The cross is more than a mere token of Christianity. It is a sign of sacrifice as well as salvation. The original cross was the ultimate altar upon which God Himself was sacrificed. Like Jesus, we are to embrace, carry, be nailed, and raised upon each of our own personal “crosses” if we expect to also be raised up on the last day.
And just as Jesus saved us through His agonizing crucifixion, so are we to work toward salvation in our own crucifixions. As St. Ignatius of Loyola once stated, “… there is no wood better to kindle the fire of holy love than the wood of the cross, which Christ used for His own great sacrifice of boundless charity.”
The cross is our key to heaven. The early Catholic saints and martyrs mentioned hereafter are to be inspiring role models to us as their deaths resembled that of their Master. In not denying their faith, they willingly accepted not only their everyday figurative crosses but their physical ones as well.
Most likely, if you think about Saints who were executed by means of crucifixion for their Christian beliefs, the first figure which comes to mind would be Simon Peter. One of the Twelve Apostles, we know Peter as the first Pope, the Vicar of Christ on earth, and head of His Church. Originally, his name was Simon, and he was a fairly prosperous fisherman of Galilee in Israel. It was in that state of life which Jesus found Simon and his sibling Andrew, sons of John. The Gospel of St. Matthew tells us that upon seeing the two of them casting their net into the waters, Jesus exclaims, “Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men.”
Peter’s eventual martyrdom sometime in the late 60’s AD at Rome was ordered by the infamous Emperor Nero. According to tradition, he was crucified upside down in response to his own request for such positioning. (He felt unworthy to be killed in the exact same fashion of his Savior.) His body was removed from the cross after his death and buried at the location now known as Vatican Hill, where St. Peter’s Square sits today. This physically fulfilled what Christ announced in renaming Simon: “And I say to thee: That thou art Peter; and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18).
Upon an X
St. Andrew, one of the Twelve as well as St. Peter’s brother, was also crucified. As previously stated, he too was a fisherman; Andrew is actually the patron of fisherman. Prior to his Apostolic days, he was actually a disciple of St. John the Baptist. Following the breaking up of the Apostles, Andrew went off traveling, preaching the Gospel to various peoples and in numerous countries as many of the Apostles did. Ancient sources, as well as other saints, tell us that he preached in countries such as Scythia, Sogdiana, Colchis, and Greece.
It is also considered that he might have brought the good news as far as Russia and Poland. He was crucified in Patras in Achaia, and tradition holds that his particular cross was X-shaped. Andrew’s body was later transported in 357 AD to Constantinople to the Church of the Apostles built by Constantine the Great. St. Andrew’s feast day is November 30th.
Another Upside Down Case
Just like the other two apostles noted above, St. Philip was born in Bethsaida, Galilee. Not too much is known or quite certain about Philip. Even in the Holy Bible, he is seldom mentioned. Aside from passages simply listing the names of the twelve Apostles, his brief spotlight appearances in the New Testament are found in the Gospel of St. John. Philip is known to have preached in Greece.
He suffered martyrdom upon an upside down cross, and St. Bartholomew might have been alongside him undergoing a similar fashion of crucifixion. And while he hung there, with his dying breaths he preached the Gospel. The feast day of St. Philip and his fellow Apostle St. James the Lesser falls on May 3rd, ironically the same day which commemorates St. Helen’s discovery of the Holy Cross upon which Christ saved the world.
St. Helen, or Helena, was actually the mother of Constantine the Great, Emperor of the Roman Empire, the man who ended the persecution of Christians. Helen was an Empress. Like her son, she converted and became a truly devout, pious Christian. After she had turned eighty years old, Helen made her way to Jerusalem in search of the Cross, the Holy Cross which Christ died upon. There were excavations planned and executed, and the fruit of such endeavors was the finding of a trio of crosses. Jesus had been crucified along with two thieves which meant only one of the crosses unearthed was Christ’s Cross.
A bishop and saint by the name of Macarius suggested a way to test which was the holy wood which came in contact with Christ; he suggested the three crosses be brought to the abode of a very sick person. Once this was done, Macarius prayed asking God to accept their faith. After this, he touched each of the crosses individually to the ill person, and only one of the three had caused a miraculous effect, the immediate recovery of the sick person. Helen eventually took a piece of the Holy Cross to her son Constantine.
The other two crosses belonged to the two common thieves executed with Jesus. And one of those two common crooks repented, and today we venerate him as a Catholic saint. We know him as St. Dismas. Some stories claim that Dismas first met Jesus as a baby when the Holy Family was traveling to Egypt. In such tales, Dismas, upon seeing the child Jesus, refused to take anything from them and let them continue in peace.
As we know, Dismas was very close to Jesus near the time of his death. He was right beside Him. The one criminal scolded Christ. “But the other [Dismas] rebuked him, saying, ‘Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly; for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.’ And he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come in your kingly power.’ And he said to him, ‘Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise'” (Luke 32: 40-43). St. Dismas gives us great consolation for he too was a repentant sinner who asked for Christ’s love, and he got it.
Hoever, Hugo. Lives of the Saints. Catholic Book Publishing Co., 1999.
Little Pictorial Lives of the Saints: with Reflection for Every Day in the Year. Benziger Brothers, Inc., 1925.