The Sign of the Cross

Have you noticed how liturgical autopilot is creeping in? I’m talking about making the sign of the cross at the beginning of everything Catholic, no matter what it is. We all do it as a kind of Pavlovian manoeuvre, and in so doing we may be running the risk of starting to take this important symbol of being Christian for granted.

Traditionally, Mass has begun with a sign of the cross, and so have the hours of the Office even though the words “In the name of the Father…” are not said there. Traditionally, however, sacramental rites outside Mass — baptism, confirmation, weddings, anointing, also funerals, etc — never did. Instead, it is the words of greeting which are important. This is true not only in our own tradition but also in the Anglican rites.

I detect a move in parish celebrations to automatically add signs of the cross at the beginning of these non-eucharistic rites. Presumably this has happened because these rites are far more frequently celebrated within Mass, which does begin with a sign of the cross, than outside Mass, which doesn’t, and people are desensitized to the difference.

Not only that, but other rites have suffered the same creeping autopilot at an official level. It was noted that in the Editio Tertia of the Roman Missal a sign of the cross had been added to the beginning of the processional rites on the feast of the Presentation of the Lord (February 2), the processional rites at the beginning of the Palm Sunday celebration, and the start of the Easter Vigil. This is contrary to our previous tradition, and presumably betrays ignorance of that tradition on the part of the revisers in the Congregation.

Especially egregious is the addition of a sign of the cross at the beginning of the Easter Vigil. This either shows that the revisers rejected the theology of the three Triduum celebrations forming one single liturgy spread over three days, widely accepted by liturgists and liturgical theologians (and the reason, incidentally, why the solemn Good Friday afternoon liturgy may not be presided over by a deacon), or that they simply didn’t think what they were doing. When the time comes to return to a Missal with a revised translation that actually feeds the prayer life of priests and people, it is to be hoped that these unwarranted additions will be removed.

The new trend that I have noticed has arisen in the celebration of funeral Masses. First of all, there is no sign of the cross before the opening greeting, but many presiders insert one, presumably on the basis that “this is how we always start everything off”, which, as stated above, is not true. Similarly, neither the reception of the body the previous evening nor the vigil for the deceased begins with a sign of the cross, but once again people unthinkingly insert one. Not only is this not in the rite, but in all these cases — Mass, Reception and Vigil — it takes the steam out of the words of greeting, which are meant to begin the process of consolation but which are often not listened to as attentively as they would be if they just came “out of the blue” instead of after a “switch-off” autopilot sign of the cross.

In the celebration of funerals, it is becoming increasingly customary for words of remembrance (a better term than “eulogy”) to take place near the beginning of the funeral liturgy rather than after Communion. This repositioning has a number of benefits: (1) The person(s) giving the words of remembrance are enabled to relax and enjoy the remainder of the service without worrying about what they have to do later on; (2) it assists the entire assembly to “get into” what may be an unfamiliar service for many of those present, by doing something rather human early on which settles people down and additionally informs them exactly why we are celebrating the life, death and new life of the deceased; (3) it also enables the presider to take action to repair any damage that might be done by the reminiscences, etc — something which is normally not possible if the tributes come at the end of the service before the Final Commendation, after the homily has receded into the past.

Another factor in the repositioning of the words of remembrance is that presiders seem to want to see these words as not part of the rite, so they will come out of the sacristy, greet the people, process the body to the front, and then call forward someone to give the words of remembrance. Only when all that has been done will they then insert a gratuitous sign of the cross, to be followed by the sprinkling of holy water and the placing of Christian symbols. That says very clearly that they think what has preceded, including presumably the greeting and procession, is not part of the rite (“Now we are starting for real…”), even if this is not exactly what they intend to convey by interpolating a quite unnecessary sign of the cross at this point. It can also come across as disrespectful of the family and those gathered to mourn.

In an alternative scenario, I have seen greeting, and sprinkling, procession, and placing of Christian symbols, all then followed by the words of remembrance, and then a sign of the cross before continuing. The same arguments follow: this is indicating that none of the preceding is part of the rite, when it patently is, and is similarly disrespectful of the mourners.

I believe that this has come about through a misinterpretation of paragraph 27 of the General Introduction to the Order of Christian Funerals, which says, in the section headed “Homily”:

A brief homily based on the readings is always given after the gospel reading in the funeral liturgy and may also be given after the readings of the vigil service, but there is never to be a eulogy.

Clergy have taken this to mean that there is never to be a eulogy at all anywhere in the service, whereas this paragraph is actually saying that there is never to be a eulogy in place of the homily — not the same thing at all.

Given this interpretation, and given the fact that many presiders seem to be confused about the sequence of events at the beginning of the service, especially if the words of remembrance take place then, we are in a situation where liturgical practices of dubious merit are starting to become established.

Let’s stop unthinkingly using the sign of the cross as a quasi-automatic starting signal for everything we do and restore it to a symbolic action of real value.


  1. I wonder whether removing the sign of the cross from times where it happened throughout Mass has contributed to its creeping into other places. Rather than “that thing we do at the start and end of Mass,” it used to be done during the prayer of absolution in the Confiteor, at the end of the Creed, during the Sanctus et Benedictus, at the elevation of the elements during the Words of Institution, during the prayer that begins “Supplices te Rogamus,” at “Ecce, Agnus Dei,” and so on.

    That is, are people inventing and transposing liturgical acts for want of them?

  2. Thank you for bringing up the Easter Vigil. That change in the Missal bugs me a lot. It migrated from the Ceremonial for Bishops, so the mistake seems to have started there. Whatever its origin, it is certainly a mistake. It takes a hatchet to the whole idea of the Triduum as one liturgy extending over three days and makes the Easter Vigil a self-contained whole. Not right. I am with you in hoping it will eventually be removed.

