It is the first prayer that Catholics learn as children. As we advance in lifting our hearts and minds to God, it serves as the prelude and conclusion to other prayers. It marks both the formal beginning and end of the perfect prayer — the Mass. Employed by Christians since at least the second century, this prayer, of course, is the Sign of the Cross; but, outside the doors of Catholic church buildings, it is an endangered species.
There has been a noticeable decline in recent years in the traditional use of the Sign of the Cross to mark the beginning and end of public prayers when Catholics congregate outside a church. Understandably, this failure to invoke the Trinity’s blessing often occurs at events where most of those gathered may not be Catholic and where many may not even be Christian. At such events a Catholic cleric might just happen to lead the invocation on behalf of all assembled, and as the Catholic leadership is coincidental, the omission of the Sign of the Cross may indeed be apt.
There are other events, such as ecumenical prayer breakfasts, where a Catholic is one of a number of Christian, Jewish, and possibly other religious leaders deliberately designated to represent a specific religion and lead the assembled in prayer. Here, too, the Sign is now usually omitted, perhaps understandably.
What is incomprehensible, however, is the sad omission of the Sign of the Cross at gatherings where virtually all in attendance are Catholic. Several experiences of this strange phenomenon over recent years coalesced during the last two weeks of September in three different locations around Washington, D.C.
First, there was “Back to School Night” for parents at the local parish elementary school. Unquestionably, nearly all the parents in the school gymnasium that evening were Catholic. Following some brief introductory remarks by the principal — stressing the importance of fostering the faith — the pastor was called upon to ask the Lord’s blessing for the school year that had just begun. The monsignor first made some brief remarks himself, and then, while the parents remained seated, he offered the prayer — which ended as informally as it had begun — with no Sign of the Cross. Some of those assembled silently blessed themselves when they realized that the invocation had ended, but the void was more completely filled with irony — it was September 14, the feast of The Triumph of the Holy Cross.
A few days later, a neighboring parish sponsored a seminar concerning estate and tax planning, and elderly care. All in attendance in the building adjacent to the church appeared to be parishioners, and the panelists, including a representative from the Washington Archdiocese, were presumably Catholic. The pastor opened the program with a prayer, neither preceded nor concluded by the Sign of the Cross.
The following weekend saw celebrations marking the dedication of the beautiful new building for the Columbus School of Law at The Catholic University of America. The university’s chancellor is the Cardinal Archbishop of Washington, half of its trustees are clerics, most of them bishops — ordinaries of their sees throughout the United States. Arguably there can be, by definition, no university in the United States more Catholic.
The first day of ceremonies involved dedications of various facilities within the law school building. At the dedication of the library, called by the dean the “heart and soul” of the law school (both a more human and a more spiritual description than Langdell’s “laboratory” at Harvard) a Benedictine said the “Opening Prayer” — without using the Sign of the Cross.
At the general dedication ceremonies for the entire building the following day, the invocation was offered by a university vice president, a Sister of Charity. She appropriately used a prayer composed by Bishop John Lancaster Spalding of Peoria, the principal champion for the founding of The Catholic University of America over 100 years ago. It is likely, though, that when Bishop Spalding originally recited the prayer he used the Sign of the Cross — the university vice president did not.
Another major participant in the dedication, The Most Reverend Adam J. Maida, Archbishop of Detroit, a lawyer as well as a university trustee subsequently elevated to the College of Cardinals, conducted the formal blessing of the building itself. At the appropriate juncture he doffed his academic garb, donned his mitre and cope, and processed from the outdoor podium on the lawn to the west entrance of the new building. He prayed from the applicable liturgical text and proceeded to sprinkle holy water on walls and portals and courtyard, accompanied by appropriate musical selections. It was a glorious ceremony, and Archbishop Maida was an impressive celebrant. But at no time in the course of the blessing was the Sign of the Cross either seen or heard. To be sure, the entire dedication ceremony was religiously infused; this was not a celebration attendant with “civil religion” tokenism, and one could not mistake it for anything but a Christian event. Nonetheless, it ended as it had begun: the university chaplain offered the benediction without the Sign of the Cross.
Lest it be misunderstood that Signless Catholic prayer is an “inside-the-beltway,” Washington, D.C. phenomenon, Archbishop Maida’s Detroit presence was a reminder that it is un fortunately not so restricted. Over the past few years the Sign of the Cross has been missing in New England at fall convocations of Catholic colleges and at spring meetings of Newman Apostolates. At some funerals in Western Pennsylvania, the Sign has similarly been absent in prayers offered by priests at funeral homes and at grave sites — apparently gone the way of the cassock, surplice, acolytes and thurifer.
What are we to make of it when parish priests, monsignors, monks, nuns, university chaplains, and archbishops, all unconsciously fail or deliberately omit to mark themselves — in the presence of their fellow Catholics — with the simple sign that most clearly and visibly identifies us as followers of Christ? Over three years ago, at prayers offered during his presidential inauguration, John F. Kennedy — no saint he, as we’ve regrettably come to know — did not hesitate to bless himself before millions of non-Catholic viewers throughout the world, and at a time when it would have been quintessentially politically correct for him to abstain from doing so. If he understood the importance of the Sign of the Cross, then what can be made of those consecrated by the sacrament of Orders or by religious vows, who do not so understand? What can be said? In hoc signo vinces?
Have they forgotten that awful and awesome Truth that there is no complete charity without the Crucifixion — nor Christianity without the Trinity? In any case, theirs is an unfortunate form of self-denial, and it adversely affects us all. Ironically, the self-denial sought by the Lord is, of course, to take up his Cross. We might begin doing so once again by publicly signing ourselves outside our churches, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.