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The Mom Who Found the True Cross

By Bill Dodds
Is there more than a sliver of truth in this ancient tradition?

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Read about the legend (or legends) of the discovery and recovery of the true cross. Whether or not all of these are true, the Church has always venerated the symbol of the cross, as representing the saving sacrifice Christ made for us.

Does a good Catholic have to believe St. Helen found the true cross around 326?

No, but that’s been the legend for a long, long time.

Whether the tale of its discovery is more pious fiction than pious fact, the Catholic Church sets aside a feast day in honor of the cross. Each year, on Sept. 14, it remembers in a special way the instrument upon which Christ died.

My son, the Emperor

Helen (or Helena) was the mother of the Roman Emperor Constantine. He’s the one who, along with fellow ruler Licinius Licinianus, issued the Edict of Milan around 313. That’s a benchmark in Church history because it ended the Roman persecution of Christians.

There were so many martyrs during those first three centuries because being a Christian was a capital offense.

Tradition says Helen was on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem when she unearthed the treasure. The emperor’s mom traveled a lot, seeing to it that churches were built in Rome, Constantinople, Bethlehem, and Jerusalem.

Less than solid proof

St. Cyril of Jerusalem (d.386) mentions the veneration of the cross in his sermons (written between 348 and 350), but he doesn’t say anything about its discovery. There was a letter, which a lot of historians have since said is bogus, in which, supposedly, St. Cyril told about its finding in great detail.

Historians, of course, don’t use words like “bogus.” They say things like “of highly questionable authenticity.”

Even so, the letter seems to indicate the story of the True Cross was becoming well known by the mid-fourth century.

As the story grew, so did the tales about it, both historical and mystical. The relic itself was considered so important that it was the reason for two wars.

Or at least that’s what those promoting those conflicts claimed.

In 628 or 629 the Byzantine Emperor Heraclius recovered a major portion that had been taken from Jerusalem by the Persians. And among the objectives of the Fourth Crusade, in 1204, was its defense/recovery.

Three commemorations in one

The September 14 feast day also commemorates that recovery in the early seventh century and the consecration of the Basilica of the Shrine of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem in the middle of the fourth.

The feast itself began in Jerusalem and spread to the East before becoming popular in the West. It was adopted in the Latin Church after the Basilica of the Holy Cross in Jerusalem was built in Rome. (Pope John Paul II included it among special Roman pilgrimage sites for Jubilee 2000.)

The building was called that because a large portion of the cross was enshrined there.

A lot of lumber

After the Reformation in the 16th century, Protestant critics weren’t slow to point out that if all the slivers from “the True Cross” were assembled, there would be enough wood to build a large ship. Catholic theologians countered that because of its particular worth—since it had been covered in Christ’s blood—it could be divided forever (like the loaves and fishes).

But while the Catholic Church doesn’t insist one must believe this or that particular piece of wood is from the True Cross, it does pay tribute to the cross itself. In addition to the September feast, each Good Friday there is veneration of the cross. And our prayers begin with the Sign of the Cross.

What happened to St. Helen? She died around 330. That’s the last year her image appeared on coins. Her feast day is August 18.

Copyright © 2000 Bill Dodds

For a virtual video tour of Jerusalem that includes the Via Dolorosa—the Way of the Cross—(about five minutes into the tape), go to:

For a biography of St. Cyril of Jerusalem, surf to:

To learn more about the Congregation of Holy Cross and its founder Father Basil Anthony Moreau, visit:

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