Monday, April 16, 2007

The Way of This Cross: A Relic of the True Cross Finds Home in the Philippines

The backcountry road going west of Tarlac City leads to the mountainous edge of the central plain of Luzon. Twenty kilometers from the capital, one reaches the town of San Jose, 574 square kilometers of hilly and rolling land at the northwestern part of the province of Tarlac, where the village of Lubigan presents an arid landscape of cogon and bush broken by fields of rice and corn and dotted by huts, and stretches to the foot of a series of mountains that divide Tarlac and Zambales.

On one of the mountains, where apparitions are likely happen, a statue of Jesus Christ, all white under the blazing sun, stretches its arms. Behind the statue is a large cross. A gray-and-white castle incongruously appears among the green and brown. A resort maybe, or a small theme park? But the paved road snaking up the mountain leads to the newly-established Monasterio de Tarlac, where a piece of wood, said to be taken from the very cross on which Jesus Christ was crucified, is now enshrined.
The relic, now the only one in Asia, received limited public attention in the beginning and is now slowly being publicized.
“We would like to share this gift with the Filipino people,” says Father Ronald Thomas Cortez, the prior of the nascent monastic community called Servants of the Risen Christ and the main custodian of the relic. “I want us Filipinos to venerate the relic of the True Cross in our own country. The relic is believed to bring blessings to the faithful.”
The significance of the relic is not lost on the tourism office of the region, which put the monastery in its list of attractions and places of interest in the Central Luzon region, and predicted that “the place will soon become one of the most-visited pilgrimage sites in the country.”
It is very likely to happen. The Philippines is fervently Catholic, and many Filipinos are drawn to sacred sites, miraculous images, apparitions and talismans. This early, there have been pilgrims and seekers of answers coming to the monastery. And there will be more.

We embarked on a pre-Holy Week pilgrimage to Monasterio de Tarlac, an almost three-hour drive from Manila. The road up the mountain, now christened the Mount of Resurrection by Father Ronald Thomas, was devoid of greenery save for a few hardy shrubs and gangly trees. In the future, it will be lined with stalls selling souvenirs and refreshments, we predicted. The paved road ended at the 278-hectare Tarlac Ecotourism Park, a tourism project of the provincial government, where the monastery occupies 43 hectares. A makeshift police station marked the entrance of the monastery, and policemen were on guard.
On the slope were gazebos, the shape of Medieval castles, for socializing and viewing the plains and far-off mountains. The surrounding gardens were littered with whitewashed statues of saints. The most prominent of them is a 30-foot statue of the Risen Christ, which bears some resemblance to the famous Statue of Christ the Redeemer overlooking Rio de Janeiro in Brazil.
Further down, off-limits to visitors, hermitages perched on the ledges among the shrubs, five spartan cottages with an amazing view: the plains of San Jose, a patchwork of green and brown veined with dirt roads and a river, and hemmed in by a chain of bluish mountains.

Near the viewing decks was a sizable restroom, well-kept and ready for an onslaught of pilgrims and visitors. At the other side was the administration building and dormitory with maroon tiled roofs and cream-painted walls, reminiscent of suburb houses of the nouveau riche and mid-level resorts, glinting in its newness in the sun.

At the heart of the compound, the plaza sprawled in front of the chapel that looked like a cardboard cutout against the clear sky. In the glare of noon, a short line of monks, in habits of white and sky-blue, marched across the plaza into the chapel, carrying incense and a cross. The fragrance of burning incense wafted in the air, its spiciness accented by the heat. The prior had insisted on saying mass and conducting a short recollection for the visitors.

The chapel can seat about 50. Its two wings can accommodate more. Inside, the retablo was painted white, richly embellished with gilded curlicues, whorls and leaves. A cross occupied the main niche. Above it were the words Ave, crux, spes unica, “Hail, the Holy Cross, our only hope.”

Through an oval window of the altar, we saw the silver arqueta, the ark which contains the relic. The altar area is closed off with a tall fence of wrought iron, the sense of standoffishness ameliorated by beautiful iron flowers. The gates are opened when the priest enters, when sacraments are performed and when churchgoers are allowed to touch the reliquary.

Father Ronald Thomas, popular called by his nickname Archie, dispensed his sermon, a perennial indictment of the mundane and the upholding of the more important and the spiritual, behind bars. After the mass, we lined up to touch the arqueta. The gate was opened as well as the grill doors of the altar. Each was allowed to touch the ark and have a moment of prayer and beseeching.

Bathed in golden light, the silver arqueta is engraved with decorations of curling vines and cherubim, and Christian symbols that remind one of the Crucifixion: a pair of dice, a hammer and a wrench, spears, the crown of thorns, a snake coiled around a goblet, a piece of cloth bearing the impression of Jesus Christ’s face, three crosses jutting out on the hill of Golgotha, and a ladder.

