Lift High the Cross

Crucifix above the door of Poland’s lower house of parliament, the Sejm.

From the Excelsis File – December 2000

Strange wars are waged these days. Take the blood being spilt on most Catholic College campuses. No, no, I don’t mean the red blood pouring from the knife wound on someone’s flesh. I mean the more serious bloodletting – the wounds to men’s souls when inalienable truths are yanked from their hearts.

That is exactly what happened so many years ago when administrators at nominally Catholic colleges decided to remove crucifixes from their classrooms. That’s right. Up until only a few decades ago every Catholic student, from first graders to doctoral candidates, sat in Catholic school classrooms with a crucifix front and center. Like the incessant roar of the ocean surf whose pounding quickly becomes soothing music, so the crucifix was the ever-present reminder of He Who alone is The Teacher. Even as the professor engrossed his students with the truths of his science, the crucifix enchanted them still more with He Who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one knew better than Holy Church that any classroom without a crucifix risked producing students who possessed facts but no wisdom, having it all but never knowing what any of it was for. Could Chesteron have had this in mind when he wrote of the sad state of the scientist/professor, “who understands everything and everything does not seem worth understanding”? Those classroom crucifixes guaranteed that knowledge would be a crown upon a student’s head and not a dagger in his soul.

That, unfortunately, was then. Let me tell you about how it is now. Last spring a prominent Catholic university in the Northeast planned to erect a heroic-sized crucifix in the middle of its campus. It was to be a memorial to some deceased students. Overnight the tranquil campus turned into the Gaza Strip. On one side, a group of laity and priests defending the erection of the crucifix. On the other, a group of priests fiercely opposed. Yes, opposed. Odd to find priests warring against a crucifix – somewhat like English professors lobbying for the abolition of the alphabet.

Unfortunately, this case is not isolated. It is repeated over and over again. At Georgetown, once a premier college of human learning and chest-thumping Catholicism, the administration remade itself into a proudly secularized college with a patina of chic anti-Catholicism to recommend it to the new knowledge class. At the very beginning of its evolution away from the Faith, it stripped every classroom of its crucifixes. Georgetown was rather settled in its long won secularism until a guerilla insurrection in 1998. To the dismay of Jesuit administrators, a group of Catholic students demanded the return of the crucifixes. Campus “ministers” (formerly, “chaplains”) were particularly horrified at such atavism and were eager to wield whatever weapons necessary to address it. The Catholic students would have been alone if not for the support of some faculty – Muslims. These Islamic professors suggested that it might be fitting to hang a symbol of Christian belief in a Catholic college classroom. This idea failed to intrigue the Georgetown clerisy; “ministers” hissed and Jesuit bosses scolded the students about their lack of fidelity – to the prevailing zeitgeist. These Catholic kids, unperturbed, dug in their heels and, in the end, prevailed against their ideologized elders. Crucifixes went back up. As far as we know, the classrooms still have them. Looks like the future belongs to Christ crucified.

More people than Catholic college administrators need to be told this story, such as the folks designing/renovating Catholic churches without crucifixes or with deconstructed ones. Some good Catholics should read them St. Paul (“But God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of Our Lord Jesus Christ: by whom the world is crucified to me, and I to the world.” Gal 6:14), or Pius XII (“…one would be straying from the straight path were he to forbid the use of sacred images in Church… or order the crucifix so designed that the Divine Redeemer’s Body shows no trace of His cruel sufferings,” Mediator Dei, #62). Perhaps we can find a few good Catholic young people to sit down and talk with all those obdurate priests who flinch from the display of a crucifix on the altar where they offer the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass (and never mind both the 1975 and the 2000 General Instruction of the Roman Missal which specifically direct there to be “a crucifix, clearly visible to the congregation, either on the altar or near it” (#270).  If those priests will not heed the terse commands of the Church, perhaps they will listen to the silken theological wisdom of Cardinal Ratzinger:

Where a direct common turning towards the East is not possible, the cross can serve as the interior “east” of faith. It should stand in the middle of the altar and be the common point of focus for both priest and praying community… Moving the altar cross to the side to give an uninterrupted view of the priest is something I regard as one of the truly absurd phenomenon of recent decades [italics added]. Is the cross disruptive during Mass? Is the priest more important than Our Lord?

The Spirit of the Liturgy, p. 83

So the strange wars go on. Stranger still are the victors. It is children holding crosses high, kids who are shaming their priests not in disrespect but for the sake of God. More than their elders they vividly appreciate man’s role on earth as expressed so simply by Chesterton: “All human beings without exception whatever, were specially made, were shaped and pointed like shining arrows, for the end of hitting the mark of Beatitude.” You can’t stop people, not even kids, from standing above their time and wanting to be saints. Not even when others are trying mightily to bury them under the debris of the secular rot of their times.

But why must it be children who lead us? What happened to so many o those consecrated with the grace of Holy Orders? Indeed. But it serves no purpose here to explore the reasons for their shocking reversal of loyal ties. That only takes away from the thrill of seeing Catholic children taking up the cross again.

So what if it takes children to lead us. There is plenty of Divine precedent for that.

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