Catholic Classroom: The Sign of the Cross
Question: Why do Catholics make the sign of the cross?
Making the sign of the cross is very familiar to Catholics. It is one of the first things we learn about the faith. But what does it really mean to make the sign of the cross? Where does this practice come from?
If you are unfamiliar with this practice, Catholics make the sign of the cross by touching their forehead, chest, left shoulder, and right shoulder while saying, “In the name of the Father [forehead], and of the Son [chest], and of the Holy [left shoulder] Spirit [right shoulder]. Amen.” Some people of other faith traditions, including Eastern Orthodox and a few Protestant denominations, also make the sign of the cross, though with slight variations.
For Catholics, we make the sign of the cross when we begin and end prayer, when we begin and end Mass, when we enter a church, when we are grateful, when we are afraid—in short, any time we want to invoke the Holy Trinity. The gesture itself is a prayer, and so it should be done with reverence. Making the sign of the cross reminds us in a physical way of Christ’s cross, suffering, and redemptive love for us as we literally trace the shape of the cross. By performing this gesture frequently, we have a wonderful opportunity to recall and internalize the love of our Savior many times throughout the day.
It is believed that the practice of making the large sign of the cross came from a practice of tracing a smaller cross. Throughout the history of the church, the faithful have used different arrangements of their fingers and spoken different words while making the sign of the cross (see the Catholic Encyclopedia to learn more). But the overarching purpose of this prayer has always been the same: to unite ourselves to Christ and his Passion, while bringing to mind the Trinity and visibly marking ourselves as Christians. This prayerful practice is one that we can perform mindfully at any time we are in need.
The next time you make the sign of the cross, whether alone or in group prayer, try to truly think through what you are saying and doing, and be open to the graces that come from prayer.