May 1, a Study in Contrasts; the Cross, Then and Now

Pope’s Appearance Underscores a Day’s Christian Meaning

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By Elizabeth Lev

ROME, MAY 5, 2005 ( After the rollercoaster of events last month, Rome has returned to semi-normality. Only a few posters bidding farewell to Pope John Paul II with phrases such as «Thank you, Holy Father» or «A Good Man» remind passers-by of the sorrowful days past.

Spring is a time of new beginnings. As our first sunny days bring hints of summer, so the first encounters with Benedict XVI have whet our appetites for more.

Sunday was the Holy Father’s first appearance over St. Peter’s Square for the Regina Caeli address. While some pilgrims traveled all night to be present, for the Romans, the brief appearance at the window is like an informal Sunday visit to a dear relative. Whether walking their dogs, riding their bikes or pushing baby carriages, they stop in the square, wave at the Pope, then leave.

On May 1, Rome saw her new Bishop in this familiar fashion. The Pope spoke from the same window as John Paul II, at the same time, noon, and the city fell back to its everyday «Gospel of work.» In the Catholic calendar, May 1 marks the feast of St. Joseph the Worker, a reminder of the value of human work and the virtues associated with it.

On the other side of the city, by the Forum and Colosseum, Rome was also celebrating. The secular holiday was May Day, the European version of Labor Day. As the result of a strike, all monuments were closed, and only a paper sign tacked to the Colosseum door informed baffled tourists what was going on.

The dual memorials, on one hand a joyous celebration of Joseph the worker and on the other a last minute strike causing widespread dismay offered the chance to reflect on the nature of the two holidays.

May Day was established at the First Paris Congress of the Second Socialist International in 1889 as a way to protest in favor of the eight-hour workday for laborers. The date was chosen to remember the Haymarket Massacre of 1886 where laborers demanding better working conditions were killed.

Polish-born Rosa Luxembourg, a Marxist activist and author, dubbed «Red Rosa» for her ceaseless efforts in furthering Communism, wrote on the origins of the «happy idea of using a proletarian holiday celebration as a means to attain the eight-hour day.»

She declared that «as long as the struggle of the workers against the bourgeoisie and the ruling class continues, as long as all demands are not met, May Day will be the yearly expression of these demands.»

Result? Unannounced closings and frustrated visitors.

Recognizing the need to celebrate the working man (and woman), and attempting to veer this holiday away from its decidedly Communist origin, Pope Pius XII baptized the feast by establishing a day in honor of St. Joseph the worker. Last Sunday marked the 50th anniversary of the institution of this memorial.

On the first day of the month dedicated to Mary, Catholics now remember her hardworking husband as well as the father who taught Jesus the trade of carpentry. Pius XII stated that this feast should serve to enhance the «dignity of human labor» rather than «incite hatred and seek disputes,» thereby separating the wheat from the chaff of May Day.

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Relics of the Passion of the Christ

May 3 was once a great feast in Rome. For many years Romans celebrated the finding of the True Cross on this day. I went to visit the church that was built 1,600 years ago to house the Cross and commemorate this event.

The Church of the Holy Cross nestles right inside the Aurelian walls near the cathedral of St. John Lateran. The curving travertine facade forming a triumphal arch is a holdover from the Baroque era and gives the impression of a modern (by Rome standards) church. A second look reveals a Romanesque bell tower which speaks of a medieval presence. Only inside, among the massive granite columns or in the crypts does Santa Croce reveal its ancient origins.

The church was built in the fourth century by the Empress Helena, the mother of Constantine. Although her factual history is obscure, her story was charmingly narrated by Evelyn Waugh in his marvelous little novel «Helena.» Waugh paints a colorful portrait of a strong-willed Englishwoman determined to prove the reality of Christ’s crucifixion by finding the Cross. Against skepticism, deception and open opposition, she doggedly tracks down the Cross to bring it to Rome (stopping to cart off the Holy Stairs on the way).

