by Fr. Tommy Lane
The monastery here two miles south of Potes is in an area called Liébana (translated as Lebanon in English) at the foothills of the Picos de Europa (Peaks of Europe, Spain’s largest national park) which are really a continuation of the Pyrenees. Benedictine monks founded the monastery here during the sixth century. Beato, one of the monks in the middle of the eighth century, wrote a commentary on the Book of Apocalypse with illustrations and you may see copies of the illustrations on the walls of the cloister. The present church was built in 1256. The side chapel containing the largest known relic of the True Cross, the Lignum Crucis, was built at the beginning of the eighteenth century.
How did this most precious relic end up here? St. Toribio lived for some time in Jerusalem and was the custodian and guardian of the relics there. Fearing the profanation of the relics at the onset of Persian persecution he transferred the relics first to Rome and then to Spain. The relic was in the Cathedral of Astorga where Toribio was bishop. During invasions of Spain in the eighth century the relic was transferred here to Liébana during the reign of King Alfonso I. The remains of St. Toribio of Astorga were also transferred here at the same time. (The Sudarium also had to be hidden during this time). The chronicles of the Benedictine order state that this relic is from the left branch of the True Cross discovered by St. Elena, the mother of Emperor Constantine in the fourth century. The relic is in the gold plated cross behind the altar, it is in the upright position in the cross, you may see it through the glass. The hole from the nail can be plainly seen. In 1958 the wood was scientifically analyzed in Madrid and discovered to be extraordinarily old, the wood is Cupressus Sempervivens L. Whenever the feast of St. Toribio on April 16th falls on a Sunday it is a Jubilee Year here in the church and pilgrims fulfilling the usual requirements may gain the indulgence by visiting here that year. This Jubilee occurs every 6, 5, 6 and 11 years (similar to the Jubilee in Santiago de Compostela when the feast of St James on July 25th falls on a Sunday).
There is an ancient custom in the surrounding villages whereby two men from each village come to the monastery here to pray in the church and venerate the relic on a fixed day of the week according to agreement. They depart their village at midnight and walk all night, sometimes barefooted to reach the monastery at dawn. The tradition continues and is regulated by the local town councils and the monastery. In the program of the monastery you will see that the special Mass for this custom called La Vez is on Fridays at 11:00am from June to September (2003).
The veneration of this relic here has been accompanied by many signs and graces from heaven. Fr. Antonio de Yepes, in his Chronicles of the Benedictine Order, states, “If one had to count all the successive miracles, they would fill an entire tract…” Many people have testified to having received big graces praying in front of the relic of the True Cross here in Santo Toribio. As we venerate the cross here, we do so in a spirit of sorrow for our sins and asking graces for our lives that we may better represent Jesus in the world.
Helena, Constantine's mother, being inspired with a great desire to find the identical cross on which Christ had suffered for our sins, came to Jerusalem, and consulted all those whom she thought likely to assist her in compassing [accomplishing] her pious design. She was by them credibly informed, that if she could find out the sepulcher, she would likewise find out the instruments of the punishment; it being always a custom among the Jews to make a great hole near the place where the body of the criminal was buried, and to throw into it whatever belonged to his execution; looking upon all these things as detestable objects, and which for that reason ought to be removed out of sight. The pious empress, therefore, ordered the profane building to be pulled down, the statues to be broken in pieces, and the rubbish to he removed; and upon digging to a great depth, they discovered the holy sepulcher, and near it three crosses; also the nails which had pierced our Saviour's body, and the title which had been affixed to his cross. By this discovery they understood that one of the three crosses was that which they were in quest of, and that the other two belonged to the two malefactors between whom our Savior had been crucified. But as the title was found separate from the cross, a difficulty remained to distinguish which of the three was that cross on which our divine redeemer had consummated his sacrifice for the salvation of the world.
In this perplexity the holy bishop Macarius, knowing that one of the principal ladies of the city lay extremely ill, suggested to the empress to cause the three crosses to be carried to the sick person, not doubting but God would discover which was the cross they sought for. This being done, St. Macarius prayed that God would have regard to their faith, and after his prayer, applied the crosses singly to the patient, who was immediately and perfectly recovered by the touch of one of the crosses, the other two having been tried without effect.
St. Helen, full of joy for having found the treasure which she had so earnestly sought, and so highly esteemed, built a church on the spot, and lodged it there with great veneration, having provided an extraordinary rich case for it. She afterward carried part of it to the emperor Constantine, then at Constantinople, who received it with great veneration: another part she sent, or rather carried to Rome to be placed in the church which she built there, under the name of The Holy Cross of Jerusalem, where it remains to this day.
The title was sent by St. Helen to the same church in Rome, and deposited on the top of an arch, where it was found in a case of lead in 1492, and may be read at length in Bozius. The inscription in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin, is in red letters, and the wood was whitened. Thus it was in 1492 but these colors have since faded. Also the words Jesus and Judaeorum are eaten away. The board is nine, but must have been originally twelve inches long. The main part of the cross St. Helen enclosed in a silver shrine, and committed to the care of St. Macarius, that it might be delivered down to posterity as an object of veneration. It was accordingly kept with singular respect in the magnificent church which she and her son built at Jerusalem, and was shown publicly to the people at Easter. This stately church was hence called the Basilic of the Holy Cross; it was also called the church of the Sepulchre or of the Resurrection, thought this was properly the title only of the holy chapel which stood over the sepulcher or cavern in which our Savior was buried, which was in the garden adjoining to Mount Calvary; so that this great church covered the sepulcher, and was extended so far on Mount Calvary as also to included the rock Golgotha, and the very place where the cross of Christ stood at his crucifixion. This extensive building was enclosed within the walls of Jerusalem when that city was rebuilt. The find of the cross by St. Helen happened in the year of our Lord 326, in the thirteenth of the pontificate of Sylvester, and the first after the council of Nice."