The Sign of The Cross: Why do Catholics sign themselves?

St-Francis-de-Sales

One of the great histories written on the topic of the Sign of the Cross was written in defense of the ceremony by St. Francis De Sales. St. Francis De Sales took up his pen in defense of Catholicism while he was Bishop of Geneva in Switzerland, which was dominated during his time in the 16th century by Calvinists. Francis De Sales decided to write on the topic of the Sign of the Cross because the Calvinist of his day accused the practice of being a Papist invention that had nothing to do with the early Church.

The translator, Christopher O. Blum, writes in the forward of The Sign of the Cross that “The reader will not fail to be struck by the relevance of this work in our own age. Crucifixes to be sure, but even bare crosses, are conspicuous by their absence in America’s Evangelical churches, and the act of making the Sign of the Cross is regarded by many non-Catholics as superstition at best.”[1]

I am a born and raised Catholic, so the ceremony of the Sign of the Cross has always been  a part of my life. However, I have encountered instances where I have felt self-conscience because of a stare from another member of society–especially when I was younger. I never really knew the history of the Sign of the Cross just that it was done by Catholics, a distinct action of our Latin culture, but St. Francis De Sales book is a beautiful explanation that I wish I had to encountered at a younger age so that I could have been properly informed.

In the first chapter, St. Francis De Sales discusses how “the Sign of the Cross is a Christian ceremony that represents the Passion of our Lord.”[2] When discussing ceremonies that take place within the religions, Francis De Sales explains the importance of religion in the context of these ceremonial actions. He says, “the virtue of religion, having for its proper and natural work to render to God the honor that is His due.”[3] Francis De Sales explains that the action of the Sign of the Cross is an action that outside of religion would have absolutely no meaning and no use. He says, “Indifferent actions would remain useless if religion did not employ them, but once put to work by it, they become noble, useful, and holy.”[4] Of course, we Catholics do other actions when we enter our sanctuaries as we bend our knees to the ground to show a free submission to the will of God in front of him in the Tabernacle, as explained by Bishop Paprocki during the Solemnity of Corpus Christi.

However for the Calvinist of De Sales days–and the Protestant of today– who are not convinced, he has the reader look back into scripture to find where religion requested such action from those in the world since the beginning of humanity. He explains for all to look at the story of Abel and Cain and notice how religion called for them to make offerings, and in regards to Noah, an altar was constructed without delay.[5] Regardless of the rejection from Calvinist in St. Francis De Sales day to Protestants in the modern world, The Old Testament is filled with examples such as the sacrifices and ceremony of Abraham, Melchizedek, Isaac, Jacob et al. Furthermore, look at the accounts of the New Testament where John is baptizing, St. Paul is cutting his hair for a vow, and prays on his knees with the church of Miletus.[6] De Sales reminds us that these action by themselves mean nothing, but when used in the context of religion to praise the glory of God “they become honorable and efficacious ceremonies.”[7]

St. Francis De Sales reminds us that God even works through ceremony when conducting miracles on earth. He has Moses touch the rock with his staff, or a beggar touches the robes of Christ they become healed.[8]

sign-of-the-cross1

So the Christian who employs the ceremony of The Sign of the Cross does so to honor God in a manner that is strictly Christian. A sign that was conducted in the early Church to symbolize to others during the height of persecution that they were Christians. A symbol of the Passion made by a simple motion that creates the shape of the crucifixion. It must be made with the right hand with either three fingers representing the trinity or five representing the five wounds of Christ. St. Francis De Sales reminds us to use either three or five fingers as the Jacobites and Armenians employed only one figure to represent their Christological heresies.[9] The sign of the Cross should begin at the forehead while saying, “In the name of the Father,” and move down toward the stomach while saying “and of the Son.” The downward motion illustrates that the Son proceeds from the Father by sending his Son to the womb of the Virgin Mary. The hand then moves to the left shoulder to the right while saying “and of the Holy Spirit.” Catholics do this to illustrate that the third person in the Trinity proceeds from the Father and from the Son.

The beautiful ceremony is the confession of the mysteries of the Trinity, the Passion, and salvation from sin.[10] It is one that is that shows our Catholic culture and one that honors the traditions of Christianity. If your own faith does not practice this beautiful ceremony, I ask that you reflect on the matter.

[1] St. Francis De Sales, The Sign of the Cross (Manchester: Sophia Institute Press, 2013), xiii.