Whether or not the circumstances were as described by Waugh, tradition holds that St. Helena found the Cross sometime around 325. On her own land, a stone’s throw from St. John Lateran cathedral, the first Christian church built by her son in 313, she ordered that a shrine be made to house the precious relics. Over the years, other relics of the Passion have been added making this church historically one of the great pilgrimage sites of Rome.

The chapel of the relics is located to the left of the altar and reached by a series of stairs and ramps. Climbing toward the chapel, flanked by the Stations of the Cross on either side, the memory of Christ’s ascent to Calvary and the site of his crucifixion comes vividly to mind.

The chapel of the relics is completely decorated in marble. Somber grays and greens impose silence, and the drop in temperature serves as a reminder of a tomb.

At the back of the chapel, a display case with glittering reliquaries beckons. Inside the gold and crystal containers, the humble remains of Christ’s great sacrifice sit worn with age. The lower shelf contains a nail that passed through his hands and the board that was placed at the top of his cross mocking him with the letters INRI, Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.

The upper shelf contains two thorns from the crown that was pressed on his head, nearby the finger of St. Thomas who doubted. Three stones, one from Christ’s tomb, one from the grotto of Bethlehem and one from column of the flagellation, are placed below.

The heart of the case contains a crystal cross, containing three pieces of the True Cross. Meditating before the relics, one feels present at the Passion, the mocking of the guards resounds in our ears, the doubt of his own followers provokes an uncomfortable recognition and the agony of the Cross make us feel unworthy of such sacrifice.

But to the right of the True Cross there stands another board, upright, waiting. This is from the cross of Dismas, the Good Thief, guilty as charged but hopeful enough to plead, «Remember me when you come your kingdom.» And Jesus’ answer revives the desolate pilgrim, «Amen, I say to you, today you shall be with me in Paradise.»

Leaving the Church of the Holy Cross, I saw a little exhibition in a side room. Thinking to enter only for a moment, I was so moved that I wanted to share this beautiful story with ZENIT readers.

The exhibition remembers an extraordinary Roman girl, Antionetta Meo. Buried in the Church of the Holy Cross, she is recognized as a «servant of God,» the first step toward sainthood.

Antonietta, or «Nennolina» as her family called her, was like most any little girl except for her precocious and deep love of Jesus. She was born on Dec. 15, 1930, and baptized on the feast of the Holy Innocents. The date of her baptism turned out to be a foreshadowing of her life. At age 5, she was diagnosed with cancer and at age 6 her leg was amputated. Shortly before her 7th birthday, she died.

What would appear to be a tragic story, takes on its joyous tone through the letters of Nennolina. Even as she was learning to write, her first letters were to Jesus.

One side of the room shows the possessions of any little girl. Dolls, tea sets, school dresses neatly arrayed seem normal enough until one notices the cane by Nennolina’s Sunday coat and remembers the trauma she suffered.

The other side of the room documents the rich, intense and exemplary spiritual life of this little
Christian soldier who was confirmed just before she died. The same little girl who asked God to «let me die before I commit a mortal sin.»

Nennolina would put her letters under a statue of Jesus by her bed so «at night he could read them.» The letters show her acceptance of suffering as a mark of Jesus’ favor. «I am happy that Jesus sent me this difficulty, it means I am his beloved,» she wrote.

Offering up her lost leg to God for lost souls, she begged Jesus to «give me many souls … to make them good so they can come to heaven with you.»

The little suffering girl wrote 105 letters to Jesus and Mary, some in the awkward script of a young hand, some when she was too ill to write and dictated to her mother. In 1937, one letter found its way to Pope Pius XI.

It read, «Dear Jesus crucified, I love you so very much! I want to be with you on Calvary. Dear Jesus, give me the necessary strength to stand the pain which I offer to you for those who have sinned.»

The next day, the Pope sent a legate to bring his apostolic blessing to Nennolina. Shortly after, she died.

Her example has not only provided much solace to those suffering but has also spurred conversions. Her age, however, has proved a difficulty on her path to sainthood. Her bravery, faith and deep love of Christ continues, nonetheless, to set an example for those many times her age.

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Elizabeth Lev teaches Christian art and architecture at Duquesne University’s Rome campus. She can be reached at

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