The Tau Cross
The Tau Cross ( “T “) is the distinctive sign and official habit of the Secular Franciscan Order (Rule 23; Statutes 16.4).
It represents solidarity within our Order and is a public witness to our profession of the Rule and our commitment to a life of penance, conversion, and gospel living.
The Tau has biblical roots (Ezekiel 9:4) as a symbol of penance and conversion. The Tau is the last letter of the Hebrew alphabet. It was used with symbolic value since the Old Testament, talked about in the Book of Ezekiel: “The Lord said, Go through the midst of the city, in the midst of Jerusalem, and mark a Tau on the foreheads of the men that sigh and that cry …” (Ez.9, 4). It is the sign placed on the front of the poor of Israel, save them from extermination. The early Christians adopted the Tau for two reasons. First, it is the last letter of the Hebrew alphabet; it was a prophecy of the last day and had the same function as the Greek letter Omega, as referenced in Revelation: “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give from the fountain of the water of life … I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End “(Ap.21, 6, 22, 13 ). Secondly, and more importantly, the early Christians adopted the Tau because its shape reminded them of the cross on which Christ was sacrificed for the salvation of the world.
St. Francis became familiar with this symbol through the Antonian Brothers, a group of penitents who staffed the leprosarium at the outskirts of Assisi near the Tiber River (Rivo Torto). They painted this symbol on their habits (St. Anthony of Egypt [c.251–356] is always depicted with a Tau cross).
After the conversion of St. Francis, he spent time ministering to the lepers and working with the Antonians. When he journeyed to Rome, he stayed at the hospital of St. Blaise, which was also staffed by the Antonians (now the Church of San Francisco a Ripa).
At the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215, St. Francis heard Pope Innocent III reference the Ezekiel passage and declare that “those who will be marked with this sign will obtain mercy, having mortified their flesh and conformed their life to that of the Crucifed Savior.” He challenged Christians to “be champions of the Tau.”
St. Francis adopted the Tau Cross as his own personal symbol, painting it on the walls and doors of places where he stayed, and he used it in his writings, as the shape of his habit, as his only written signature, and as a symbol of his Order. Franciscans today consider the Tau to represent the cross of Christ as well as the ideal of the life and dream that St. Francis had envisioned for himself and his followers.
OTHER FRANCISCAN SYMBOLS –
The Conformity is another version of the Tau Cross. It depicts the arms of Jesus and St. Francis crossed over the Tau. Both hands bear the imprint of the nails from the crucifixion. The arm of St. Francis is clothed in the sleeve of his habit, while the arm of Christ is bare.
This symbol expresses the profound love that St. Francis had for the Crucified Christ. So intense and intimate was his love, that he became conformed to his Beloved. On September 17, 1224, while immersed in prayer on Mt. Alverna, Francis was gifted with the stigmata – he became a living crucifix, bearing in his body the marks of his beloved crucified Lord.