On our family’s recent trip to Italy, we had the pleasure of exploring the town of Assisi. We were astounded by the number of basilicas and smaller churches for a town of its size. It was obvious that Assisi was once a spiritual centre for that area. It is currently a centre of the history of our faith, specifically the history of St. Francis after whom our current Pope models his leadership.
We prayed in several churches, sang a Mass at Basilica di San Francesco D’Assisi with our choir, paid homage to our daughter’s patron saint, S. Chiara (St. Clare), and hiked around the town and surrounding areas. One of the must do’s on our list was to purchase a requested Franciscan Cross for our godson. This wish was easier to fulfill than originally anticipated, as these crosses appeared virtually everywhere.
Franciscan Crosses – different from traditional crosses in that they are shaped like a letter T - were apparent not only in gift shops and corner stores, but in churches and even in wrought iron form throughout the town. The prevalence of this symbol inspired me to research the history behind it.
A document on the website for the Secular Franciscan Order of Australia explained that St. Francis adopted this T cross as his personal coat of arms, after a call from Pope Innocent III to reform the Church. The Pope is said to have received inspiration from Ezekiel 9: 4-6: "'Go throughout the city of Jerusalem and put a mark on the foreheads of those who grieve and lament over all the detestable things that are done in it.… Slaughter the old men, the young men and women, the mothers and children, but do not touch anyone who has the mark.’” The mark mentioned was believed to be the Tau, or the T-shaped final letter of the Hebrew alphabet.
According to the website, Pope Innocent “chose the sign of the Tau as a spiritual logo, for the reforms he wished to bring about in the Church. During his address to all the Bishops gathered in Rome for the Fourth Lateran Council on the 11th of November 1215, he went so far as to say that this sign of the Tau was also a sign of the Cross of Christ.”
“The Cross, which was the instrument of the death of Christ, became the sign not just of his death – the end, but ironically also the sign of his power over death.… It was the last word; the last syllable; the last letter.”
“With the words, ‘Be champions of the Tau and of the Cross’ Pope Innocent III called for nothing less than a spiritual crusade throughout Christendom – a call for interior conversion and outward signs of penance, such as caring for the poor and the afflicted. This spoke powerfully to the vision and goals of St. Francis, who saw all creatures as his brothers and sisters.”
Further reading revealed St. Francis adopted the Tau as his personal symbol, signing a T for his name, much as illiterate people would have used an X. “It is odd that St. Francis who could write should also use a sign as his mark. It would seem then that the Tau became for St. Francis a kind of seal, a coat of arms, a flag or standard, indicating that he saw himself as a ‘Champion of the Tau and of the Cross.’”
Both religious and lay Franciscans “wear the Tau Cross today as a sign of their commitment to Christ and the power of his love, his message, his grace.” The cross serves as a prayer, modelled beautifully by our Holy Father, Pope Francis: “we are in Christ, all children of the Father; let us strive to love each other as brothers and sisters so that there will be a better, more fraternal world.”
Inspired by this history, I not only purchased a Tau Cross for my godson, but I bought several others, including a crucifix for our family. This will hang prominently in our house to remind us that our home and our faith are the spiritual centres of our family. May we all be inspired by St. Francis’ words, “If God can work through me, he can work through anyone.”