LIFT HIGH THE CROSS by Pat Ciarrocchi

June 6, 2024

     “Lift high the Cross. The love of Christ proclaimed…”

The hymn’s melody with its 19th century British roots soared in my mind with a full choir of angels singing, and an organ bellowing chords of music so stirring, I felt the vibration in my soul.

The Cross that pulled music from the heavens for me on May 23rd was Philadelphia’s Papal Mass Cross.

The iconic, towering symbol of Pope John Paul II’s visit to Philadelphia in 1979 was being moved from its corner at City Line and Lancaster Avenues to a new, permanent home on the grounds of the Malvern Retreat House. After standing “on duty to the Heavens” for 45 years, the Cross is undergoing a restoration, and will be resurrected at Malvern, in the Fall. Philadelphia’s Archbishop Nelson Perez will celebrate the Mass to bless its installation. The Cross will be refreshed, and ready to take on generations with petitions still to be prayed.

In 1979, Catholic Philadelphia first caught sight of the cross as it towered more than thirty-five feet over Pope John Paul II, as he celebrated Mass on Philadelphia’s Benjamin Franklin Parkway, as part of his first trip to the United States as pope. More than a million people of all faiths came to witness history unfolding that day on an altar built over Logan Circle.

The giant cross was the centerpiece of that sacred altar and stood just behind the 59-year-old leader of the Roman Catholic Church. Then, Pope John Paul II, was a vibrant athlete who loved to ski. His dynamism over those two October days was so real, it lingered like a spiritual hologram. As time passed, The Cross embodied the moment when Philadelphia was touched by the dynamic, beloved Pope who would become the Saint, in record time after his death in 2005.

With the imprimatur of John Cardinal Krol, Philadelphia’s Archbishop at the time, The Cross found its place on the campus of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary, in Wynnewood. Not long after John Paul II was “wheels up,” the Papal Mass Cross was “planted on the corner of a grassy field, away from the scores of young men in black cassocks discerning their call to the priesthood.

For the faithful, the Cross’ presence felt close, even fleetingly on a busy highway. 

At the intersection of City Line and Lancaster Avenues, where the traffic lights can feel notoriously slow to change, millions were stopped there along their journeys. Even a sideways glance couldn’t miss the Cross’ towering presence.  

For so many years, I would drive by and make the Sign of the Cross. I would speak a little prayer for my “special intention of the moment,” feeling confident it would be lifted in petition or gratitude.

With the Seminary grounds now sold to Main Line Health, which has its own health care vision for the rolling acreage, the Papal Mass Cross with its 35-foot height and 12-foot arm span needed to be moved.

With an enthusiastic ‘YES!,” the Malvern Retreat House accepted the archdiocese’s gift of the Cross, where it will rise again, certain to draw the faithful in prayer.

Those are the facts.

Here’s the emotion.        

Not long after dawn on May 23rd, a crew of contractors with a crane, and a flatbed truck, wrapped chains around the cross and lifted it from its stone cylindrical pedestal.

I was invited to watch. The men worked with respect around the Cross which felt more sacred relic than crafted pieces of plywood, covered in fiberglass with an aluminum street pole in the center giving it strength.

Welders were called in to surgically cut it free from its pedestal. The Cross was lifted out, placed on its end resting on the now exposed pole. The crew wrapped the Cross in bubble wrap to protect it for the ride from Wynnewood to Malvern. And then, it was laid on a flatbed truck. The Cross’ arms appeared outstretched beyond the edges of the truck.

First, I asked if I could touch it. Eagerly, the men on the crew nodded affirmatively.

“Sure, Pat! Go ahead!,” the crane operator encouraged. The Cross was safely strapped to the flatbed. I walked up to it, feeling sheepish, as if I was about to shake the hand of a person who was highly esteemed.   

Michael Norton, the President of Malvern Retreat House, brought several of his staff from the retreat center to the mowed, dew-covered field, where the crane and the trucks were staged. In blue short-sleeved shirts, with Malvern embroidered on the front, these men became the Cross’ escorts to its summer place of “retreat” and “restoration.” They viewed it as a sacred duty. In the liturgical sense, the Papal Mass Cross isn’t consecrated. In a spiritual sense, there is no doubt.

How do I know that for sure?

I asked if I could climb up onto the flatbed with the Cross. It was safe. The crane was well out of the way… the cross was strapped down…the truck wasn’t moving. The contractors had an idea.

“Pat, we have a ladder,” they offered.

Two of the men from Malvern said, “Come on, Pat. You can do it. We’ll spot you and hold the ladder. It’s just eight rungs.”  I felt safe in their care. I knew the Cross would be too.

My footwear that morning was smart. Sturdy sneakers meant more for a hike. That is, if I hiked.

I walked to the base of the Cross and looked at it stretched out, arms wide, with the top of the Cross in alignment with the dome of the seminary’s St. Martin’s Chapel in the distance. I was overwhelmed with emotion. I took a photograph.

The Papal Mass Cross looked like it was “at rest.”

 “Whew! I was standing on that corner for such a long time,” I could imagine the Cross saying.

“My arms should be tired, but they’re not. My arms always had strength. It was Divine strength. In witness, millions came to this corner with their arms outstretched in prayer, trying almost to imprint their petitions into air. I could see that they trusted the Cross to carry their prayers to the heavens. They prayed in hope and gratitude. Now, it’s time to rest, restore and rejuvenate. The generations to come need The Cross, to help them carry their burdens, in hope.”

I felt hot tears on my cheeks. I asked Eustace DeCarlo, a young photographer who was there to witness and record the move to climb up next to the Cross with me. I asked for a picture. 

Immediately, I went into my First Holy Communion pose. My hands were folded reverently, fingers pointing to the heavens, right under my chin. The prayer on my lips was, “Thank You, thank You, dear Lord, for the gift of this moment.”

“Lift high the Cross…”

St. Pope John Paul II, pray for us… all. Lead us to love and peace.    

*This was commentary was also posted in Catholic Philly.

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