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The Sign of the Cross

Crucifixion with Mary and Saint John and the Twelve apostles in the form of doves
Apse mosaic from San Clemente, Rome (detail) 12th C.

Making the sign of the cross -- as we wil do during the blessng -- means saying a visible and public "yes" to the One who died and rose for us, to God who in the humility and weakness of His love is the Almightly, stronger than all the power and intelligence of the world.

-Pope Benedict XVI
September 11, 2005

The Sign of the Cross
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Signum Crucis
In nómine Patris et Fílii et Spíritus Sancti. Amen.

In the Sign of the Cross is our Salvation

One of the first prayers a Catholic child hears -- and learns to pray, is the invocation of the Blessed Trinity "In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit". Very tiny children often try to imitate others around the table who invoke the Trinity thus while making the sign of the cross.

This Christian sign is a very ancient one, mentioned by the early Fathers of the Church as being a habitual practice by the second century. Tertullian recounts that "in all our travels in all our coming in and going out, in putting on our shoes, at the bath, at the table we mark our foreheads with the sign of the cross." This sign or mark on the forehead of consecration to Christ has an antecedent in Ezekiel's prophetic vision of judgment, in which the Lord commands that a "mark be set upon the foreheads" of the Israelites who cry out against the evil which surrounds them, so that by this mark God's people were identified as belonging to Him and saved from annihilation [Ezekiel: 9:4-6]. Other biblical references to "sealing" God's people with a sign on their heads are found in the Apocalypse (or Revelation) 7:4, 9:4.

This sacramental "mark" is important to Catholic people to this day. We are baptized with this sign and this seal of the Holy Trinity. We are anointed, at baptism and at confirmation, by the priest making the sign of the cross on our foreheads with the Oil of Chrism (the oil blessed by bishops at the Mass of Chrism on Holy Thursday). The sign and the chrism are also used at the ordination of a priest or bishop. In administering the sacrament of the sick the priest anoints the person with the sign of the cross made with blessed oil. Also, on Ash Wednesday, our foreheads are marked by the priest with the sign of the cross made with blessed palm ashes.

Another form of the sign of the cross is made by the priest several times during the celebration of Mass and when he grants absolution and gives other priestly blessings, by making an invisible cross with the the first two fingers and thumb of his right hand extended. A similar gesture of blessing is made when a priest blesses religious objects (these objects used in worship are also called sacramentals), such as rosaries, medals, vestments and articles used used in connection with Mass.

Parents find that even infants can learn to make the sign of the cross, and try to imitate what they see family members doing at the blessing before meals even before they can talk. Try to encourage use of this sign at bedtime prayers, too, when you can explain what it means.

The two forms of the sign of the cross used by most Catholics are:

The Great Sign of the Cross: (This is the one most people think of, and the one people use most often.) A cross is traced with the right hand, touching the forehead, the chest, then the left and right shoulder. [In Orthodox churches, from right to left.] The Doxology is said aloud or silently as the sign is made.

The Little Sign of the Cross: A cross is made on the forehead with the thumb or index finger (this form is used by the priest when anointing or administering ashes). Or a cross is traced with the thumb on one's own head, lips and heart, a gesture which asks Christ to instruct our minds, aid us in our witness, and renew our hearts. (This sign is made at the reading of the Gospel by both priest and people.)

Some suggestions for helping to increase children's awareness of this devotion are:

Give your children a new medal, or perhaps a crucifix, and ask the priest to bless it for them while they are present.

Have holy water at home for making this sign "in all our coming in and going out."

Before going to Mass, ask the children to notice the different forms of the sign of the cross used during the celebration by the priest and by the people.

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