WHY DO CATHOLICS... use the symbol of the Cross in their churches and homes?

By Paul Stenhouse, MSC PhD

ANNALS IS HAPPY to offer readers a new series of 'Why do Catholics...?' Following on the popularity of our last series that ran for some years, and is now available in booklet form [see p.14] we have selected twelve (12) topics from among those suggested by readers. We hope to continue this new series in Annals for some years. We welcome readers' comments on the topics chosen and our treatment of them. Ed.

THESE DAYS, the potentially lethal viruses of gimmickry and subjectivism contaminate much of what passes for religious or theological writing. A short piece entitled 'The Triumph of the Cross,' appeared in the September issue of Crisis. The author, an associate pastor of a Catholic parish in Washington, with two doctorates, introduces his topic with the statement that 'it took the Church four hundred years to use the cross as her primary symbol'. He also confuses the 'cross' and the 'crucifix'.

One expects this kind of fuzzy thinking from the likes of Jimmy Swaggert or 'Christian Equippers International'. The latter flood the Internet with anti-Catholic rubbish that clogs up telephone lines and people's minds. Taking their cue from anti-Catholic polemicists like Lorraine Boettner they claim, among myriad other absurdities, that 'making the sign of the cross' never began among Christians until 300AD.

The easily verifiable truth is that the sign of the cross, especially when used as part of the monogram of Christ, (the first two letters of the name of Christ, XP, with the X intersected by the P in the centre: associated with the Holy Name Society) is to be found as the most common and characteristic symbol of Christianity from the earliest days of the Church.

Myriad crosses were cut into the tufa walls, the grave niches and the chapels of the Roman catacombs from the end of the first century. These bear witness to the love that the first Christians bore for this image of Christ's victory over death.

They found spiritual strength as they prepared for their own martyrdom, in the image of the cross upon which Jesus died for our sins, despite torturers, hostile magistrates, and savage beasts. In reality, tens of thousands of those who gave their lives for love of him, died an excruciating death on a cross like their Lord.

The image of the cross, especially when used in conjunction with the monogram of Christ, was a two-fold symbol: of the name and person of the Lord Jesus; and of His sacrifice and death.

Misunderstanding the role of the Cross


WHEN no authority is recognised in matters biblical, the taste, judgement and dare we say, prejudice of the translators can run free. Take, for example, Isa. ii, 6 and compare its rendering in two modern translations, the Revised Standard Version and the New English Bible. The former has:

  'For thou has rejected thy people, the house of Jacob,
  because they are full of diviners from the east
   and of soothsayers like the Philistines,
   and they strike hands with foreigners.'

The latter has:

    'Thou hast abandoned thy people the house of Jacob;
   for they are crowded with traders
   and barbarians like the Philistines,
   and with the children of foreigners everywhere'.

Not without reason has the Catholic Church insisted that translations be subjected to scrutiny. Ed.

For almost three hundred years the meaning of this symbolism was lost on many of the ill-educated pagans, many of whom would have been aware that the Jesus whom Christians worshipped died the death of a criminal, and would have found the cross of Christ a shameful image.

The sign of the cross was so evident a part of Christian life in those early centuries, that some non-Christians, in their ignorance, accused Christians of worshipping the cross as if it were an idol.

Tertullian (160-220 AD) answered this accusation,1 as did the second century work Octavius, by the Christian writer Minucius Felix, whom some think Tertullian followed.

Octavius contains taunts by the pagan Caecilius that 'a cross is something you suffer death on, not something you adore,2 to which Octavius the Christian replies, 'we neither worship crosses, nor do we look for death upon them'.3

The extent of the devotion of ordinary Catholics to the cross of Christ in the second century may be gauged from the following statement of Tertullian, 160-220 AD:

"In all our travelling and going about; as we come in or go out; as we put on our shoes, or are at the bath, or at the table, in lighting our candles, in our lying down or sitting down; no matter what we are occupied in doing, we make the sign of the cross on our foreheads'.4

Minucius Felix, the second century author referred to above, describes to the pagan critic how Christians see the cross everywhere: "We see the sign of the cross naturally, in a ship borne along with bellying sails; we see it when a ship glides forwards with outstretched oars; we see it when a pure-hearted man worships God with extended hands'.5

Origen, 185-264 AD, describes the cross as 'the sign that is made by Christians upon their foreheads; for all the faithful make the sign before commencing any undertaking, especially when beginning to pray, or to read the holy scriptures'.6

Freedom to reverence the Cross


QUITE likely a still stream was the first mirror looked into by our astonished ancestors. But before long metals and stones that were capable of being finely polished acted as mirrors. The books of Job (37, 18) and Exodus (38, 8) mention mirrors made of metal, and we know that up until the time when glass mirrors came to be constructed, metal mirrors were used as ornaments and artists vied with one another in the production of these useful articles. Sadly few detailed descriptions have come down to us of the manufacture of such mirrors, and with the introduction of the cheaper and more accessible glass for this purpose, the art was lost. It was only when designers of telescopes started looking to metal for mirrors that the art had to be re-invented in order to find the correct mixture to provide the most perfect lustre.

In ancient times silver was used in the manufacture of the majority of mirrors, not because it was the most expensive but because silver was the most durable of the then available unmixed metals for such use. Pliny (lib. xxxiv, c. 17) ridiculing the extravagance of the times, says that every young woman in his time had to have a silver mirror. And St John Chrysostom, writing in the fourth century, describes 'maidservants constantly enquiring of the silversmiths when their mistress's mirror will be ready.' (Serm. xvii). An Etruscan mirror was found to be made of 68% copper, 24% tin and 8% lead.


