Upside-down Crosses

And More on Mentioning Names at Communion

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ROME, SEPT. 13, 2011 ( Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.

Q: A Mass server recently told me that he has observed that the crucifix on the Holy Father’s chair is turned upside down. It is true? If yes, why? I have not observed that myself. — D.K., Accra, Ghana

A: In all probability what your server observed was a Petrine cross and not a crucifix.

The use of the symbol of the inverted Latin cross stems from an ancient tradition that St. Peter requested to be crucified upside down as he felt unworthy to die in the same manner as his Lord. There is written evidence of this tradition from before the year A.D. 200.

An analogous tradition has St. Peter’s brother, St. Andrew, also requesting to be crucified in a distinctive manner. From his death comes the X-shaped St. Andrew’s Cross. This cross is represented on the Jamaican and Scottish flags and, along with St. George’s and St. Patrick’s crosses, on the flag of the United Kingdom commonly called the Union Jack.

Since the Pope is Peter’s successor, the inverted cross is a relatively frequent symbol of the Petrine office along with other symbols such as the keys and the triple tiara. For example, such a cross is found in St. Peter’s on the brick wall that seals off the Holy Door until the next jubilee year. Also, when Blessed John Paul II visited Israel he used a chair with a Petrine cross on the back. It is quite possible that other papal chairs repeat this motif.

As far as I know, when this cross is used as a symbol it never contains the crucified figure of St. Peter. It is true that the Vatican contains several representations of the apostle’s crucifixion, such as that found on St. Peter’s Basilica’s bronze central door, cast by Filarete in 1445. These, however, are historical figurations rather than religious symbols.

The use of an inverted crucifix with the figure of Christ attached is something entirely different. At the very least it is disrespectful and is often considered as a satanic or anti-Christian symbol. Certainly, some denizens of popular culture have used it in films, music videos, album covers and stage costumes to represent Satan or the Antichrist.

Among some pagan groups a particular form of upside-down cross can represent the Icelandic and Nordic symbol of the hammer of Thor.

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Follow-up: Mentioning Names at Communion

In the wake of our comments on using names at communion (see Aug. 30), a reader from the Byzantine tradition offered some pointers which I believe help us to understand better the context of their practice, to wit:

«Perhaps I as a [Byzantine Ruthenian Greek Catholic] deacon could add some additional insight into the Byzantine tradition’s use of names. First, every sacrament is considered a personal encounter with our Lord Jesus, so every one is given using the recipient’s first name, ‘The servant of God, N., is baptized …,’ ‘The servant of God, N., is crowned in matrimony …,’ ‘The servant of God, the pious deacon N., is ordained …,’ etc. This use of the name is so important that when one approaches a priest who does not know them for Communion, they should mention their name so that the priest can use it when giving them Communion. (The worst fate possible for a human being is for God to forget them. That is why when we pray for the dead we pray not only for their blessed repose, but also that their memory may be eternal. Not eternal in human terms, but always in God’s memory.) Incidentally, the practice among Catholics of the Byzantine tradition is for frequent Communion, just as it is among Catholics of the Roman tradition. Infrequent Communion is the usual practice among the Orthodox rather than the Catholic.»

I thank our reader for this edifying and useful contribution.

Related to the topic of receiving Communion, a Vermont reader made the following query: «Recently our pastor ‘informed’ the extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion in our parish that they may be needed to hold communion services in the event of his absence. He instructed them to consume the Eucharist before distributing Communion. I told him I had learned that such persons are not to ‘self-communicate’ and are not to receive Communion unless there is another extraordinary minister present who can offer this. My ‘information’ is hearsay. Please tell me where I can find out the correct procedures.»

The correct procedures, as usual, are to be found in the Church’s official ritual books. Both the Directory for the Celebration of Sunday in the Absence of a Priest and the Rite of Distributing Holy Communion Outside of Mass foresee the possibility of the minister, whether a deacon or an extraordinary minister of Holy Communion, partaking of the hosts by themselves.

The rubric of the above-mentioned rite describes the minister placing the ciborium or pyx upon the altar before introducing the Lord’s Prayer and possibly the sign of peace. It then continues: «The minister genuflects. Taking the host, he raises it slightly over the vessel or pyx and, facing the people, says: this is the Lamb of God …» After all have responded with the «Lord I am not worthy …,» the rubrics continue: «If the minister receives communion, he says quietly: May the body of Christ bring me to everlasting life. He reverently consumes the body of Christ.»

Since the concluding rites that immediately follow contain alternative rites for an ordained and a lay minister, it is clear that no distinction is intended regarding the manner of receiving Communion by the extraordinary minister.

The proviso in the rubrics «If the minister receives communion» does not imply a prohibition. In all likelihood it merely takes into account that the minister may not be receiving at this particular service because he or she has already received Communion on the same day.

The «information» received by our reader quite likely stems from an undue extension of the Holy See’s reprobation of the abuse in which extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion self-communicate at Mass. Such reprobation might be incorrectly extended to the various circumstances of an extraordinary minister leading a celebration of the Word with Holy Communion in the absence of a priest.

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Readers may send questions to Please put the word «Liturgy» in the subject field. The text should include your initials, your city and your state, province or country. Father McNamara can only answer a small selection of the great number of questions that arrive.

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