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Given at Westminster Cathedral for the Knights and Dames of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem, on the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, 14th September 2023.

Do you remember watching European football on television in the 1990s?  There was often someone to be seen in the crowd behind the goal with a placard.  It read invariably, “John 3, 16”.  Just that: “John 3, 16”.  “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son” – the very words we hear on the lips of Jesus today.

I was always moved to see it.  I used to think: if only we could speak those words louder.  Then it occurred to me that we do speak those words – very loud – with the millions, billions of crosses with which Christians have populated the world, every cross announcing that God so loved the world that he gave his only Son; none so eloquently as the huge cross which adorns our Cathedral here.

Pope Benedict was keen to affirm this when he came among us thirteen years ago this week.  “The visitor to this Cathedral,” he said, “can’t fail to be struck by the great crucifix dominating the nave, which portrays Christ’s body, crushed by suffering, overwhelmed by sorrow, the innocent victim whose death has reconciled us with the Father and given us a share in the very life of God.”

He was announcing not just Christ’s love but the very triumph of his cross over evil.  It is wonderful to think of the people, including Pope Benedict, who have beheld with their eyes this very same cross as we do; and now behold the One who triumphed on Calvary over the devil.

I think of Cardinal Hume when I behold not just this cross but the cross before which he prayed in his private chapel.  He used to feel overwhelmed, he said, by the number of crosses people shared with him.  He didn’t mean their crucifixes but the hardships they had to endure and for which they sought his prayer – till he was inspired to tell each one simply, “I shall pray for you tomorrow morning.”  And so, the next morning he would bring their crosses to lay at the foot of his own cross upstairs in the chapel of Archbishop’s House.

Cardinal Hume knew how hard it can be to pray – especially when we’re suffering.  “Sometimes, in the morning,” he said, “we can feel too tired, too preoccupied, to anxious, to meet God with our head – but we can still pray with our eyes.”  By which he meant, when you can no longer pray with your head, then use your eyes: “set your eyes,” he said, “upon the cross of Christ; and allow Christ’s dying words to resonate with in you.”  Christ’s dying words:   

“Father, forgive them.”

“Today you will be with me in paradise.”

“Why have you forsaken me?”

“I thirst.”

“It is accomplished.”

Pope Benedict wasn’t the only Pope to behold this cross.  Pope St John Paul II did too.  His secretary, Cardinal Dziwisz, tells a little story which shows how much the cross meant to Pope John Paul.  One night, they had to wake the Pope about some matter of state.  Not finding him in his bedroom they searched the papal apartments high and low until they eventually found the Holy Father in his chapel, prostrate on the floor before the Blessed Sacrament – his arms stretched out in the shape of the cross: Peter uniting himself to Christ in his moment of triumph over sin.

The memory of these holy pastors should serve, I think, to encourage us – encourage us to contemplate the cross of Christ more ourselves; and feel its power.  Many of us have been thinking back a year to when we welcomed here the relics of St Bernadette.  Bernadette valued her cross above all her other possessions.  When she was close to end of her life, she asked for everything to be removed – all the holy pictures and statues and photos – save one thing: her crucifix.

Her sisters in the convent recounted, after her death, how she used to reproach them, saying, “When you make the sign of the cross, you don’t look as if you mean it.”  Bernadette reminds us where we should begin – by making the sign of the cross as if we mean it; then learning to contemplate the cross and begin to feel its power.

Photo: Kilduff/