringing the relic closer to the Filipino people. “I’m hiding in a mountain and now I’m exposed.” Since the blessing, they open their chapel to the public every Saturday and Sunday, from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., with a 10 a.m. holy mass. The reliquary, where the actual fragment of the Holy Cross is kept, however is closed from public viewing. It is only opened every Sept. 14, the Feast of the Triumph of the Holy Cross, which is also coincidentally the foundation day of the Order.

Looking back, Father Cortez said “I didn’t really think about what might be involved in accepting the relic. I didn’t know what might be demanded of us. We didn’t even have the money to build a suitable chapel for it. What I did know was that I wanted to bring it to the Philippines and I wanted Filipinos to be able to venerate the relic of the Holy Cross in their own country.”

by Pranz Kaeno Billones