The Tau Cross

The Tau — A Franciscan Emblem

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The sign Tau has its origin in biblical antiquity and is the last letter of the Hebrew alphabet. It has a special significance for Franciscans because Francis adopted it as his personal seal and encouraged his companions to do the same. Describing Francis preference for this sign, St. Bonaventure writes in his Life of Saint Francis: ‘This Tau symbol had the saint’s deep veneration and devotion; he spoke of it in order to recommend it and he signed himself with it before beginning any action’ (Lm 2:9).
In 1215, on 11th November, the Fourth Lateran Council was convened in Rome under the presidency of Pope Innocent III. The Council opened with Solemn High Mass during which the Pope preached the inaugural homily. The text he used was, ‘I have desired with a great desire to eat this Pasch with you’ (Lk. 22:15. And with a masterful use of Scripture, Innocent compared the restoration of the Temple and the
Pasch which was celebrated in the eighteenth year of the reign of King Josias with
the Lateran Council which was being held in the eighteenth year of his pontificate.
His spiritual desire, he explained to the assembly, numbering well in excess if 1200,
was the reform of Catholic life and the liberation of the Holy Land. He elaborated
this two-fold desire in prophetic style and eloquent language linking the Last Supper
text with that of Ezechiel 9:44ff. Moreover, he likened himself to the man ‘dressed in
linen’ to whom the Lord said: ‘Go all through the city, all through Jerusalem, and
mark the Tau on the foreheads of all who deplore and disapprove of all the filth
practised in it’. And the Council Fathers Innocent likened to the ‘six men who carried
weapons of destruction’. These men were to spare none but those marked with the
Tau on their foreheads. In applying the text still further, the Pope explained that the
Tau was the form of the Cross, so that anyone who wore this sign appropriated the
power of the Cross and witnessed to it by his deeds.
Francis, attentive to the instructions of the Council, drew his inspiration for the
use of the Tau from this sermon of Pope Innocent. Having already sworn obedience
and reverence to the Pope and out of love and loyalty to the Church, Francis would
surely have had that ‘listening posture’ to hear and heed the expressed desires of the
Pope! So, Thomas of Celano, writing in 1252, gives this testimony: ‘Above all others,
he preferred the sign of the Tau; he used it as a signature for his letters and he
painted it on the walls of all the cells’ (3 Cel. 3).
In the Second Life, Thomas describes an incident which tool place near San
Severino and which brought about the conversion of Pacificus (2 Cel. 106). Not long
after this, Thomas reports, Pacificus saw a great sign TAU on the forehead of Francis
which radiated circles of colour. St. Bonaventure, taking up this incident in a parallel
passage of his own work, The Life of Saint Francis, not only adds some explanations,
but links it into the same text that Pope Innocent III used in his sermon at theopening of the Lateran Council. He writes: ‘The holy man venerated this symbol with
great affection, often spoke of it highly and signed it with his own hand at the end of
the letters which he sent, as if his whole desire were to mark with the Tau the
foreheads of men who have been truly converted to Jesus Christ and who moan and
grieve according to the text of the Prophet (Ezechiel 9:4) (LM 4:9). In the prologue to
the same work, however, St. Bonaventure connects the Ezechiel text with the
Apocalypse 7:2 thus making Francis the Angel of the Sixth Seal, whose mission is ‘to
call men to weep and mourn , to shave their heads and put on sack cloth, and to mark
with a Tau the foreheads of men who groan and grieve, signing them with the cross of
penance and clothing them with his habit, which is in the form of a cross’ (LM Prol. 2).
In this way, Bonaventure cleverly bestows on Francis’ use of the Tau an
eschatological significance.
That Francis was aware of the deep spiritual significance of the Tau is manifested
in the way he used it to autograph his blessing for Brother Leo. The holograph called
the Chartula has the Praises of God on one side, and, the Aaronic Blessing (Num.
6:24-26), now commonly known as the Blessing of St. Francis, on the other.
The Tau was for Francis and his companions a symbol of their total commitment
to Christ in poverty and penance, and for whom they carried the cross in their bodies
for salvation of the Church. This sign Francis and his friars adopted and used at the
wish of Pope Innocent to symbolise their loyalty and active support of their consiliar
reforms.
Abbreviations:
Lm
LM
2 Cel
3 Cel
Minor Life of St. Francis by St. Bonaventure
Major Life of St. Francis by St. Bonaventure
Celano’s Second Life of St. Francis
Celano’s Third Life of St. Francis