Kevin Di Camillo writes regularly for The National Catholic Register and is a Lecturer in English Literature at Niagara University. His latest book is Now Chiefly Poetical, and with Rev. Lawrence Boadt he edited John Paul II in the Holy Land: In His Own Words. His work has been anthologized in Wild Dreams: The Best of Italian-Americana, and he was awarded the Foley Poetry Prize from America Magazine. A graduate of the University of Notre Dame, he regularly attends Yale University’s School of Management Publishing Course.
Some years ago we had a Ruthenian Rite Liturgy at the local college chapel. The priest explained beforehand some of the similarities and differences between the Novus Ordo Latin Mass and the Eastern Rite Divine Liturgy he was about to pray.
Of the many, many differences between the Eastern and Western liturgies the one that was most noticeable (to me at least) was the fact that the priest held a crucifix for a good portion of the Liturgy, often blessing himself with it. As far as I know there is no parallel to this in the Latin Mass—unless one counts the carrying-in of the processional cross at the entrance of Mass.
However, when one looks at any display case of saint-cards in a religious goods store, we see over and over saints of the Catholic Church holding a crucifix. Most notable among these are Padre Pio, St. Gerard Majella, St. Vincent Pallotti, St. Aloysius Gonzaga, St. Anthony of Padua and St. Therese of Lisieux—among many, many others.
Rare is the Catholic home or school that does not have at least one crucifix prominently displayed in it somewhere—but perhaps rarer still are Catholics who pray while actually holding a Crucifix. True, the “Prayer Before the Crucifix” is a post-Communion staple, especially during Lent, and most especially on Fridays in Lent, but it generally assumed that one is kneeling before it, and not holding a crucifix.
Such was my prayer life until one day a Society of Divine Vocations priest gave me the gift of a Benedictine crucifix (after the full formulaic blessing) and suggested that I pray while holding it. “This is a very powerful prayer tool,” he explained. “This is the kind of crucifix priests use during exorcisms.”
Of course I’ve never witnessed an exorcism and was unaware that a Benedictine Cross was used in that case. However, I took the priest’s advice and tried it—that is, praying while holding the crucifix. It brought me back to September 11, 2001 when Bishop Daly of Brooklyn advised New Yorkers simply to hold on to the crucifixes of their rosaries if they found themselves unable to pray due to the enormity of the crime which had been perpetrated that day. And it took me back further to another priest who said that, when you feel you don’t have it in you to pray the entire rosary, just hold on to the crucifix.
And it reminded me, too, that when I was diagnosed with cancer my mother-in-law gave me a tiny replica of the crucifix at Barcaras, Spain, her hometown. I held on to that icon throughout my hospital stay and radiation treatments, finally passing it along to another person who was diagnosed with that dread disease.
During the Sacrament of Extreme Unction, the suffering believer may be asked to kiss a crucifix which is held up to their lips. This beautiful scene is acted out in Otto Preminger’s epic film “The Cardinal”, where Cardinal Glennon (John Huston) holds a crucifix to the dying priest (Burgess Meredith) to kiss before the anointing.
But aside from the recitation of the Holy Rosary (and the Chaplet of Divine Mercy on rosary beads), and the sacrament above, I can’t think of too many (or any) Catholic prayers that involve holding on to a crucifix. Which is strange since our Eastern brethren seem very much at home in holding onto their unique thrice-crossed crucifix during their Divine Liturgy.
I’m grateful to the priest who told me that in holding a crucifix, one is offering a very powerful prayer. I’ve found that in handling the crucifix it is easier to meditate upon the wounds of Christ. Indeed, I can almost hear His words to St. Thomas: “Put your finger here, and see my hands” (John 20:27) as I trace my fingers over the tiny replica of his wounded hands, and feet, and side, and the crown of thorns upon his head.
St. Thomas, Sacred Scripture tells us, was a twin. It does not tell us who his twin was (unlike the other pairs of siblings who make up the disciples, Peter and Andrew, James and John). Allegorically it has been suggested that the twin of “Doubting Thomas” is never named because it is we, the reader, who are supposed to be his twin. Like St. Thomas we are full of doubt, full of rash decisions. Hopefully, in the end, we may be full of belief and able to exclaim, “My Lord and my God!” These words were of course an indulgenced prayer at Holy Mass when the priest elevated the Host, and are still worthy of our recitation today.
But we can also say “My Lord and my God” while holding a crucifix and meditating on our Lord and Savior, especially during these days of Lent.