The cross of Christ leads the way

By Patricia Kasten | The Compass | February 3, 2017

When you stand for the opening song at Sunday Mass, who do you welcome?

Luke Uitenbroek, a pontifical server for the Diocese of Green Bay, carries the processional cross into the cathedral at the 2016 Chrism Mass. (Sam Lucero | The Compass)

Some people — even the lector or song leader — may say we are welcoming “Father such and so.” And the celebrant does process to the sanctuary, accompanied by altar servers and the liturgical ministers.

However, “Father” is not one who begins our celebration of the Mass.

The opening procession at each Sunday and holy day mass is led by the cross of Christ. That cross leads us into the celebration of the Mass, where it is Christ who celebrates and offers praise and worship to his Father.

As the Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us: “All gather together. Christians come together in one place for the Eucharistic assembly. At its head is Christ himself, the principal agent of the Eucharist. He is high priest of the New Covenant; it is he himself who presides invisibly over every Eucharistic celebration” (n. 1348).

To remind us of this reality, the cross of Christ leads us into Mass. If incense is part of the celebration, the altar server bearing the burning incense in the thurible would proceed the cross.

If a procession is not used, as may happen on weekday Masses, no processional cross is used. However, a crucifix of some form must always be present at each celebration of Mass.

In their document on church art and architecture noted that, “The cross with the image of Christ crucified is a reminder of Christ’s paschal mystery. It draws us into the mystery of suffering and makes tangible our belief that our suffering, when united with the passion and death of Christ, leads to redemption.”

Once the procession has reached the sanctuary and the altar is reverenced, the processional cross is moved to one of two places. This is explained in the General Instruction of the Roman Missal:

“The cross adorned with a figure of Christ crucified … may be placed next to the altar to serve as the altar cross, in which case it ought to be the only cross used; otherwise it is put away in a dignified place” (n. 122). The U.S. bishops’ document also notes that the processional cross “of sufficient size, placed in a stand visible to the people following the entrance procession, but adds that “If there is already a cross in the sanctuary, the processional cross is placed out of view of the congregation following the procession.”

Since most parishes have a larger cross in the sanctuary, the processional cross most often is placed out of sight, since the focus during Mass is to be on the one cross.

Processional crosses have a long history in the church, going back at least 1,000 years. Most historical sources agree that such crosses date to England and credit St. Augustine of Canterbury, who died in 604 A.D. with having such a cross. St Bede in his Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (Church History of the English People) mentions this first archbishop of Canterbury as using a processional cross.

The earliest of these processional crosses — as is the case with the earliest Christian crosses — did not seem to bear a figure of Christ. Instead they were crus gemmate (jeweled crosses) that bore gemstones, usually five in number, to mark the five wounds of Christ on the cross.

Another early form of the cross was the Chi-Rho — resembling a P with an X imposed on it. These are the Greek letters that stand for the Greek word Khristos or “Christ.”  It was this symbol which the Roman Emperor Constantine took as his standard in battle; it was Constantine who ended the persecution of Christians and set us on the path that led to Christianity becoming the official religion of Rome.

There are many examples of processional crosses from the last millennia. One is the Irish “Cross of Cong” from the 12th century, which is highly enameled and represents the best metalwork of its time. The cross has a large crystal at its center and tradition is that the cross held a relic of the True Cross, though the relic is no longer present in the cross. Today, the Cross of Cong is in the National Museum of Ireland.

Another famous processional cross is the “First Cross of Mathilde” (also called the Otto-Mathilda Cross) that dates to the late tenth century. It belonged to Mathilde, Abbess of Essen (Germany) Abbey, sister of Otto I, Duke of Bavaria. The cross is now in the Essen Cathedral and has been used as a processional cross into recent times, including at the Mass for the installation of the first Bishop of Essen, Cardinal Franz Hengsbach, on Jan. 1, 1958.

At the end of Mass, if a processional cross has been used, it is brought back for the recessional. Again, it has pride of place in the exit procession. Sometimes there seems to be confusion about which direction the figure of Christ — if there is one on the cross — should face. Christ should always face forward in the procession, facing the direction in which the people are walking. This is to symbolize Christ leading his people, who follow Christ as his disciples, or as the sheep following the Good Shepherd.


Sources: Catechism of the Catholic Church; General Instruction of the Roman Missal;;; Catholic Encyclopedia;;;;


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