The First Prayer We Learn as Children: The Sign of the Cross

The rite of baptism of children includes the imposition of the sign of the cross on the forehead of the baby and an invitation to parents to do the same. It’s one of the first simple prayer gestures parents pass on to their children. Here are the words in the ritual:

N., the Christian community welcomes you with great joy. In its name I claim you for Christ our Savior by the sign of his cross. I now trace the cross on your forehead, and invite your parents (and godparents) to do the same.

This simple prayer gesture continues to be reinforced as little ones see us make the sign of the cross as we begin and end prayers. I enjoy seeing families teach their children how to dip their fingers into the holy water font and cross themselves “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” as they enter the church. These little ones learn the customary direction of hands: forehead, chest, left shoulder and right shoulder.

As we celebrate Trinity Sunday this weekend, it’s good to remind ourselves of the significance of calling upon the Trinity at all times and circumstances. Even if we can’t fully articulate all our needs, and words might be beyond our reach, the simple gesture of making the sign of the cross is a way to remind ourselves of the constant love and protection of our loving God. It’s a way to invite God into our situation, calm ourselves down, get our priorities straight, and present our needs to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Making the sign of the cross is also a simple public witness to the faith. It reminds us that our Catholic faith is not simply a private matter set aside for Sundays. In a restaurant when people see us offering grace before meals it reveals that we are people of faith. We often see athletes making the sign of the cross and sometimes capping it off with a finger pointing heavenward. These demonstrations of faith may encourage conversation or the opportunity to pray for another.

While this is a uniquely Catholic gesture (and the Orthodox have their own style), others can join in the prayerful action. Miami Marlins World Series winning manager Jack McKeon was known for attending daily Mass as a professional baseball player. He invited one of his teammates to join him at Mass. This player was unfamiliar with all of our Catholic gestures and postures during Mass. However, the teammate knew that in baseball there were always hand and arm gestures used as “signals” with special meaning given to base runners and batters and between catcher and pitchers, and so on. The New York Times article describes the response:

McKeon said that in 1950, he asked John B. Coakley, an older minor league teammate in Gloversville, N.Y., to join him for Mass one Sunday morning. “He said, ‘I’d love to, but I don’t understand all the signals you have,’” McKeon said, laughing at the memory. In a telephone interview, Coakley added: “I told him if he taught me the signals, I’d become a Catholic.” And he did. (New York Times, March 3, 2011)

This Trinity Sunday let’s remind ourselves of the beauty of the Trinity and learn more deeply the meaning behind the “signal” of the sign of the cross. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that:

The mystery of the Most Holy Trinity is the central mystery of Christian faith and life. It is the mystery of God in himself. It is therefore the source of all the other mysteries of faith, the light that enlightens them. It is the most fundamental and essential teaching in the "hierarchy of the truths of faith". The whole history of salvation is identical with the history of the way and the means by which the one true God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, reveals himself to men "and reconciles and unites with himself those who turn away from sin". (CCC 234.)

We will never fully exhaust all that can be said of the Trinity, but a simple way to plunge ourselves into the very life of the Trinity begins by the gesture of the sign of the cross and the words, “In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.” Amen.


Your servant,

Most Reverend Robert J. McClory
Diocese of Gary