This is a part of the never-ending series on “figuring out how to be Catholic for converts”, where we talk about fully participating in Catholic culture and understanding why we do what we do, from a convert’s perspective. In this series, I'm assuming you're already on board with Catholic theology & just need help with figuring out the rest of it. Have any questions? Leave a comment and we can sort through them together!
Q: When Should I make the sign of the cross?
When we became Catholic, this was something we had (literally) no idea about. Spending time with faithful, practicing Catholics helped us the most and, for many reasons, I happily recommend it to anyone new to the Church. This was a spiritual habit, like so many elements of the Catholic culture, that cradle Catholics are brought up with. But for converts, it can feel quite daunting. Especially when everyone around you is making the sign of the cross and you’re awkwardly sitting there and don’t know what’s going on (like me, all the time). But over the years, we’ve been figuring these things out and I thought I’d share for anyone else who might be in the beginning of their journey into Catholicism.
"Let us not then be ashamed to confess the Crucified. Be the Cross our seal made with boldness by our fingers on our brow and in everything; over the bread we eat, and the cups we drink; in our comings in, and goings out; before our sleep, when we lie down and when we awake; when we are in the way and when we are still. Great is that preservative; it is without price, for the poor's sake; without toil, for the sick, since also its grace is from God. It is the Sign of the faithful, and the dread of evils; for He has triumphed over them in it, having made a shew of them openly; for when they see the Cross, they are reminded of the Crucified; they are afraid of Him, Who hath bruised the heads of the dragon. Despise not the Seal, because of the freeness of the Gift; but for this rather honor thy Benefactor." - St. Cyril of Jerusalem, A.D. 315 - 386
Mark all your actions with the sign of the lifegiving Cross. Do not go out from the door of your house till you have signed yourself with the Cross. Do not neglect that sign whether in eating or drinking or going to sleep, or in the home or going on a journey. There is no habit to be compared with it. Let it be a protecting wall round all your conduct, and teach it to your children that they may earnestly learn the custom." - St. Ephrem of Syria (died A.D. 373)
It’s important to recognize that the sign of the cross is a prayer itself, and so like any prayer, you can pray it at any time you’d like. To show reverence for God, to ask for His protection and guidance, to say a quick prayer for yourself or anyone. The times when a person will make the sign of the cross can also depend on their family culture and heritage.
These are the most common times you will see Catholics making the sign of the cross - if you’re new to the faith, keep this list in mind and try to form habits of making the sign of the cross whenever you remember.
When We Make the Sign of the Cross
- Before and after any prayer
- Any time you are in a “prayerful state”
- When praying for a meal
- When we pass a cemetery (to say a quick prayer for the dead)
- When a funeral procession passes by (a quick prayer for the dead & their loved ones)
- When an ambulance, fire truck, or police car drives by with their sirens on (to ask for safety of first responders and whoever is in distress & for God’s will to be done)
- When we pass a Catholic Church (out of reverence to Christ’s Eucharistic presence inside of the church)
- When entering into a Church, Catholics will make the sign of the cross on their foreheads with holy water (as a reminder of baptism)
- When the priest sprinkles the parishioners with holy water during the mass (again, baptism).
- After receiving communion (this is not necessary or a part of tradition, but some like to make the sign of the cross as a spiritual reflex of prayer)
- When bad news is heard
- When you feel tempted or anxious
Other (perhaps less Orthodox) ideas:
When your kids are driving you bonkers, you can make the sign of the cross on their forehead or over yourself (to ask for wisdom, patience, and help to cultivate a loving relationship)
When your husband is trying your patience (maybe best when he’s not looking?)
Bonus Points (not really, but still)
Do you know why Catholics make three crosses with their thumb over their forehead, lips, and chest before the Gospel is read during Mass?
“We cross our forehead so that the Word of God may be in our thoughts and purify our minds. We cross our lips so that our speech may be holy and incline us to share the Gospel with others. And we cross our hearts to invite God to strengthen our love for Him and others. All of this is so that we might know, proclaim, and love Jesus Christ all the more.” (LifeTeen Blog)
Why do Catholics even make the sign of the cross anyway?
The practice of making the sign of the cross goes back to the earliest of Christians, it is a simple and easy to remember prayer that affirms the trinity. Here's a list of 21 things we do when we make the sign of the cross by Catholic Exchange.
Is it ever inappropriate to make the sign of the cross?
Sometimes I worry that I might make the sign of the cross at the "wrong" time, but I'm learning that there isn't really a wrong time to pray at all. Because the sign of the cross is a prayer, it should be made when you are in a prayerful state. I don't suppose making the sign of your cross while intentionally sinning is going to be a good idea, unless it causes you to stop what you're doing and turn from sin. We are told to pray unceasingly, and so this is a natural and easy way to do so!