Why Catholics make the sign of the cross? The sign of the cross is a very ancient practice and prayer. It was then and is now a sign of discipleship and belief in the Trinity. St. John Chrysostom said, “If we are Christians, we are attached to Jesus Christ and we carry on our foreheads the mark of the one whom we do not blush to carry in our hearts, whose mark is His very humility.”
The sign of the cross has evolved over the years from tracing a small cross on the forehead to the version we use today. St. Francis de Sales, (1567-1622) wrote the following description in his work, “The Sign of the Cross, The Fifteen Most Powerful Words in the English Language.” “The Sign of the Cross is made in the following way. It is made with the right hand, which, as Justin Martyr says, is esteemed the more worth of the two. It is made with with three fingers, in order to signify the Blessed Trinity, or five, in order to signify the Savior’s five wounds; and although it does not much matter whether one makes the Sign of the Cross with more or fewer fingers, still one may wish to conform to the common practice of Catholics in order not to seem to agree with certain heretics, such as Jacobites and the Armenians, who each make it with one finger alone, the former in denial of the Trinity and the latter in denial of the two natures of Christ.
The Christian first lifts his hand toward his head while saying, “In the name of the Father,” in order to show that the Father is the first person of the Blessed Trinity and the principle and origin of the others. Then, he moves his hand downward toward the stomach while saying,
“and of the Son,” in order to show that the Son proceeds from the Father, who sent Him here below into the Virgin’s womb. Finally, he pulls his hand across from the left shoulder to the right while saying, “and of the Holy Spirit,” in order to show that the Holy Spirit, being the third person of the Blessed Trinity, proceeds from the Father and from the Son and is Their bond of love and charity, and that it is by His grace that we enjoy the effects of the Passion. When making the Sign of the Cross, therefore, we confess three great mysteries: the Trinity, the Passion, and the remission of sins, by which we are moved from the left, the hand of the curse, to the right, the hand of blessing.”
Another form of the sign of the cross is used at Mass just before the Gospel is read. We trace a small cross on our foreheads, lips and heart and pray, “May the words of the Gospel be on my mind, upon my lips and in my heart”.
Making the sign of the cross is more than a gesture; it is a sign, an offering and a ceremony.
It is a sign of the Passion and Death suffered by Jesus Christ for our salvation. It is an offering of our thoughts, works and prayers and it is a ceremony in that it is used to honor and worship the triune God.
As a young person, I remember when Catholics made the sign of the cross as a sign of reverence when they passed a church or religious place and when were beginning a task many took time to remember and give homage to God by making the sign of the cross.
Next time you make the sign of the cross think about the significance of this common gesture and the opportunity to worship it affords.
From the Catechism of the Catholic Church
CCC 2157 The Christian begins his day, his prayers, and his activities with the Sign of the Cross: “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.” The baptized person dedicates the day to the glory of God and calls on the Savior’s grace which lets him act in the Spirit as a child of the Father. The sign of the cross strengthens us in temptations and difficulties.
CCC 1668 Sacramentals are instituted for the sanctification of certain ministries of the Church, certain states of life, a great variety of circumstances in Christian life, and the use of many things helpful to man. In accordance with bishops’ pastoral decisions, they can also respond to the needs, culture, and special history of the Christian people of a particular region or time. They always include a prayer, often accompanied by a specific sign, such as the laying on of hands, the sign of the cross, or the sprinkling of holy water (which recalls Baptism).