A cross from two epidemics

San Marcello crucifix first gained fame in 16th century plague

Why are you afraid? Have you no faith?”

When Pope Francis spoke these words of Christ from Mark’s Gospel (4:38) five different times during his extraordinary Urbi et Orbi blessing on March 27, he might have been speaking 500 years ago.

The crucifix from the Church of San Marcello al Corso in Rome is pictured after Pope Francis’ celebration of Palm Sunday Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican April 5, 2020. The crucifix was carried in Rome in 1522 during the “Great Plague.” (CNS photo | Paul Haring)

The year 1522 was a time of plague in Rome. What plague it was is not known for certain, but bubonic plague traveled across Europe frequently from the 14th to the 17th centuries. Today, another type of plague — the corona virus pandemic — has swept the world, killing tens of thousands so far.

The miraculous crucifix of the Church of San Marcello al Corso (St. Marcellus) in Rome ties modern Rome to Rome 1522. The crucifix became known worldwide this Holy Week, when Pope Francis had it brought to St. Peter’s Square. There, in the rain, the cross bearing the crucified Christ, stood witness to the pope’s blessing of the world, seeking an end to the pandemic. The crucifix was also part of the Holy Week services at the Vatican, including the Easter Vigil Mass inside the basilica.

But what is the story of this cross?

That dates back to a church that may have existed since the fifth century, dedicated to Pope Marcellus I, who was persecuted by the Roman emperor Maxentius and condemned to heavy labor. This pope died in 309 and his tomb was said to be in the church along the Via del Corso in Rome.

In 1369, that church was entrusted to the Servants of Mary (also known as the Servites).

When the crucifix in question first appeared is not known, but it became famous in 1519. On May 22, a fire destroyed the church — except for the crucifix, which was found intact with a vigil light still burning at its base. It was considered a miracle.

When the “Great Plague” struck Rome three years later, the cardinal in charge of the Church of St. Marcellus, Cardinal Raimondo Vich, ordered a procession of the miraculous cross through all the districts of Rome. Even though there was a quarantine — a 16th century equivalent of “shelter at home” — in place, the people thronged to see the cross. It took 16 days — Aug. 4 to Aug. 20 — for the procession to make it around the city. The procession ended at St. Peter’s Basilica. The plague ended shortly after.

After the San Marcello crucifix was exposed to the rain on March 27 this year, there was some damage to both the cross and corpus. Some sources reported that the body of Christ had exploded, since its wood had become so rain-soaked.

The crucifix was taken to the Vatican Museums for examination.

According to the Vatican News Service, experts found only minor damage, some of which had existed before and some of which happened in moving the cross. Overall, the report said, it required “minor retouching.”

This retouching, the news service added, was “related to small pieces that had become detached.”

The crucifix was returned to St. Peter’s in time for this year’s Good Friday services and for the Easter Vigil Mass. It was scheduled to be returned to the Church of St. Marcellus during Easter Week. There is where it is usually kept, in the fourth chapel to the right from the entrance.

Pope Francis is not the first pope to use the miraculous crucifix. It has been used in processions in St. Peter’s Square in Holy Years and Jubilee Years since 1600. The last time was in the Great Jubilee of 2000 as a culmination of the “Day of Forgiveness” proclaimed by St. John Paul II — who often told us: “Be not afraid.”

His name, along with the names of each pope who called the jubilees and their jubilee year are inscribed on the back of the crucifix.

 

Sources: vaticannews.va; aleteia.org; Catholic News Service; Catholic News Agency; thecatholictravelguide.com; and cruxnow.com