We were not able to see the relic itself. The reliquary is only opened once a year, on September 14, the Feast of the Triumph of the Holy Cross. The relic is a dark, rectangular piece of wood said to be olive. “It’s a like a Matchbox,” Father Archie says, referring to the popular toy cars that can fit on the palm of the hand.

After lunch and a round of questions, the 42-year-old diocesan priest appeared bemused by both the heat and the number of inquisitive people. All he wanted was a quiet and contemplative life, but now, he was thrust into the limelight and possibly into managing throngs of people who will come for the relic. He knows that it may disrupt their lives and the atmosphere of community, which is still in the delicate and difficult process of being shaped.

He had never planned it to be this way, but then again, he never even imagined everything—from establishing a monastic community to being the caretaker of the relic—to be this way.

“When we started the construction of the monastery, we didn’t realize that the Holy Cross will come. We were looking for a place that is conducive to our way of life, a place that is quiet where we can lead our monastic ways. It is the reason why we are here on the mountains,” he says.

There may be changes in the way he envisioned things, but whatever happens he is ready to embrace it. Everything that has happened and will happen is by providence, he believes. What seems accidental and coincidental is part of God’s design. Father Archie never thought that his journey and that of his monastery will cross paths with the storied journey of relic of the True Cross, becoming one road leading to the mountain in Tarlac.

“We believe this is God’s plan and God’s design. When were formed as congregation, as a community we received the church’s blessing on the Feast of the Triumph of the Holy Cross in 1998. So our foundation day is September 14,” he affirms.

“I personally did not even think of forming a community like this,” Father Archie, who studied at the University of Santo Tomas seminary, relates. “I was ordained as a diocesan priest in 1989.”

First assigned in San Sebastian Cathedral in Tarlac City for two years, Father Archie then served as the parish priest in the town of Ramos in Tarlac, where he turned the Church of Saint Therese of the Child Jesus into a shrine for which he also serves as its director, and founded the Servants of Risen Lord.

“I had a longing for a monastic life. I wanted to join a community but was not given a chance because of our work. So in 1998, the young men with us try to live the life at first,” he says.
After receiving the Catholic church’s blessing, formally recognizing them as a congregation, in 1998 Father Archie went in search for a suitable site for a monastery.

Place at the Peak
The provincial government offered a place in San Jose, donating 20 hectares to the congregation. In 2003, Father Archie visited the site for the first time and started raising funds to purchase additional areas and to build structures. Fortunately, there were many people helping out the fledging community, benefactors including the Cojuangcos, the province’s most prominent family.

The necessary structures both for the monastic community and for the relic were readily built in time for the relic’s arrival. Father Archie opted for the “Medieval design,” meaning the castle, for some structures because “hindi nawawala sa uso.” (It doesn’t go out of fashion.)

There are 32 monks in the community, mostly formerly young professionals, who have the common desire to embrace the monastic life patterned after the Monastic Fathers, address themselves as fraters, and wake up before dawn to pray before the birds sing. Their philosophy centers on Easter spirituality because of its emphasis on hope. According to Father Archie, they are not totally cloistered like other communities, but they are more apostolic and contemplative.

Their apostolic work includes like facilitating recollections and retreats for the public, and managing the Ramos shrine and two orphanages in Ramos and in Tagaytay City.

And yes, they have homemade products, too, like those of other religious congregations in the country. They are starting with a calamansi concentrate with honey in 350 milliliter plastic bottles, calling it Calamonks and advertising it as “squeezed and processed by prayerful hands.” Amusing as it may sound, the concentrate makes a surprisingly delectable and refreshing drink. The nuns of the Handmaids of the Risen Christ, their female counterpart, produce the concentrate and take care of the orphanages.

Now, because of several suggestions, the community is starting to make religious items for the future pilgrims of the relic.

Father Archie’s association with the relic of the True Cross began in 2005. Lutz Ruhloff, the president of the Philippine-German Association in Oberhausen, invited the priest to be a guest at the World Youth Day in Cologne. There he met Monsignor Volker Bauer, who invited him to visit his diocese in Essen, where a relic of the True Cross was enshrined.

Catholic churches, in Germany and in Europe in general, are undergoing hard times. As the continent becomes more secular, church attendance is steadily declining. Many structures become unused or “redundant.” Some church authorities opt to sell, find other uses for, or demolish them than spend for their expensive upkeep. Many structures are reborn as museums, warehouses and restaurants.

In Essen, there are about 100 churches intended for closure and reuse.

“And they were looking for a community which can take care of that relic,” Father Archie said. “And they chose the Philippines because it is a Catholic country, and for the veneration [of the people].”

