Sign of the Cross

Bulletin Q&A Article published 10-16-22:

Must we make the Sign of the Cross with the right hand, or is it okay to use the left hand?

The Ceremonies of the Modern Roman Rite gives this instruction for priests making the sign of the cross: “He begins with hands joined, then makes the sign with the whole right hand, fingers joined together – from forehead to breast just above where the left hand rests, then to the left shoulder and finally to the right shoulder. He immediately joins his hands once more.” (#193)

In my investigation of this question, I was unable to find any specific reason that we make the sign of the cross with the right hand, other than unity and uniformity. It should be no problem, for example, for someone who is unable to use of their right hand to use their left hand instead. I did find some other interesting historical information, however, about the sign of the cross; regarding which shoulder we touch first and how we hold our hand.

With regard to the question of which shoulder comes first, Pope Innocent III wrote in an instruction back around the turn of the 13th century: “This is how it is done: from above to below, and from the right to the left, because Christ descended from the heavens to the earth, and from the Jews (right) He passed to the Gentiles (left).” The Pope also commented that the left to right method was acceptable and would be done by some priests so that they would mirror their congregations as they faced them. I think most of us have had the experience of trying to teach a young child how to make the sign of the cross; sometimes it’s easier to do it backward and let them mirror us. Unlike the little child, however, the congregations realized that the priests were signing themselves from left to right and wanted to do it in the same way. This is how our current Catholic tradition has come to be opposite of our original instructions.

With regard to our hand position, our current tradition is to use the entire open hand, all five fingers, which can symbolize the five wounds of Christ. Pope Innocent III called for using three fingers to represent the Trinity. Some have used one finger to represent the belief in one God. In response to a heresy that denied the two natures of Christ, others used two fingers to indicate belief in Christ’s human and divine natures. Still others have used combinations, such as holding the thumb and first two fingers together to represent the Trinity while curling the last two fingers under to represent the two natures of Christ.

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