  3. First world liturgical problem. If the people in the pews really noticed or cared about this egregious abuse, it would be a surprise. Nowadays, we need more of the sign of the cross, not less. Especially in light of recent events. My beloved babcia (grandmother) would make the sign of the cross often for all sorts of reasons and in many circumstances. It was always appropriate and I never for one minute doubted her genuine piety and sincerity of faith. “O hail thou Cross, our only hope…”

  4. I can’t imagine our Eastern Orthodox brothers and sisters reacting well to any suggestion that they dial down the number of crossings (and/or other devotional acts) during the Divine Liturgy. I don’t think we need such restraint either.

  5. I confess to inserting a Sign of the Cross into the “eulogy” for my younger brother’s funeral before the Mass began. As a Lutheran Pastor, not vested but in clericals, my eulogy was the homily I would have delivered from Romans 6. In our tradition, we don’t talk much about the deceased in our sermon, but rather the promise that the Theology of the Cross gives us in Christ. I actually came in close to my allotted time in my remarks. The Presider, who was our parish priest when we were kids, commented that my eulogy was surprisingly good….hmmmm. I confess that my Sign of the Cross was a bit of a dig at the fact that my comments were not considered part of my brother’s funeral….so that was an appropriate Lutheran Sign of the Cross.

  6. I am a bit puzzled about the idea that the Triduum would comprise one liturgical function – wouldn’t (or shouldn’t) it not be interrupted by the Liturgy of the Hours, as well as by devotions like the Stations of the Cross?

    1. Stations of the Cross are a venerable devotion but not a liturgy.
      Liturgy of the Hours certainly are part of the liturgy. They don’t interrupt the Triduum – they continue it.

    2. The Thursday Mass of the Lord’s Supper has no dismissal of the people. The Good Friday celebration of the Passion has neither greeting nor dismissal. This demonstrates the thinking that it is all one liturgical function which, as Paul Inwood says, is rudely interupted by the Sign of the Cross and the greeting ‘in the usual way’ before the blessing of the fire.

      1. I actually wonder about the historical rationale of this arrangement and its interpretation – I can trace it to the 1955 Reform of Holy Week but not further back.

      2. To speak to Berthold’s observation about a change in 1955:

        I sometimes refer to a (re-set and typo-riddled!) 1920 typical edition out of historical curiosity. A quick scan of its Triduum liturgies reveals that in that iteration of the Roman Rite there was not only a dismissal at the end of the Mass in coena Domini, but also a blessing and Last Gospel. The celebration of the Passion the next day, however, begins with no sign of the cross; after the actions of prostration and kissing the altar the first words of the liturgy are the Prophecy (Hosea) proclaimed without introduction. The liturgy has no dismissal. The Easter Vigil the next day begins with Dominus vobiscum to introduce a series of orations.

        There is nothing magical about 1920, but it provided a useful pre-’55 benchmark. I checked its version of the rites against an old Henry Bradshaw Society edition of the 1474 Missal, and that older version agreed on the important point of ending the Thursday liturgy, even if in less detail – it had a dismissal but did not mention blessing and Last Gospel. With agreement at the bookends of the time span, I suspect this arrangement perdured across the intervening centuries. Rather than a slightly corrupted version of a “unified Triduum” principle, my guess would be that the one dismissal without subsequent signs of the cross reflects a simple recognition of different liturgical genera. As Paul pointed out, Mass and (gesturally but not textually) Office begin with the sign of the cross, while other rites generally do not. Neither the liturgy “in Parasceve” nor the beginning of the Holy Saturday liturgy are a Mass (because it is conceived as a vigil followed by a Mass).

        None of this says anything against a more ancient paradigm continuing the Triduum liturgies as a single celebration. I would be interested to see when scholars might mark the inflection point from seamless Triduum to the model of the curial Missal.

  7. Bugnini describes the communal Sign of the Cross at the beginning of Mass as an innovation imposed by Paul VI against the advice of the liturical experts. (p 371 of his book).

  8. While leaving the question of the Easter Vigil to the side, I think Paul’s complaint about the Candlemas and Palm Sunday liturgies is not indefensible but still requiring of closer examination. Previously these liturgies were, like the Easter Vigil, separate but contiguous rites: processions followed by a Mass. The “costume change” midway between cope and chasuble (and perhaps from one color to another), marked this division. In fact, the two parts of those liturgies were distinct enough that the blessing and procession could even be held on different days should the Purification by transferred.

    The modern trajectory of liturgical reform, however, has been to attribute greater unity to these rites of procession and Mass. There are no more color changes between the two rites. A cope is still optional on Candlemas and Palm Sunday, but no longer normative or even the default. The 1962 Missal had already suppressed the prayers at the foot of the altar when preceded by these processions, and our modern norms continue this by suppressing (apart from the Gloria) the introductory rites. The Missal does, admittedly, retain a heading “At the Mass” demarcating a transition, but I would find it quite believable that the reformers decided things had reached a point at which it made sense to consider the liturgies of those days a “Mass with procession” rather than “procession followed by Mass;” having reached that point, a sign of the cross would not be out of place at the beginning of those rites.

  9. A late comment as I was travelling without access to my books. In the 1970 Missale Romanum, page 267, at n.8 it says for the beginning of the Easter Vigil “Sacerdos populum congregatum de more salutat […]”. The priest greets the people in the usual way. I suspect the intention even in 1970 was to have the sign of the cross and greeting with people’s reply.

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