Catholic Mythbusters: Could a large ship really be built from all the relics of the True Cross?

September 14 is known as the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross and celebrates the glory of the cross of Christ by which we have been saved. It is also a day that commemorates the “Finding of the True Cross” by Saint Helena (Constantine’s mother) in the year 326, and ever since that day relics of the true cross have been distributed around the world.

Small relics of the cross can now be found in great cathedrals as well as the humblest of country churches, and at one time individuals also claimed to possess relics. The prevalence of these relics prompted John Calvin to quip, “if all the pieces that could be found were collected together, they would make a big ship-load.”

Modern-day skeptics hold fast to Calvin’s assessment and claim that since there are so many “relics” of the true cross, Saint Helena never did find the cross and all of these relics are simple forgeries; pieces of ordinary wood encased in a gold container.

Well, is it true? If we gathered all the relics of the true cross and put them together, would it build a wooden ship that rivals Noah’s ark?

Myth or fact?

First of all, we need to dig into what history tells us about the finding of the true cross.

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Tradition relates (confirmed by the contemporary sources of St. John Chrysostom, St. Ambrose, Rufinus, and Gelasius to name a few) that Saint Helena was inspired by God to travel to the Holy Land in search of the true cross of Jesus Christ. After Jesus’ death, the Jews hid the cross in a ditch, covering it with stones so that the early Christians would not be able to venerate it. In the years that followed, a pagan shrine was also built upon the same site in honor of the goddess Venus, most likely constructed during the reign of the Emperor Hadrian.

There were a handful of Jews who knew where the true cross was hidden and had passed down that information amongst themselves over the centuries. One such Jew, named Judas, felt compelled to tell Saint Helena where the relics of the true cross were buried.

They excavated the site and found three crosses; one was believed to be the true cross and the other two were from the thieves crucified on either side of Jesus. However, they didn’t know which cross Jesus was crucified on and decided to test them by bringing a terminally ill woman to the location and touching each cross to her. One of the crosses miraculously healed the woman, so that particular cross was enshrined in a church built in Jerusalem over the Holy Sepulchre and was believed to be the true cross on account of its supernatural properties.

Shortly after this event the true cross was broken into two primary pieces; one remained in Jerusalem and one was sent to Constantinople. Saint Helena also took a large portion back to Rome, which is now located in the Basilica Santa Croce in Gerusalemme. Additionally, the splintering of the true cross began and various churches and individuals requested relics, displayed in churches and cathedrals so that pilgrims did not have to travel to Jerusalem to venerate the relic.

Wanting to test the claim and see if it was true that all the relics of the true cross would build a massive ship, a French independent scholar named Charles Rohault de Fleury tracked down every surviving relic and published a scientific study in 1870 entitled Mémoire sur les instruments de la Passion.

After calculating the weight of the cross that Jesus would have carried, he estimated that the volume of the cross would have been 10,900 cubic inches. De Fleury then compared that number with the total volume of all the true relics of the cross. He discovered that all the relics in the world amounted only to 240 cubic inches. Surprised by the number, de Fleury multiplied the number by 10 to cover any relics that were destroyed or in private hands.

Even after that, 2,400 cubic inches was not even close to the original volume of the cross.

Myth, busted!

Now over time there have been false relics of the cross that have been passed down, and that is why the history of a particular relic is important to know and to have proper documentation verifying its authenticity.

Many miracles and healings have been attributed to relics of the true cross over the centuries and attests to the enduring power of Christ’s cross.

As we pray during the Stations of the Cross, “We adore You, O Christ, and we praise You. because by Your holy cross, You have redeemed the world.”

Choosing between God and your boyfriend doesn’t have to be “either/or”

Katrina,

Here’s my predicament. For the past three years I’ve been discerning a vocation to religious life. I’ve visited several communities, and I’ve narrowed it down to two places. These past years have been especially excruciating and exhilarating. I was fairly certain God called me to seek serving him with a group of religious sisters and never had any doubt about His will until recently when I met a boy. This person and I have grown very close and I think of him as my boyfriend. He is my best friend and we spend all our free time together. He came with me to my grandfather’s funeral last year and met my family. While he was there I just felt an overwhelming urge that this person was the one I was supposed to be with forever. Now I feel like I am forced to choose between God and my boyfriend.

I’m going on a retreat soon to spend an extended amount at one of the communities and I know I’ll miss communicating with my boyfriend but I am also really looking forward to getting away and getting some clarity on the whole situation. Everyone is being very supportive and I don’t feel pressured toward one thing or another; mostly I think I’m stressing myself out over this. I just want to make the right choice. What advice can you give me to help work this out?

Thanks!

Casey

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Casey,

What if I said both choices could be the right one? If your ultimate goal is attain heaven (as should be everyone’s), then either role can still get you there.

Some notable married saints include St. Catherine of Sweden and her mother St. Bridget of Sweden, St. Helena, mother of Constantine the Great, and Saints Felicity and Perpetua.  

Need more married saints? How about saints married to other saints! St. Joachim and St. Ann, recently canonized Blessed Louis and Zelie Martin (parents of St. Thérèse), and King St. Henry II and his wife Queen St. Cunegunda.   

[Editor’s Note: Read more – Trusting God When I Think “I Should Have Been a Nun”]

This isn’t an either or situation. You can still faithfully serve and love God as a nun or as a wife and mother. Don’t think of this as you having to choose who you desire more, God or your boyfriend, because that’s not the right question to be asking yourself. Without a doubt, desiring God above all else can be lived out on either path you choose. You need to be asking yourself instead, which path is most likely going to get me to heaven? The obvious answer may seem “a nun of course!”  But I’ve just showed you that you can be married with a family and still be a saint.

Is your boyfriend the type of man who can help you attain this goal? Does he share your goal of heaven for himself? God wants you on the path that leads to Him. Which path will give you most peace? Which path has been more clearly laid out for you?

Let me also ask you, you referred to your upcoming retreat as “getting away” — is it possible you are hiding behind the habit? I mean, are you using the religious life as a chance to escape from your problems instead of facing them head on? Just something to consider.

Your vocation director, no doubt, has dealt with situations similar to yours many many times as I am sure the head of the community you are going to stay with has.  Talk openly with them and continue to pray. But please be at peace knowing you are ultimately choosing God; you are just trying to decide which path you want to take to get to Him.

Usually when people write me they already know what they want to do; they are just looking for affirmation that they are making the right choice. Any choice that is going to lead you to better serve the Lord is always going to be the right choice.

Your email is a reminder to all reading this that we should include in our daily prayers all those people struggling to find their way and discern their vocations.  

Casey, I wish you all the best.

[Editor’s Note: Take the Poll – Would you be a priest/nun if marriage was allowed?]