“Why is there a jolly roger on your Mission Cross?” A friend of mine asked this question not long after I received it; I was still getting used to the symbolism of it and didn’t realize there was a small skull and crossbones toward the bottom. It was a funny question, and it’s a little funny to imagine a missionary being like a free-spirit pirate, sailing the oceans and going where the winds blow. The negative side of that is pirates made their living through robbery, intimidation, and destruction, lived a horrible life style, and if not arrested and hanged would likely die at an early age from disease and malnutrition.
The skull and crossbones on the Mission Cross is a symbol of the old spirituality of Memento Mori, remember your death. It reminds us this world is passing and if something isn’t going to be important at the end of our lives, why should it be important now? Coming from a dark, nasty and brutish era of human history, many would see it as a morbid attitude, however it is intended as a liberating view of life that can free us of everyday worries and priorities. Gaspar del Bufalo focused on this theme a lot in his preaching, and it helped bring thousands closer to God and helped reconcile them to the Church.
Symbols can communicate so much so quickly, however using one takes an artist’s touch and deep sensitivity. Just as our spoken words and actions can be misconstrued, a poorly chosen symbol can destroy a message no matter how well intended. A symbol that needs a great deal of explanation is like a joke that requires an explanation; a symbol that needs lengthy explanation is a poor symbol. We are not free to impose exclusive meanings on symbols: like a Pac-Man, it can eat up everything around it, including the meaning we are trying to get across, if we are not careful. A swastika is a sacred symbol to Hindus, however in every other culture today it is unusable, and no amount of lament or testimony to its sacred and innocent origin will change that.
My Mission Cross has always hung in a place of honor at my principal place of work for all to see, and will always be there. I know some will wonder why there’s a jolly roger on it, and some Christians will find the corpus offensive. I am ready to dialogue about the meaning of every aspect of my Mission Cross with anyone who sees it. When I use images and symbols, whether in liturgy, preaching, or any other context, I consider what I use and how I present it (and myself) carefully. If a symbol is going to open up layers of meaning, we must be ready for every interpretation possible as best we can. If we focus on how things are likely to be received, we can be more effective in our presentations than insisting what we present have one particular meaning and no other.