A Case for the Sign of the Cross: St. Francis de Sales and his Defense of a Christian Practice

On January 24th, Christians around the world honor the memory of St. Francis de Sales, who is remembered for his bold yet graceful defense of the Faith in the 16th century area of Switzerland. Before January 24th came along this year, I had the opportunity to read a copy of St. Francis’ book, The Sign of the Cross, in which he defends the practice of making the Sign of the Cross by referring not only to the historic traditions of Christianity, but also relating powerful stories of its use, and the biblical roots of its importance.

The Sign of the Cross can be made over the forehead or mouth, but the most familiar method is touching the fingers of the right hand to the forehead, followed by the lower/center chest, left shoulder and then right shoulder. This is done while saying “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit”, which some consider to be “the fifteen most powerful words in the English language”. St. Francis is decidedly Catholic, as are his apologetics, but non-Catholics should not be too quick to dismiss the Sign of the Cross simply because Catholics have gotten the most use out of it. My question is whether all Christians should be using it, and I’ll cut to the chase for a moment: if the Sign of the Cross is inherently (and historically) Christian, and does indeed stand against both evil and false doctrine, then it seems to me that all followers of Christ should be identifying themselves with the Sign of the Cross. Because I prefer to examine Christianity in its full historical context, I am willing to think outside the box on this, even though I’m still technically classified as an “Evangelical Protestant”.

St. Francis’ chapter titles offer some insight into his approach to the subject: “A Public Profession of Faith”, “The Use of the Sign of the Cross in the Church of the Fathers”, “A Reproof to the Antichrist”, “A Defense against Demons”, etc.

Along with scripture references to explain to people why they should not assail such a wonderful Christian practice, St. Francis also quoted many important people from Christian history, such as St. Athanasius: “Every magical art is rebuffed by the Sign of the Cross, and by it every spell is broken”. Or St. Antony: “The demons come in the night pretending to be angels of God. Seeing them, arm yourselves and your homes with the Sign of the Cross, and immediately they will be reduced to nothing, for they fear this victory sign by which the Savior despoiled the powers of the air and made them laughable.” And St. John Chrysostom: “St. Paul calls the Cross a prize, and it should not only be made with the hand on the body, but, in truth, first in the soul. For if in this way you impress it upon your face, not one of the demons will dare attack you, seeing the lance by which they received the mortal blow.”

St. Francis de Sales himself was a very interesting guy. Particularly interesting to me, he is the patron saint of writers, and known for his stand against the harmful ideas of his time that posed a real threat to him personally and caused great spiritual damage to the region in which he lived. According to the biographical note at the end of the book, “…St. Francis’ unflagging poise and kindness in [his] mission led to its eventual success. By the turn of the century, the majority of the area’s inhabitants had returned to the Catholic faith.”

In closing, the description on the back cover of the book is worth quoting at length:

Embodying the zeal of youth and the wisdom of age, this gentle jewel of Catholic apologetics traces the origins of the Sign of the Cross back to the Fathers of the Church, to the Apostles before them, and finally to our Lord Himself…

Outside the Creed itself, there are few topics to which the Fathers testify as universally and unanimously as the pious practice of making, frequently and well, the Sign of the Cross…”

I would be curious to hear the thoughts of my fellow Christians on this matter. Why are so many of us not making the Sign of the Cross? As a Christian, I have been longing for a way to identify myself boldly with Christ, express spiritual feelings outwardly, bless and be blessed, and separate myself from heretical versions of the faith. History and Christian tradition may have provided the answer. What do you think?

-Ben 1/23/14

If this sign were not applied to the forehead of believers, or to the water with which they are regenerated, or to the chrism oil with which they are anointed, or to the sacrifice by which they are nourished, none of these would be as perfect as they should be.”
–St. Augustine

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19 Comments on “A Case for the Sign of the Cross: St. Francis de Sales and his Defense of a Christian Practice”

  1. spookchristian says:

    Is that after they murdered all the Christians/Protestant’s in Switzerland then ??

    • Ben says:

      This is the sort of comment that encourages me to proceed with actual research. Thanks.
      -Ben

      • spookchristian says:

        what sort of research is that then..??
        Perhaps if your going to do some research, then it would be better to use none catholic books,, theres a chance you might get the truth then.. hopefully, then hopefully you will become a christian..

        to be steeped in ‘ history ‘ is to become a Bible believing Christian..