The Essen relic is one of the many relics of the True Cross, now scattered mostly in Europe. There are several stories and variations about the finding of the True Cross, recorded by early writers and churchmen. There were also stories on the events around and related to the relics. These stories, though, were generally considered apocryphal by historians. Some events in the stories, however, can be ascertained, like the completion of the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre in 335 A.D. It is also certain that by the 340s, veneration of what were alleged to be relics of the cross was proliferating. Most of these stories though attributed the finding of the True Cross to the empress Helena, mother of the first Christian emperor of Rome Constantine.

Several early writers wrote that Helena, (born c.255 and died c.330 AD), after Christianity was granted freedom of practice throughout the Roman Empire in 312 A.D., journeyed to the Holy Land, establishing churches and putting up relief agencies for the poor along the way. Eventually, she discovered where the three crosses used at the crucifixion of Jesus and the two thieves were hidden. The Holy Sepulcher, originally a site of veneration for the Christian community in Jerusalem, was buried, and on top of it, a temple dedicated to the Roman goddess Venus was built.

According to Eusebius in Life of Constantine, around 325 to 326 A.D., Emperor Constantine, after being converted to Christianity, ordered the site be uncovered and instructed Saint Macarius, Bishop of Jerusalem, to build a church on the site.

On the other hand, Socrates Scholasticus (born c. 380), in Ecclesiastical History, wrote that Saint Helena had the temple destroyed and the Sepulcher uncovered. In the process, she discovered the three crosses and the titulus. The nails used on Christ were said to be have been found and was sent to Constantinople, where they were incorporated into the emperor’s helmet and the bridle of his horse.

But Theodoret’s (died c. 457) Ecclesiastical History gives what had become the standard version of the finding of the True Cross. Helena arrived at the place where Jesus suffered and ordered the temple destroyed. When the tomb, which had been buried for a long time, was discovered, three crosses were also unearthed near the sepulcher. Everyone believed one of them is the cross on which Jesus Christ died, though no one could tell which one. Macarius, the president (some said bishop) of Jerusalem, resolved the problem by allowing each cross to be touched by a very ill woman. The cross that healed the woman was considered the True Cross.

“She (Helena) had part of the cross of our Savior conveyed to the palace. The rest was enclosed in a covering of silver, and committed to the care of the bishop of the city, whom she exhorted to preserve it carefully, in order that it might be transmitted uninjured to posterity,” wrote Theoderet.

Interestingly, there is a story relating the history of the True Cross before it was used for crucifixion and its finding. In the late Middle Ages and Early Renaissance, the story on the provenance of the True Cross is generally accepted.

Jacopo de Voragine, Bishop of Genoa, recorded the story of the pre-Christian origins of the True Cross in the Golden Legend in 1260. The story tells that the wood of the True Cross came from a seed of the Tree of Life which grew in the Garden of Eden. When Adam was dying, he asked his son Seth to go to the archangel Michael and beg for a seed from the Tree of Life. When Adam died, the seed was placed in his mouth. When he was buried, the seed grew from his mouth and became a tree.

Many centuries later, when the Queen of Sheba embarked on a journey to meet King Solomon, the tree was felled and the wood used to build a bridge over which she would pass. The queen was struck by the portent of the wood the bridge was made of. She fell on her knees and worshipped it. She told Solomon that a piece of the wood would bring about the replacement of God’s covenant with the Jewish people by a new order. Fearing the eventual fall of his people, Solomon had the wood buried. After fourteen generations, the wood was used to build the cross for crucifixion.

The part of the True Cross found by Helena left in Jerusalem was encased in a silver reliquary and housed in the basilica under care of the bishop there. It was periodically exhibited for the veneration of the faithful. Accounts say a part of this relic was taken as trophy by the Sassanid Emperor Khosrau II when he captured Jerusalem in 614 A.D. When the Byzantine Emperor Heraclius defeated Khosrau in 628, he reclaimed the relic and took it to Constantinople. Later, he returned it to Jerusalem.

The restoration of the Cross to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem is said to happen on September 14. Thus on that date, the Roman Catholic Church commemorates this victory with the Feast of the Exaltation (or Triumph) of the Holy Cross.

Around 1009, Christians in Jerusalem hid the relic until its rediscovered during the First Crusade by Arnulf Malecorne, the first Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, on August 5, 1099. In 1187, during the Battle of Hattin, Saladin grabbed hold of it. After that, it vanished.
Other pieces of the cross were further broken up and widely distributed, many given as gifts to churches across Europe. Furthermore the capture and sacking of Constantinople by the Fourth Crusade in 1204 lead to the partition and dispersal of the relics in its possession. The bishops and knights in the crusade divided the relics among themselves and brought them to their homelands, where they donated them to churches and monasteries.

