The Processional Cross
The Processional Cross
The Processional Cross, also called a processional crucifix, is a familiar object to most of the Catholic faithful. The designs and style may vary, but it is a crucifix, large enough for the congregation to see it during a procession, which is usually mounted on a long handle. It is used in most liturgical processions within the Catholic Church. It is carried at the front of the procession, with the figure of the crucified Christ facing the direction the procession is moving; this is because all Christians are followers of Christ. After the cross is carried to the altar, it may be placed on or near the altar or, if a fixed altar cross is already in place, it may be put away.
The use of processional crosses in the Liturgy dates back several centuries, and the origin of this tradition is commonly credited to St. Augustine of England who died in 604. In the 8th century, St. Bede wrote Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (Ecclesiastical History of the English People), and in this document he included a description of Augustine of England, first Archbishop of Canterbury, carrying a processional cross:
“Augustine, thus strengthened by the confirmation of the blessed Father Gregory, returned to the work of the word of God, with the servants of Christ, and arrived in Britain. The powerful Ethelbert was at that time king of Kent; he had extended his dominions as far as the great river Humber, by which the Southern Saxons are divided from the Northern. . . . The king (Ethelbert) came into the island, and sitting in the open air, ordered Augustine and his companions to be brought into his presence.
For he had taken precaution that they should not come to him in any house, lest, according to an ancient superstition, if they practiced any magical arts, they might impose upon him, and so get the better of him.
But they came furnished with Divine, not with magic virtue, bearing a silver cross for their banner, and the image of our Lord and Saviour painted on a board; and singing the litany, they offered up their prayers to the Lord for the eternal salvation both of themselves and of those to whom they were come.”
Throughout Augustine’s and then Bede’s lifetimes the practice spread throughout Europe and the processional cross began to be used throughout Christendom. It could be simple or ornate, and could be in the form of the cross only, or an actual crucifix with a corpus; the popularity of using processional crucifixes more often than simple crosses especially grew in the 13th and 14th centuries. It is the belief of many archeologists that the processional cross could possibly have been the origin of the altar cross.
Cross or Crucifix?
As mentioned, in the past either a cross alone or a true crucifix was used. For example, a preserved processional cross from 12th century Ireland was decorated finely with copper, rock crystal, and gold filigree, but seems to have never had a figure of Christ attached. Other early processional crosses were sometimes highly decorated but did not include a corpus. And a plain cross, not bearing an image of the Crucified Lord, was used during Lent in the Middle Ages. But in the mid-to-later Middle Ages the use of the true crucifix became more prominent. While the term processional cross is used, it is now meant to indicate a cross bearing an image of the Crucified Christ, and not a plain cross. The 1975 General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM) did not fully clarify this, but clarification has since been included in the updated GIRM:
- The altar is to be covered with at least one white cloth. In addition, on or next to the
altar are to be placed candlesticks with lighted candles: at least two in any celebration, or even four or six, especially for a Sunday Mass or a holy day of obligation. If the Diocesan Bishop celebrates, then seven candles should be used. Also on or close to the altar, there is to be a cross with a figure of Christ crucified. The candles and the cross adorned with a figure of Christ crucified may also be carried in the Entrance Procession. On the altar itself may be placed the Book of the Gospels, distinct from the book of other readings, unless it is carried in the Entrance Procession.
- On reaching the altar, the priest and ministers make a profound bow.
The cross adorned with a figure of Christ crucified and perhaps carried in procession 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. In addition, the candlesticks are placed on the altar or near it. It is a praiseworthy practice that the Book of the Gospels be placed upon the altar.
- There is also to be a cross, with the figure of Christ crucified upon it, either on the altar or near it, where it is clearly visible to the assembled congregation. It is appropriate that such a cross, which calls to mind for the faithful the saving Passion of the Lord, remain near the altar even outside of liturgical celebrations.
- Paragraphs 117, 122, and 308 of the General Instruction of the Roman Missal.
Papal Processional Cross
It is not clear exactly when the use of a papal cross came into tradition, though it was established by the middle of the 12th century. It likely grew from the tradition of the processional cross. An archbishop in his own province may also have his own archiepiscopal cross for use in solemn processions, carried by a cross bearer. A legate may have a personal processional cross, but it may only be used in the territory to which he is appointed; likewise an archbishop may only use his in his province. The pope may carry his papal cross wherever he may go. The papal cross is a part of the pope’s regalia, but a different processional cross may be used for liturgical celebrations. While, as mentioned above, a processional cross is usually carried with the figure of Chris facing forward, if it is the cross of the pope, his legate, or an archbishop, the figure of Christ is turned in toward him.