By Barb Arland-Fye
The Catholic Messenger
An Irish penal crucifix like the one that caught Father Bill Reynold’s eye on a trip to Europe years ago, serves as a source of comfort and reassurance for dying parishioners.
Fr. Reynolds, pastor of Sacred Heart Parish in Newton, shared with me the poignant tradition that he began while serving as pastor of St. Mary Parish in Grinnell. He noted that the publication date for this week’s issue of The Catholic Messenger coincides with the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross on Sept. 14. In an email, he attached a photo of the unusual crucifix that fits in the palm of a hand.
“This is a parish crucifix which we take to those who are dying. After death it is returned to the parish to be ready for the next person who is dying,” Fr. Reynolds said. The crucifix has now been with 46 people — 19 in Grinnell and 27 in Newton.
“When I give it to a new person I explain that, and suggest that I would like to think that those who had this crucifix with them at the time of their death will be there to welcome this present individual to eternal life;” a reminder of the communion of saints.
The significance of the Irish penal crucifix dates back to the 18th century, when the British imposed a series of laws intended to suppress Catholicism in Ireland. The faithful persisted, carrying the small crucifix that could be slipped up their sleeves to avoid detection by their persecutors, Fr. Bill said.
He takes the crucifix with him when notified that a parishioner is dying. “This crucifix is not with every parishioner who dies. Some die suddenly, some away from here, and for others I just forget to take the crucifix to them.” But for those who receive the crucifix, “I think there’s a comfort level of feeling something tactile, to hold and feel the crucifix and be reminded of what it stands for.”
As Sacred Heart parishioner John Francis O’Roake, 98, lay dying in his hospital bed in early September, his family members placed the crucifix on his chest. Occasionally, he held the crucifix in his hand, said daughter-in-law Cheryl O’Roake, who is married to Francis’ son John.
“Francis was a lifelong member of Sacred Heart. He had a strong religious faith. It was reassuring for us, comforting for us, to know that the familiar faces of those who passed away before him would be there to greet him,” Cheryl added.
As a State Farm Insurance salesman, Francis shook a lot of hands in his lifetime. The family figured that his late beloved wife, Catherine “Elaine,” was waiting as Francis shook hands en route. “He touched so many lives in a positive way…. Having the crucifix there was another symbol of our church community rallying around Francis.”
Robert “Bob” Wadzinski remembers the comfort the crucifix provided him and his wife Mary Ellen as she was dying of cancer at age 56 in 2014. “Father (Bill) really cares about his parishioners. He’s a good shepherd and he cares about his flock. We got the crucifix and had it in our bedroom and put it up on the wall,” added Bob, who serves on Sacred Heart’s pastoral council. “I had it there so she could see it and I could see it.”
He describes his wife, mother of their four children, as a caring nurse who loved the residents she served in a nursing home. She was also a talented singer who sang in the parish choir, he added. The couple began praying the rosary daily when Mary Ellen was diagnosed with cancer in 2012. Bob still prays the rosary daily.
It is a privilege to share the stories of families who participated in a tradition that reminded them of the saving power of Christ’s crucifixion.
(Editor Barb Arland-Fye can be reached at email@example.com.)