The sign of the Cross (2)

Extracts from The sacramentals of the Holy Catholic Church (1892)

The sign of the Cross is met with everywhere in the liturgy of the Church. No ceremony is performed without it. The hands of the priest are consecrated with the holy oil to enable them to confer blessings by the sign of the Cross. In the course of the ceremony of ordination, the bishop anoints the interior of his hands with the oil of catechumens, reciting at the same time the prayer, “Vouchsafe, O Lord, to consecrate these hands by this unction and our blessing, that whatsoever they bless may be blessed, and whatsoever they consecrate may be consecrated and sanctified, in the name of Our Lord Jesus Christ.”

With these words is conferred on the priest such power over material objects, no matter what they may be, that he can bless them by simply making the sign of the Cross over them, without it being necessary for him to utter any form of words, except, of course, in such cases as the Holy See requires a particular form for the blessing of certain things. He can, by merely making the sign of the Cross, confer on beads, medals, statues, crucifixes, etc, the Papal indulgences, so that a person who is rightly disposed can gain all these indulgences by having one of those blessed objects in his possession!

The number of times in which the sign of the Cross is made in the ritual blessings of the Church is all but countless. In the blessing of holy water, for example, it is made twelve times. All the sacraments are administered with the use of the sign of the Cross at least once, while in some of them it is employed a number of times. In baptism it is made fourteen times; in extreme unction, seventeen times. In the recitation of the Divine Office it is prescribed a great number of times. But these last crosses, unlike those of the Mass and the sacraments, are not of obligation, except when the Office is said in choir; and hence they may be dispensed with for sufficient cause, at the discretion of the person reciting the Office. It is related of St Patrick that while reciting the Office he signed himself almost constantly with the sign of the Cross.

It is superfluous to state that the sign of the Cross is made very frequently in the adorable sacrifice of the Mass; but it may not be generally known that, during an ordinary Mass, the celebrant makes it in the various ceremonies no less than forty-five times, besides the little triple crosses, already mentioned, at the beginning of the gospels. There is one point, however, with regard to the sign of the Cross made in the Mass that seems to call for an explanation. 

So frequent is the use of the sign of the Cross in the sacred functions of religion that one can hardly look for a moment at a priest performing any of the sacred ceremonies of his ministry without seeing him make the sign of our redemption.

Pope Pius IX, by a brief of 28 July 1863, granted to all the faithful every time that with — at least contrite heart — they shall make the sign of the Cross, invoking at the same time the Blessed Trinity with the words, “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost”, an indulgence of fifty days. And by another brief of 23 March 1876, the same Sovereign Pontiff granted an indulgence of one hundred days to those who make the sign of the Cross with holy water, with the same conditions and the same form of words. It is well to note that the words to be used in making the sign of the Cross with holy water are not “Glory be to the Father …” as some persons imagine but the formula, “In the name of the Father …”

When we are assured by the Christians of all ages, but especially by those of the first centuries, that we have so powerful a weapon as the sign of the Cross at our command, it is much to be regretted that we should make so little use of it. Never did the world array before the child of God enemies so numerous or so insidious as at the present time. They assail him on every side; and not with the sword or with fire, but with false philosophy, with pride of intellect, with religious indifference, with materialism; against which it is more difficult to combat for a lifetime than it would be to gain the martyr’s crown in a momentary struggle in the amphitheatre. If the first Christians, trained in the school of the apostles and their immediate successors, regarded as necessary the frequent use of the sign of the Cross, why should we all but abandon it? Are we stronger than they? Is not the very opposite the truth? Why, then, do we not return to the pious custom of our fathers in the faith? Why disarm ourselves in the very presence of the enemy?

Still more deserving of censure are those who indeed make the sign of the Cross, but make it carelessly. If a person were to stand fifteen minutes at the door of almost any of our churches on a Sunday morning, and look at the motions gone through by not a few of those who enter, he would be safe in concluding that if they were reproduced on paper they might as readily be taken for a Chinese manuscript as for anything else; but it would require a stretch of the imagination to see in many of them what they were intended to represent. It may be seriously doubted whether such careless persons receive the graces or gain the indulgences attached to a proper use of this sacred sign. It is indeed true that there is a tendency to do mechanically what a person has to do often; but for that very reason, if for no other, particular attention should be bestowed on such things. A careful examination of the manner in which they make the sign of the Cross would be productive of good to many persons.

But what shall be said of those who are ashamed to make the sign of the Cross? We should not, on the one hand, parade what is sacred unnecessarily before the world, on account of the disposition there is in so many persons to scoff at whatever others regard as holy; but, when circumstances require it, we should not, on the other hand, hesitate to sign ourselves with the symbol of man’s Redemption. The sign of the Cross inspires us with respect for ourselves by teaching us our true dignity. It reminds us that we are the brothers of Jesus Christ. It sanctifies our members with the sanctification which it derived from His. It stamps the unity of God on our forehead, the seat of the mind; it seals our heart and breast with the remembrance of the love of the Father; it strengthens our shoulders to bear the Cross of the Son; and it maintains an unbroken union of love with the three Divine Persons by means of the Holy Ghost. Says Mgr Gaume: 

“In making the sign of the Cross, we have behind us, around us, with us, all the great men and grand ages of the East and West — all the immortal Catholic nation. … In making the sign of the Cross we cover ourselves and creatures with an invincible armour. In not making it we disarm ourselves, and expose both ourselves and creatures to the gravest perils.”

All this being true, what opinion are we to form of non-Catholics, not a few of whom have an almost fiendish hatred of the sign of the Cross? Yet, were they to use it, it would be the marking upon themselves of the instrument upon which the salvation of mankind, and their own, if they are to be saved, was wrought. And, withal, how illogical they are! 

Witness how almost every person has some highly-prized relic of a departed parent or ancestor. And why all this? Because it is natural to man, and because it is ennobling in him, although his enthusiasm frequently carries it to excess. Must Catholics, then, be maligned and called idolaters for following the promptings of nature in the worship of nature’s God? The man who should be so heartless as to insult his mother’s picture would be justly censured by all the world as an inhuman wretch. Let the same world decide whether he is less deserving of censure — to put it in a very mild form — who insults the Cross of Christ. Of such so-called Christians let St Paul be the judge, who cried out, “God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of Our Lord Jesus Christ!”

I shall conclude with two extracts from the Fathers. Says St Ephraim:

“The sign of the Cross is the invincible armour of the Christian. Soldier of Christ, let this armour never leave you, either by day or by night, at any moment, or in any place; without it undertake nothing. Whether you be asleep or awake, watching or walking, eating or drinking, sailing on sea or crossing rivers, have this breastplate ever on you. Adorn and protect each of your members with this victorious sign, and nothing can injure you. There is no buckler so powerful against the darts of the enemy. At the sign of this the infernal powers, affrighted and trembling, take to flight.” 

And St John Chrysostom adds: 

“Never leave your house without making the sign of the Cross. It will be to yon a staff, a weapon, an impregnable fortress. Neither man nor demon will dare to attack you, seeing you covered with such powerful armour. Let this sign teach you that you are a soldier, ready to combat against the demons, and ready to fight for the crown of justice. Are you ignorant of what the Cross has done? It has vanquished death, destroyed sin, emptied hell, dethroned Satan, and resuscitated the universe. Would you, then, doubt its power?”