Thus today there are many churches in Europe which possess relics of the True Cross. It can be said that many of these relics came from Constantinople, and it is very possible that many are fakes. During the Middle Ages, relics were held in high esteem, and there were many unscrupulous merchants who fabricate relics.

Today, Santo Toribio de LiƩbana in Spain, a popular Catholic pilgrimage site, is said to hold the largest piece of the relic. Though their authenticity impossible to verify, it is undeniable that the relics of the True Cross foment fascination and, to many, can stir up faith and religiosity.

And faith is more important to Father Archie.

Public mission and message
When Monsignor Bauer offered the relic to him, Father Archie accepted.

“I didn’t really think about what might be involved in accepting the relic. I didn’t know what might be demanded of us. We didn’t even have the money to build a suitable chapel for it. What I did know was that I wanted to bring it to the Philippines, and I wanted Filipinos to be able to venerate the relic of the Holy Cross in their own country,” he says.

On January 29, 2007, Monsignor Bauer arrived at the Diosdado Macapagal Interntional Airport, in Clark Freeport Zone in Pampanga, with the relic. The next day, it was transferred to the Monasterio de Tarlac where it was formally enshrined. Leading the ceremony was the Most Reverend Fernando Filoni, D.D., the papal nuncio in the Philippines. For the first time, the monastery was thronged with believers and church officials from different dioceses and archdioceses in the country—a glimpse of things to come.

Father Archie and his monastery now take on another mission, a bigger one: to bring as many people as possible to the relic. They started by opening up the monastery to the public during weekends. From Monday to Friday, they are closed to the public so that they are still able to lead monastic lives. When the monastery gets busy, the priest plans to create a cloistered area where only the monks are allowed.

Also the church must be expanded to accommodate the growing number of pilgrims. The present chapel was initially intended to be an oratory for their own use. Father Archie is contemplating on building a bigger church. He is also thinking of a shuttle service from Tarlac City for those who will come without their own vehicles.

The rest he relies on God, especially the spiritual things, especially miracles many people are going to hope for. There have been miracles, he admitted, attributed to the relic. Someone with a grave illness was healed; a relationship was patched up; and United States visas were approved, prayers answered, he enumerated generally.

“In fact, even before the relic was brought here, miracles have already been happening. The chapel which enshrines the relic was constructed in no time. Both the public and the private sectors are working hand in hand to put up and improve the place. That kind of unity alone is miracle,” Father Archie declares.

He is not really comfortable with the idea of people coming here thinking of and looking for miracles. “Sometimes [being in the] mountain in search of God is already a miracle. That is the best way to look at it,” he says.

“With or without the relic, our faith should be firm. We are so blessed that we have a fragment of the Holy Cross. But without the relic, I think we have to encourage one another. I think it is a very important thing,” he adds.

For Father Archie, more than the miracles, the relic of the True Cross bears a more important thing: its meaning.

“It gives us hope,” he said, staying true to the Easter spiritually he espouses “Despite our present situation, we still believe that God is still with us.”

It seems that the circle is coming to completion for Father Archie and the monastic community. A piece of the cross on which Jesus Christ died is now housed in a community that rejoices in the significance of His resurrection. In death, there is the promise of life.

Contact Information
The Servants of the Risen Christ can be contacted through Frater Thomas Mary Lawrence with mobile phone number 0917-932-8738, or email Its counterpart, the Handmaids of the Risen Christ Monastic Community, which produces the Calamonks calamansi concentrate, has its formation house at 11-1 Remy Street corner Nena Drive, Villa Teresa, Angeles City, Pampanga and can be contacted through mobile phone numbers 0919-6578315 and 0920-8636028.
The Department of Tourism office in Region III can be contacted through telephone numbers (045) 961-2665, 961-2612 and 625-8525 or email The Tarlac Provincial Tourism office can be contacted through telephone number (045) 982-2374, and the Tarlac City Tourism Council and its chairman Lydia Co through telephone numbers (045) 982-4051 and 982-1923.
Email author at

Getting There
The Monasterio de Tarlac is in the Servants of the Risen Lord Monastic Community, Tarlac Ecotourism Park, Lubigan, San Jose, Tarlac.
From Manila, take the North Luzon Expressway, exiting at the Santa Ines Toll Plaza in Mabalacat, Pampanga. Proceed northwards to Tarlac City. In the barangay of San Sebastian (Landmark is Hon Kee Tea House), turn left at the Tarlac-Pangasinan bypass road going to the town of Camiling. Follow the 36-kilometer backcountry but well-paved road to the barangay Lubigan in San Jose, Tarlac.