The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A 17th-century cross with a surprising story will be at Pope Francis’s first U.S. Mass

He had to trip over it to find it. But when he lifted the ancient cross and read the inscription etched in acid in the worn black iron, the Rev. G. Ronald Murphy was overwhelmed.

There, on the floor of a cluttered basement room at Georgetown University, the longtime German professor had stumbled upon something remarkable: the cross believed to be used in the first Catholic Mass on English-speaking American soil, in the Maryland settlement formed to ensure religious freedom in the new land.

It had been lost, overlooked, forgotten. In 1862, someone had written on it, “This cross is said to have been brought by the first settlers from England to St. Mary’s.” On the crossbar there was a Latin inscription, “Ad perpetuam rei memoriam.” For the eternal memory of this event.

Murphy thought: We will remember.

This week, Pope Francis will preside over his first Mass in the United States. The cross will be there, on the altar of the Basilica at Catholic University, lent for the historic occasion.

[“Divine” raffle tickets for the Pope’s mass go to a lucky few]

“It’s a moment of firsts all tying into one,” said Spencer Crawford, a Georgetown senior from Ohio who helped deliver the cross to the Basilica: The first Jesuit pope, his first trip to the United States, the first cross used at the first Catholic grammar school in the country that now is housed at the first Catholic university in the nation.

“It’s sort of ancestral,” to see the cross and think of the principles it represents, Murphy said, how those ideas and freedoms and faith have shaped our country.

He hopes the pope will linger by it, look at the cross, before the Mass. “It’s wonderful,” he said.

Murphy felt blessed to find it.

Driving home through the Eastern Shore one day in 1989, he saw a sign for a church, and turned in that direction; he knew it was the place where the founder of Georgetown University had been educated, and he was curious to see it.

The school was gone, but as he wandered the grounds, he was drawn to a simple iron cross set on a stone cairn. “I was fascinated by it,” he said. He read on a plaque that this was a replica of the cross brought by settlers to Maryland as they sailed from England on the Ark and the Dove. He knew the history, and was moved by its simple symbolism of religious freedom.

The original had been taken from St. Mary’s, he read, brought to this site for the school, and could now be found at Georgetown University.

“Well, that shocked me,” he said, “because I was the rector of Georgetown’s Jesuit community at the time and knew nothing about the cross.”

He called the university’s archivist that night. “He didn’t let me in that night,” he noted, laughing, but the next morning he allowed Murphy to go through heavy steel doors into a basement storage room.

There were cassocks hanging from the walls that Jesuits had once worn, long rosary beads, a set of drums from the Civil War, sabers, old guns. After looking for a long time, he thought, “Well, I can’t find the cross, I’ll look at these fascinating old weapons.” As he walked toward them, reaching for a musket, he stumbled on something. It was a pallet holding the iron cross.

“I was a little overwhelmed,” he said. “I was a little overwhelmed.”

It was nearly four feet tall. Heavy: 24 pounds. He turned it over, and was amazed to see the words there. He thought of a blacksmith hammer-welding the tough iron bars they used to carry on ships to repair the rigging, hoping it would hold in the worst of storms. He thought of the prayers that must have been said, as they crossed the ocean in 1634 fleeing religious persecution in England.

The Ark was named for the biblical vessel, the Dove for the Holy Spirit.

“They’re sentimental, too,” Murphy said of the settlers. “They didn’t get off the boats to make an official landing until March the 25th, because they wanted to land on the feast day, the feast of the annunciation of Mary. God asks if she’s willing to be the mother of Christ. She said yes.”

[Longing for communion]

Murphy is often moved by things from the past that have managed to survive. “But to find something that signifies the faith of the original settlers that brought them all the way over here, that the main symbol of that faith has survived, even if it’s on a wooden pallet on the floor – it’s a beautiful thing to pick it up and say, ‘You won’t be neglected anymore if I have anything to say about it.”

The university was about to mark the 200th anniversary of its founding as the country’s first Catholic university, and Murphy asked to have the cross placed in its chapel.

There it hung, over the altar, until the sharp point on the end of it (designed, Murphy believes, for spiking it into a roof) made him nervous, and he asked to have it moved to a safer place. (“It was like the sword of Damocles,” suspended directly over the priest, he said. “Can you imagine? It would have gone straight through someone’s head.” When the workers took it down, he said, they found one of the wires nearly rusted through.)

Now it rests on the north wall of Dahlgren Chapel, below a beautiful stained-glass window, Murphy said. “Which is where the past should be, when it’s something good. In a place of honor,” he said.

“We thought it was a wonderful connection on so many levels … to have this cross included within the sanctuary for the Mass,” Jane Belford, chair of the Archdiocese of Washington’s planning committee for the pope’s visit, said at a recent news conference. “… It’s a very special connection with the Jesuits and Georgetown and especially for the Archdiocese very meaningful because it was first Mass and the beginning of establishment of religious freedom in our country.”

[Choir tunes up for the Pope’s visit]

Crawford is thinking of that founding idea, too; he mentioned the recent story of a student arrested after building a clock, perhaps out of distrust of his Muslim faith, and said we still live in a time when practicing religion openly still can be difficult. “To have that message of inclusion – which Pope Francis is an advocate for – to  have that message be in that cross is something we can all take away from this,” he said.

And, Crawford said, “When the pope is done saying Mass, and he leaves, the cross comes back.”

It’s going to be part of Georgetown’s historic chapel, he said, “really forever.”

It’s extremely important, Murphy said, “a very emotional thing for me to see it there. … The cross is the oldest, the first manifestation of Catholic Christianity coming to the 13 colonies. The pope is the most recent manifestation of Catholic Christianity coming to America. The present is meeting the original moment.

“That’s a beautiful thing: I like it when the past and the present talk to each other.”

Read more:

Full coverage ahead of the Pope’s visit