By Paul Stenhouse, M.S.C., Ph.D.
Probably no action identifies a person as a Catholic so easily as the Sign of the Cross.
It is used in the administration of all the Sacraments, particularly during the Mass. At church entrances can be found holy water fonts which are used by those entering and leaving the church to "bless themselves", i.e., make the sign of the cross on themselves by drawing the right hand from forehead to breast and then from shoulder to shoulder, returning to the center afterwards. In the Orthodox Churches the cross stroke is not made from left to right as in the Catholic Church, but from right to left.
The most widespread and important of the Christian symbols, the cross is for the Catholic the sign of our redemption, since it is the instrument upon which Christ sacrificed himself.
From the earliest times of the Church, this sign of the cross was used in all the Sacraments. It was also a means of recognizing other Christians in time of persecution. In the early centuries the sign of the cross was drawn by the thumb on the forehead, in much the same way as Catholics "cross" themselves on the forehead, lips and breast before the reading of the Gospel at Mass.
The Christian writer Tertullian (160 AD 225 AD) wrote: "In all our travels, in our coming in and going out, in putting on our clothes and our shoes, at table, in going to rest, whatever we are doing we mark our forehead with the sign of the cross". And Saint Ephrem the Syrian (306 AD 373) wrote: "My son, mark all you do with the sign of the life giving cross. Do not go out from the door of your house until you have signed yourself with the sign of the cross. Do not neglect to make that sign whether you are eating or drinking, or going to sleep, whether you are at home or going on a journey. There is no habit to be compared with it. Let it be like a wall that protects you and your conduct; teach it to your children so that they may faithfully learn the custom".
In each Catholic home there should be at least one container for holy water that can be used for making the sign of the cross - or simply for blessing the rooms of the house. A special stoup used to be found in most Catholic homes and is still a desirable thing. When the practice of sprinkling the people with holy water at Sunday Mass became general throughout the Church in the ninth century, special niches were set into the walls of churches, or free-standing stone basins were provided for the Mass-goers to bless themselves.
Godparents, or friends attending a Baptism or Confirmation, and looking for a suitable gift to offer the newly baptized or confirmed child, would do well to consider offering a small stoup for holy water, that could be attached to the wall of a room or near the door, so that people entering or leaving could get into the habit of blessing themselves with the sign of the cross.
We commence the Mass "In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen." We are also meant to commence and end our day with the same blessing. As Saint Paul wrote to the Christians of Collossae: "Whatever you are doing, whether you speak or act, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him" (Col. 3, 17).
Condensed from "Why Do Catholics ?" by Paul Stenhouse, M. S.C., Ph.D. © 1994 Chevalier Press, Kensington, S.S.W. 2033