Posted On August, 30 - 2018
Photo Credit: Maxwell Photography
I had the blessing to be seated on the sanctuary area during the WMOF2018 Final Mass at Phoenix Park last Sunday. I couldn’t see Pope Francis directly from my seat, but I was only five metres away from the altar and there was one thing that struck me that day, above all. It was a small and humble wooden cross on top of the altar. From my seat, I could see an amazing multitude all facing in this direction. It was a sea of colour, thousands and thousands of people from all over the world, of different ages and from all walks of life. All these people had come, despite the torrential rain, the strongest of winds and the long walk. All those months of planning and organising the event and the day had finally arrived.
It was this small cross that brought tears of emotion to my eyes. I wasn’t expecting it, it was standing on top of the altar and it looked so frail yet dignified. I got the chance to see it earlier up close and I noticed how thin it was. “It is a penal cross, used long ago at rock Masses, when Irish people were not free to profess their faith”, someone explained to me. “The cross needed to be thin, so that the priest could hide it under his sleeve before and after they celebrated Mass in a concealed place.” If someone found them with a cross they would suffer life-threatening consequences, so the cross had to be small and easy to hide.
This particular cross, carved from a single piece of wood, dates back to 1763 and has been cared for at a Carmelite Community in the Archdiocese of Dublin. It has carvings on the front and back telling the story of the Passion and Resurrection of Jesus Christ.
It has probably been held by so many hands, hidden under so many sleeves. I would close my eyes and try to imagine those priests carrying them with fervour to a field, where a Catholic community would be secretly meeting to celebrate the Mass. I could feel that all those people were present in the Phoenix Park too, joining us from Heaven on yet another field, this time in the brightness of day!
As I looked at it on the altar, I though what a powerful symbol this was. Not only for what a cross usually represents, but also this particular cross in this particular place, with the thousands of people behind it. The faith of Irish people through adversity shining a light to the world. The faith that was once banned, being now celebrated out in the light of day to millions, those present in person and those watching on television all around the word. A faith that is now free to profess and that embraced all from that altar.
Not in a million years would those Irish people that gathered around that same cross many years ago have imagined the scene that I saw last Sunday in Phoenix Park. Nor that the Holy Father would be standing before it. We sometimes take things for granted and this powerful symbol was for me a reminder to give thanks for our faith, for the freedom to profess it and to pray for those places where there is still a long way to go.
Watch this video to learn more about the Penal Cross: