The Story of St. Helen and the Finding of the True Cross

John Kubasak

The Story of St. Helen and the Finding of the True Cross

St. Helen, the mother of the Roman Emperor Constantine, traveled to the Holy Land in 327 A.D. hoping to find relics and sacred sites connected to Jesus. Thankfully for us, she was successful! Tradition attributes the finding of the True Cross—that is, the cross on which hung the Savior of the world—to St. Helen.  


The Story of St. Helen & the True Cross

Jerusalem had been razed by the Romans in the Jewish Revolt of 70 A.D. (when the second Temple was destroyed). The province was not peaceful after that, however. The Emperor Hadrian (117-138 A.D.) tried to force the issue by building a Roman colony on the site of Jerusalem; he also forbade Jews entry to the city and outlawed circumcision. Tensions boiled over in the Bar Kokbha revolt, which lasted for three years (132-135 A.D.) before being brutally put down. Unfortunately for the Christian community, Hadrian considered Christianity subversive on the same plane as Judaism. He “leveled the top of Mount Calvary and erected a temple to the pagan goddess Venus. He also cut away and leveled the hillside where Jesus' tomb stood and built a temple to the pagan god Jupiter Capitolinus.” Leveling involved bringing in great quantities of earth and creating a mound at both sites. Yet God can always use the efforts of those working against Him.  he irony was that the sacred sites were preserved as a result of being buried (from Fr. William Saunders).

Fast forward almost 200 years to the Emperor Constantine and St. Helen’s pilgrimage. Eusebius of Caesarea’s Life of Constantine cites the role of his mother in visiting the sacred sites in the Holy Land (Book 3, ch. 42). She visited the Holy Sepulchre, cave of the Nativity, and the site of the Ascension on the Mount of Olives. At the site of the Holy Sepulchre, Constantine ordered the pagan temple removed and commissioned an excavation (Book 3, chapters 25-28). The other two also had churches built on site. 

Helen learned the location of all three crosses used on the original Good Friday, plus nails and the capital (the sign that hung above Jesus’ head). Ancient chronicler Rufinius described a mortally ill woman being brought to determine which cross was the True one. They touched each of the three crosses to the woman; she was cured when the True Cross came into contact with her (source).

Check out the page of the Franciscans serving the Holy Land to see the historic Basilica of the Nativity and the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre, or one of Steve Ray’s videos (Holy Sepulchre). Want to check out a book that thoroughly combs through the relics of Christ? Take a look at Witness to Mystery by Grzegorz Górny and Janusz Rosikon.  


Dispersion of Relics

St. Helen split the cross into three main fragments; one went to Rome, one to Jerusalem to the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre, and one to Constantinople (now Istanbul) (source). Santa Croce also got half of the capital—it has text in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, matching the account in John’s gospel (19:19-20). St. Helen used part of her palace in Rome and built a church to house relics from the Holy Land. It later became known as Santa Croce in Gerusalemme, and while many renovations have occurred over the years, the church still stands on that site.  

In the 16th century, relics of the True Cross became a subject of derision. The Protestant so-called reformers John Calvin and Martin Luther scoffed that all of the supposed relics of the True Cross could build a house or a boat, they said. However impious some practices were regarding relics in the Midde Ages, the math tilts in the favor of the veracity of the relics. Without even calculating the number of splinters exigent in parishes and monasteries (my own parish has such a relic), we need to start by remembering that a whole cross was about 300 pounds of wood. The crossbeam weighed in at 100 pounds by itself.  That makes for plenty of splinters!  

There was a late 19th century French scholar who actually dove into the math himself. Charles Rohault de Fleury estimated that the whole cross (upright beam and crossbeam) weighed 220 pounds. That figured to a volume of 10,900 cubic inches of wood.  Of all the fragments he could find, the volume came to a miniscule 240 cubic inches. Even allowing that there were 10 times the number of fragments than what he measured, that’s still 2,400 cubic inches; nowhere close to a full cross.  

The moral of the story? Relics of the True Cross should get the benefit of the doubt.  


Pilgrimages in Our Lives

Embarking on a pilgrimage is a laudable spiritual practice. Christians have done so even before St. Helen traveled to the Holy Land. She sought Christ in His relics and holy sites, but also Our Lord Himself.  All pilgrimages seek Christ and therefore can be done closer to home. I recommend any long-distance pilgrimage that fits into one’s budget and life situation. The ‘if I win the lottery’ list is enormous—the Holy Land, Rome, and Guadalupe are just the start. I also recommend simpler pilgrimages, like visiting a parish named after a favorite saint, going to a local monastery or convent, or going to Mass at your local diocesan cathedral. 

Sometimes the Church provides extra opportunities for pilgrimages. In 2016 for the Year of Mercy, Pope Francis promulgated a plenary indulgence for those that walked through a Holy Door (along with the other usual conditions of a plenary indulgence). The four major basilicas in Rome each had such a door, but the Holy Father did not want to restrict the graces to Rome. Every diocese had to have at least one Holy Door.  

At the time, my wife was quite pregnant with our second child. We packed up our almost 2-year-old and drove to one of the holy doors in our diocese. Sure, it was not a grand pilgrimage. Yet it still involved some trials and effort: an hour’s drive, traffic, the fun of getting an almost 2-year-old into the car, and a degree of pregnant discomfort on my wife’s part that I will never fully comprehend. We did it as a family and God blessed us!

It can be comparatively simple when considered alongside a trip to Jerusalem to find relics of the Passion of Jesus. However, if we undertake it in faith and prayer, we open ourselves up for God’s blessings.  

St. Helen, pray for us!