        😀

        ……………..”.yawns……….”……

  2. paulfpavao says:

    While I laugh at the attempts some make to trace things all the way back to Jesus, this passage from Tertulllian is much earlier than any you mention in your post (and agrees with them).

    I’m Protestant, too, but the sign of the cross at least approaches the time of the apostles:

    “If no passage of Scripture has prescribed it, surely custom, which without doubt flowed from tradition, has confirmed it.”

    Pause for explanation for Protestants. This is Tertullian, just after AD 200 (De Corona 3). By “tradition” he means “verbal teaching of the apostles,” not anything the church invented. When a custom was common among all churches in his time, it was safe or almost safe to assume the practice originated from the apostles (“tradition”).

    “Are there any other practices [besides not wearing a wreath crown, the subject of his tract], which we maintain on the ground of tradition alone without any written instrument? … At every forward step and movement, at every going in and out, when we put on our clothes or our shoes, when we bathe, when we sit at table, when we light the lamps, on couch, on seat, in all the actions of ordinary life, we trace upon the forehead the sign.”

    The ellipse in the last quote is to leave out several other customs referenced by Tertullian concerning baptism and the Eucharist, which are not pertinent to this post.

    I believe that’s the earliest reference to the sign of the cross, but I am not sure. It sure doesn’t seem harmful to follow such an ancient practice.

  3. spookchristian says:

    Did you do any research in the first place ??
    A cross, is merely a lump of wood,.. what is more important, is what Jesus christ achieved on that Cross, for us,,
    i.e. paid the penalty for our sins, …
    you catholics need to stop focussing on dead things, like lumps of wood, and statues,the cadavers of so called dead saint’s,
    and really get to grips with getting saved…
    Perhaps you should get yourself a bible.. KJV ??

    • Ben says:

      Spook,

      Having seen some of the very unkind things you have said on other people’s blogs, I am glad to be among those you have chosen to so pathetically target. I would count myself sympathetic to Catholics if for no other reason than you opposing them. Consider your cause to have been hindered by yourself, and assume that any further immature comments of yours on this site will be deleted.

      May you find Grace. Take care now.

      -Ben

  4. bgpery says:

    “Is that after they murdered all the Christians/Protestant’s in Switzerland then ??”

    Yeah about the same time they were killing the Catholics. Or maybe you were referring to the Calvinists killing the Anabaptists. Of course to be historically honest and not a bigot one would need to admit that there is plenty of guilt to go around.

    Objection to physical expression of belief implies the belief that matter is bad which is incompatible with the incarnation.

    (Ben- out of respect for you I will not comment again in this particular thread as I’m sure spook will respond and it will likely get nasty as well as fruitless.)

    • Ben says:

      bgpery, I’m glad you stopped by. The spook is more helpful than he realizes, but not in the way he hopes. It’s nice to have someone volunteer to represent the other viewpoint, right? Haha

      With that in mind, I hope you feel free to comment further. “Objection to physical expression of belief” sounds almost like Gnosticism. Who knows how many heresies can creep in to people’s beliefs when doctrinal authority is lacking… That’s been on my mind a lot lately.

      Great comment.

      -Ben

      • bgpery says:

        Ben- I feel free to comment, what I meant was, I will refrain, if necessary to avoid turning your comment box into an ugly and pointless exchange of vitriol.

        ‘sounds almost like Gnosticism’… yep

    • Dapper Dan says:

      “Of course to be historically honest and not a bigot one would need to admit that there is plenty of guilt to go around.”

      Absolutely! I’m Protestant but when I’ve brought up Catholicism to fellow Protestants, they often point to the killings they did as if that’s the ultimate nail in the coffin of Catholicism. But like you say, the Protestants did their own killing. So as arguments go, they cancel each other out so the point is moot. The “silver bullets” will need to be found elsewhere.

      • paulfpavao says:

        If I can make a contrary point here. Where Protestants say, “You must submit to our general synod in order to be a Christian,” then the evil deeds of their past ought to be brought up as reason to reject their claimed authority over all Christians (or perhaps all Christians of a certain nation). All religions that have achieved secular governmental authority have been guilty of the very un-Christian idea of exterminating heretics. However, not all of them continue to say today that their leading figure or chief council has authority over all Christians. The behavior of the popes of history is not necessarily worse than the behavior of lead figures of other Christian movements, but the dogma of the Catholic Church is that their tyranny should be restored (whether they care to admit it or not, they have no problems writing me regularly to tell me that reading the early Christian writings should lead me to get back under the umbrella of Rome). In such a case, reciting the history of what happens when Christians agree to papal primacy is, in my opinion, the appropriate response.

