Saint Francis, Pope Francis and the Cross of San Damiano

Saint Francis of Assisi was praying before the Cross of San Damiano when he heard the voice of Jesus telling him to rebuild the church. The cross has become an important symbol of Pope Francis’ ecclesial vision.

In 2013, shortly after being elected to lead the universal church, Pope Francis visited some of the sites associated with Saint Francis of Assisi. One of these stops included a moment of private veneration before the Cross of San Damiano, the Romanesque work of art where Saint Francis once heard a voice from Jesus pleading for him to rebuild his church in 1205.

The chapel was named for one of the twin physician saints, Cosmas and Damian, who were, incidentally, two Arabian brothers suffering physical torments as the result of political and religious unrest in Syria. This cross has become an important symbol of Francis’s ecclesial vision.

Replicas of the cross of San Damiano are a staple in locations imbued with Franciscan spirituality, and are familiar to many of us. The images in the quadrants around the Body of Christ include the standard figures in the crucifixion scene: the Blessed Mother, Saint John the beloved disciple, Mary Magdalene, and the holy women. Other figures include Saint Michael, Saint John the Baptist, Saint Peter, Saint Paul and Saint Rufino. Longinus, the centurion whose lance supposedly pierced the side of Christ, and Stephaton, his companion who offered him the sponge of sour wine, are also present. The son of the centurion who was healed is located in the background.

A rooster crows, representing the threefold denial and threefold forgiveness that led to Peter’s unique role in confirming the brethren, and eventually to the Petrine Office of the papacy which is now Jorge Bergoglio’s charge. The hand at the top symbolizes the Father, with the two outstretched fingers bringing to mind Christ’s dual nature, as fully human and fully divine.

Today the Poor Clares cherish and care for the original walnut cross, which is thought to also possibly include a self-depiction of the artist.

In his homily at this sacred location, Pope Francis called attention to the uniqueness of this depiction of the Passion. “On that cross, Jesus is portrayed not as dead, but alive! Blood is flowing from his wounded hands, feet and side, but the blood speaks of life. Jesus’s eyes are not closed, but open — wide open! — he looks at us in a way that touches our hearts. The cross does not speak to us about defeat and failure; it speaks to us of love, the love of God incarnate, a love which does not die, but triumphs over evil and death. When we let the crucified Jesus gaze upon us, we are re-created, we become a ‘new creation.’”

In this Christmas season, Christians are consistently reminded that the wood of the crib will lead eventually to the wood of the cross. That’s one of the reasons that holly decks our halls at this time of year, as the piercing spines and scarlet berries remind us of the coming Crown of Glory.

The cross of San Damiano is no different. As Francis courageously tries to rebuild the church, whose clarion voice of moral authority is consistently muffled by human sin, weakness, egoism and ineptitude in this and every generation, let us look for inspiration to him who has been raised up — in the arms of the Magi and Simeon in the temple, on the soldiers’ nails, and, ultimately and definitively, on Easter morning.

Originally from Collingswood, Michael M. Canaris, Ph.D., teaches at Loyola University, Chicago.