The Tau Cross is also called the Cross of Tau, the Franciscan Tau Cross, the Cross of St. Francis, and the Cross of St. Anthony. The symbolism of the cross was connected not only to the letter Chi, but also to the Tau, the equivalent of the last letter in the Phoenician and old Hebrew alphabets, and which was originally cruciform in shape. It is pronounced taw and predates the cross of the crucifixion, so for this reason it is also known as the Old Testament cross.
According to studies by Damien Vorreaux, the mystique of the Tau was not the product of a spontaneous germination in the mind of Francis; it was based on a solid acquisition of tradition. In the 3rd century, St. Anthony, the Egyptian hermit who is considered the father of monasticism, carried a Tau cross, and one of his religious communities was active in Assisi during St. Francis’s time. This is likely where he first encountered the Tau Cross.
Pope Innocent III opened the Fourth Lateran Council on November 11, 1215 with an admirable and eloquent sermon which immediately aroused universal interest. As a theme he took the following words of Christ: “I have desired with a great desire to eat this Pasch with you.” (Lk. 22:15). He then recalled that the Pasch means Passover and he expressed his hope that the Council would be a Passover, a New Passover. After depicting the profanation of the Holy Places by the Saracens, Innocent deplored the scandals dishonoring Christ’s flock, threatening it with God’s punishments if it did not reform. He also gave a commentary to the Council members on Chapter 9 of Ezekiel. He made his own the words of God to his prophet: “Pass through the center of the city and mark with a Tau the foreheads of the men who weep and wail because of all the abominations which are committed there.” The Church was in a bad state during this period of history. Innocent pointed out that the Tau is the last letter of the Hebrew alphabet and its form traces a cross like the one which was presented before attaching Pilate’s placard. The Tau was to be the sign borne on one’s forehead that would manifest the radiance of the cross in all of one’s conduct.
Some writers believe that the Council persuaded Francis to play a role in the reform of the Church. Francis understood the discourse of Innocent III to be addressed to him personally. The fact is that the Tau, which the Pope made the emblem of the reform, became Francis’ own blazon. He used it as a signature, painted it on his door, and placed it on his writings. The Pope had said: “Mercy will be granted to those who bear the Tau, a mark of life of penance and renewal in the Church.” So Francis wanted to sign himself with the Tau and his brothers along with him. The Tau colored Francis’ entire spirituality, which from 1215 on, became the spirituality of the cross and salvation.
The Tau of penance was a favorite theme of Francis’ preaching because he considered himself enlisted by the Pope for this crusade. Francis was very aware that the Tau was the sign of conquerors, and after having preached it, he reproduced it even in his own flesh through the Stigmata. He knew that it would radiate the joy of the cross. The Tau for Francis:
· Represented the universality of salvation
· Symbolized permanent conversion and total disappropriation
· Marked one as poor
· Called one to the mission of service to others
· Was the sign of the goodness and love of God
· Became the title of glory
· Became the source of his perfect joy
Because of this, the Tau Cross became associated with the Franciscan Order. It was and still is adopted and worn by many of his followers, whether part of the religious order or secular. Even for those unfamiliar with the details of St. Francis’s life, the Franciscan Order is what comes to mind when most people see the Tau Cross.