[2] Ibid, 3.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid, 4.

[5] Ibid, 5.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid, 6.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid, 9.

[10] Ibid, 10.

6 thoughts on “The Sign of The Cross: Why do Catholics sign themselves?

  1. I knew the Eastern Christians insist on holding their fingers a certain way when making the sign of the cross but I didn’t know this is a practice in the West or that the number of fingers used and the actual sign have a theological significance (beyond it being in the shape of a cross). This is really helpful. Do you know why the East signs in the opposite direction? Was this just a consequence of the East-West schism?

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    1. The Orthodox claim that the change occurred during this period of the 15-16 century. So perhaps it changed in relation to St. Francis De Sales essay. The Orthodox make it a point to assert that Catholics had no authority to make the change, but as quoted above from St. Francis he asserts the action is ceremony which is hallow without religion, much like a cross on a secular building.

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  2. An interesting post Phillip.

    Much has been written about this physical action which precedes most Catholic prayer and our use of this when entering into a Church and dipping our fingers in the font of Holy Water to give ourselves a blessing. My explanation to new members of the Church has been that we are tracing the cross of Christ on our bodies in which we died to self and were reborn in Baptism. We are no longer ours but His; having been reborn in the name of the Father and the Son and of the Holy Ghost. It is a reminder of this ‘belonging’ to our Trinitarian God in this inner regeneration. It is most significant when we do this upon entering a Church, and using Holy Water, remember all our Baptismal promises.

    It is also interesting to note that many Catholics repeat this self blessing when leaving the Church after the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. I remember, however, one of the saints saying that if you have received the Body and Blood of our Lord in Communion then you have received the ultimate blessing and grace and therefore no additional blessing with Holy Water is necessary. To this day, I only bless myself upon arrival for the Sacrice of the Mass.

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    1. St. Francis De Sales book on the Sign of the Cross is very interesting, I recommend it. No Catholic will practice the ceremony the same again. One can easily tell it’s a period piece in a way that it’s not written like a defense of a practice would be today. De sales doesn’t trace the origins, from what I remember, exactly to the early the practices in regards mentioned by Tertullian (barely mentions him) and St. St. Cyril of Jerusalem. He begins his defense with St. Augustine and St. Gregory. In large part, I believe because the Calvinist were using St. Augustine for their defense against the practice.

      De sales writes, “The Christians made the Sign of the Cross openly to show that they were not at all ashamed of Jesus Christ. It is certain that Tertullian, Justin Martyr, and Minutius Feliz all testify that the Sign of the Cross was no secret profession of the faith and that the pagans knew it will.” (p.15)

      In this regard, it should be better explained that Christians may have started the practice in defiance saying, “Take me to my cross.”

      Furthermore, The Orthodox, again, as I told Fariba attempt to claim that the Catholics had no authority to change the way we cross ourselves, as it appears in Pope Innocent III’s time Catholics still crossed themselves right to left. Regardless, I think the above quotations explaining St. Francis De Sales assertion against the Calvinist explain that the Orthodox point is nothing more than moot one.

      I also repeat the blessing with Holy Water myself, mainly I do so because of a lifetime of observation and never being told any different, not even from the clergy. However, your assertion makes perfect sense, I may begin only to genuflect and cross myself when I leave Mass. Can you find the Saint who said this? I’d be interested to know more.

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      1. Actually the more I think of it, I’m not sure it was a saint, theologian or whatever . . . its been several decades. I figure that I cross myself at every prayer and receive the final blessing from Christ by the hands of the priest and that this is enough. But that is me. My wife still blesses herself on leaving. I find it convenient as there is usually a que around the fonts after Mass. 🙂

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  3. Grandpa Zeke

    As a convert, and a stubborn one at that, it took an act of will on my part to make the sign of the cross the first time (and maybe several times after that as well). I realized that I had not only consented to faith in Jesus Christ, but also had consented to the teachings of the Church since I perceived with my mind that they were true. I also consented with my will to accept that I was now visibly a believing Catholic Christian, there was no more hiding in a closet for me when it came to living my faith. This was a monumental development in my faith life. (The same can be said about genuflecting.)

    It occurs to me that when we make the sign of the cross, we include our foreheads (our intellect), our chests (our heart, our love), and our shoulders (the will of our limbs to move and act). Our faith as Catholics encompasses all that we are, and we remind ourselves of that each time we cross and bless ourselves.

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