    • spookchristian says:

      Well if the Calvinists killed the Anabaptist’s that is obvously wrong…I should think that the Calvinists, used to be catholics, and got saved, repented of their idolatry etc, ,,became Christians.. but for some reason, did not leave their Romish practices, and habits behind,,
      But this does not excuse the persecution of the Albigenses, Waldenses, Cathars..

      and the protection of ‘ child abuser’s ‘ etc,,

      I dare say, that one needs to be a pedophile. in order to become a catholic so called priest.??
      then there is the invention of the Jesuits, to take charge of the inquistions,,,

      There is not a more evil cult on this earth, than the catholic so called church..
      ‘ The Whore of Babylon ‘ Rev 17…

      It has become evident to me, that catholicism, has made a ‘ religion ‘ out of mass murder…
      The vatican even assisted Mr Hitler, in his pursuit of the destruction of the jewish people.

  5. Dapper Dan says:

    Great post about the sign of the cross. In college a roommate asked why we didn’t make the sign of the cross. I didn’t have an answer because it’s simply an expression of faith, just like kneeling for prayer, raising hands in worship, etc. We ALL do outward expressions. But if there is one sign that is inherently “Christian” it would be the cross. And yet at the time, for me it was weird because it was “Catholic.” Since then I’ve discovered the Anglican tradition (which uses the sign of the cross a lot too) and recently I’ve discovered Catholic theology as well (which is very compelling).

    Keep reviewing good books!

    • Ben says:

      Thanks Dapper Dan!

      Great comment. I’m glad that you mentioned the Anglican tradition. I have been very intrigued by it, as it seems to be the “via media” (middle way) that John Henry Newman referred to in his autobiography that I read not long ago.

      So many believers today either make up their own history of the faith (and often their own beliefs as well), or shrug-off history all together. I’m encouraged to see that some fellow Christians here also see the Sign of the Cross as a serious thing to consider.

      -Ben

  6. bgpery says:

    I had decided not to feed the troll but I must say something and point out some facts. (sorry Ben this is exactly where I thought this was going…. I just cant help myself)

    The inquisition was led by the Order of Preachers not the Society of Jesus.
    Cardinal Newman never joined the Society of Jesus.
    The KJV was translated by the romish Anglican church and some of its most Anglocatholic clergy, all who love the KJV should thank these non-christians for producing it.
    Since the Church was so helpful to the Nazis, I wonder why so many priests were thrown into concentration camps, and why P. Pius XII had all those Jews hidden in convents and monasteries in Rome.
    Generally I would like to understand the principal in play whereby all members of a group of people are collectively guilty of the sins of individuals who were part of that group- If I were to apply this principal to some group other than the Catholic church, Jews for example would it still apply?- Does this principal have a name?

    To point out error one simply says A is untrue because of B and C. Or A and B are incompatible you must reject B. I hold that Protestantism is a heresy, and I say to Protestants ‘X is wrong because of Y’ we talk and remain on friendly terms. I don’t say ‘Luther was an anti-Semitic drunk, Protestantism is a religion of anti-Semitism and drunkenness repent you heretic’ if I did that I would be a jerk.

    One other thought, words are symbols merely a series of sounds, ink on paper or pixels on a screen, by your logic we should not revere the name Jesus or have reverence toward the Bible it is only ink and paper after all.

    I do not whitewash the sins of other members of my Church as regards the evil and unrepentant ‘God will render to them according to their deeds’ (Rom2). I feel that the modern Jesuits should be suppressed since the majority of them are modernist heretics.

  7. lovepursuing says:

    Thank you for your review and commentary on this work by St. Francis.While I don’t consider myself Catholic, St Francis de Sales is an amazingly thoughtful writer. His life and demeanor conveyed fruits of the Spirit that testify to him being “the real deal.” I don’t yet have an opinion on the question you raise, but it at least challenges me to dig back into some great writings of an interesting man. Thank you :).

    • Ben says:

      I appreciate your thoughtful comment. Since reading this book, I’ve been looking forward to reading others by him, particularly ” A Defense of the Faith” and “An Introduction to the Devout Life”.

      So far it seems as though the Sign of the Cross is something appreciated by thoughtful Christians, even if its actual use may require further contemplation.

      Thanks for stopping by!

      -Ben