Our final station church for Lent 2017 is the Basilica of Holy Cross in Jerusalem or Santa Croce in Gerusalemme.
This church is one of the few that features more than once on the rota of Masses for the Station Churches: on Good Friday the pilgrims return to this basilica situated a short distance along the Viale Carlo Felice from St John Lateran.
According to local tradition, the basilica was consecrated around the year 325AD to provide a fitting home for relics of the Passion of Our Lord. Empress St. Helena, the mother of Roman Emperor Constantine I, had brought these relics to Rome from the Holy Land. The ‘in Jerusalem’ part of the title comes from the fact that the original floor of the basilica was covered in soil from the Holy City and therefore the church itself was deemed as being in Jerusalem. Empress Helena lived in the Sessorian Palace and it is the great hall of that building which – after modifications – came to serve as the basilica church.
Without any major work having been carried out on the building for many years, the basilica fell into disrepair until Pope Lucius II, during his short pontificate (1144-45AD), restored the church in a Romanesque style with a nave, two aisles and a porch. The next substantial development of the basilica came during the reign of Pope Benedict XIV (1740-58AD), who had been the Cardinal Priest of the church prior to his election. The work he commissioned created the Baroque appearance of the church seen today.
For centuries the relics of the Passion were kept in a subterranean chapel prior to being moved into the chapel named in honour of St. Helena. This chapel is accessible to the public and, as well as housing the relics, contains a mosaic from 1485 by Melozzo da Forlì, a famed Renaissance painter and architect, well known for his distinctive techniques in creating frescos. In 1930 the need arose to move the relics from their original position in the chapel due to damp, and they were placed in their current site behind the sanctuary. Work on the Cappela delle Reliquie took over 20 years to complete, the work being delayed by the outbreak of the Second World War.
The relics are placed for veneration behind a glass case and include part of the panel which hung above Christ on the cross. This was re-discovered in 1492 in the triumphal arch of the Sanctuary and evidence to its authenticity was found in a 3rd century diary from a Holy Land pilgrim who wrote about the Titulus Crucis, contained in a silver casket in Jerusalem. Thorns from the crown placed on the head of Jesus can also be seen alongside part of a nail and three smaller pieces of the Cross displayed in an ornate cross-shaped reliquary which is used during the celebration of the Lord’s Passion on Good Friday.
At the bottom of the stairs that lead up to the Relics Chapel is a small chapel dedicated to Antoinetta Meo, the youngest ever person whose cause has been considered for canonisation in the Catholic Church. She is currently titled Venerable after Pope Benedict XVI in 2010 recognised her heroic virtues. She died at the age of 6 in 1937 from a rare form of aggressive bone cancer, but before her death wrote a series of “extraordinary letters” to Jesus.
In the main church, the altar contains the remains of St Cesario and St. Anastasio, two martyrs of the early church. The apse is decorated with a fresco showing Christ in a gesture of blessing surrounded by angels. The same fresco also depicts the discovery in Jerusalem of the crosses upon which Jesus and the Good Thief were crucified.