Constantine was victorious against Maxentius - after his famous vision of the monogram of Christ with the words in hoc signo vincis ('conquer with this sign') in the evening of October 26, 312 AD before the battle at the Milvian Bridge. The Edict of Milan in 313 AD granted freedom for Catholics to profess their faith openly, and for the first time granted them universal tolerance. Constantine directed that 'for the Catholics in particular all meeting places which belonged to them and have since been bought by or granted to others, are to be restored.'7

The new emperor who favoured Christianity built numerous churches in Rome - the basilica of St Peter on the Vatican hill where Constantine placed a golden cross on St Peter's tomb, and the basilica of St Paul outside the walls, where St Paul is buried; he also founded the basilica of St John in Laterano, the pope's own church, and the basilica of St Agnes on the via Nomentana. In all of them he erected crosses. The basilicas were all built in the shape of a cross.

Afterwards, when he transferred his capital to Byzantium, later known as Constantinople, he erected large crosses on the Hippodrome and elsewhere in Constantinople, and put the cross or the monogram on the arms and shields of his soldiers, and on his imperial standards.

The famous mosaic cross, still viewed in wonderment by millions of pilgrims who visit the Basilica of St John Lateran in Rome, dates from the time of the same Christian emperor.

It is a plain cross, with a medallion of the baptism of Jesus at its intersection. The Holy Spirit represented as a dove hovers above it. The waters of baptism flow from the foot of the cross, becoming the source of the four Asiatic rivers that according to legend watered the Garden of Eden: Gihon, Pison, Tigris and Euphrates.

Behind the rivers is God's Holy City, guarded by the archangel Michael. Behind him is a palm tree, and on top of it a Phoenix, representing the risen Christ. Two stags below the cross, near the water, represent the nations seeking baptism, and three sheep, on each side of the water represented, as usual, the Jewish and the gentile Christians.

Julian the Apostate attacks the Church

Crosses were so commonly employed by Christians in decorating their homes and churches that, when the persecutions ceased, the emperor known as Julian the Apostate' (332- 363 AD) nephew of the emperor Constantine the Great, who sought to re-instate paganism and destroy Christianity, accused them of being hypocritical.

Followers of Christ, Julian complained, refused to worship the Sacred oval-shaped brass Shield called the Ancile,8 that was commonly believed to have fallen from heaven and upon which the security of Rome was thought to depend, and they worshipped the wooden cross, continually made the sign of the cross on their foreheads, and engraved the cross over their homes and churches.9

In reply to this misrepresentation, St Cyril of Alexandria (died 444 AD) denied that Christians worship the cross. He said that they reverence it because it reminds them that Jesus Christ, our Lord and Saviour, set aside his Divine Majesty, and left His Father's throne and took upon himself the form of a servant, the likeness of a man, and suffered the cruel and shameful death on the cross.

The sight of the cross, Cyril said, reminds Christians of these truths, and teaches them that Jesus died that they might live. That is why they value the symbol of the cross, and are grateful to God because of it.10

Decorated Crosses

It was common for crosses to be ornamented with flowers, or wreaths of victory, or crowns. St Paulinus (353-451 AD) bishop of Nola, not far from Capua in Italy, had the following inscription put under the cross above the entrance to his church:

'Ceme coronatam Domini super atria Christi
Stare crucem, duro spondentem celsa labore
Praemia. 'Tolle crucem is vis auferre coronam.'11

which I translate as follows:

'See above the entrance gate the crowned cross of Christ the Lord;
To those who pay the heavy price, it promises a high reward,
If you would bear away the crown, carry the cross and not the sword.'

A fourth century Christian poet in Aquitaine in France, Severus Sanctus Endelechius, describes how a Christian shepherd used to protect his flock from disease by painting a cross between their horns. He describes the mark as the sign of the cross the Christ, the only God who is worshipped in the great cities'.12

'This sign conquers'

Count Melchior de Vogué gives a beautiful account of the well-preserved remains of four ancient Christian towns on the east bank of the Oronte river, between Antioch and Aleppo. They appear to have been abandoned at the time of the Muslim invasions of Lebanon and Syria between 636 and 640 AD. They contain many ancient crosses.

'To visit them,' writes de Vogué, 'is to go back in time to a Christian society no longer living the life of the catacombs - humiliated, timid and suffering - but open, prosperous and artistic... There are crosses and monograms of Christ sculpted in relief on most of the gates: and from the style of the inscriptions it appears that they were from around the time of the emancipation of the Church (in 313 AD). There is a graffito of an unknown painter, decorating a tomb, and evidently wanting to try out his paintbrush, doodling on the rock and painting monograms of Christ. In the enthusiasm of his new-found freedom, he paraphrased the inscription that the emperor Constantine ordered to be put on the standards of the Roman legions: This sign conquers".13

The early Christians would have made St Paul proud. 'God forbid,' the saint of the Gentiles wrote to the Christians of Galatia, 'that I should glory in anything other than the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ'.14

  1. Apol. xvi; and ad Nationes i,12.
  2. op. cit. xii.
  3. ibid, xxix
  4. de Cor. Mil. iii.
  5. Octavius, 1672 edit. p.287.
  6. Select. in Ezech. ix.
  7. 'Epist. to Anulinus', proconsul for Africa. See Eusebuius, Hist. Eccles. x, 5, 15.
  8. Mamurius made eleven copies at the request of king Numa (died 672BC) to confuse thieves who might try to steal it.
  9. See St Cyril of Alexandria's Contra Iulianum, vi.
  10. ibid. The above summary has been taken from the non-Catholic Dictionary of Christian Antiquities, Hartford 1880, vol.i. p.499.
  11. Molanus (1533-1585) de Imaginibus c.v 'de Picturis'. His real name was J. ver Meulen; he was a Flemish Catholic writer.
  12. quoted ibid. p.496.
  13. Revenue Archeologique, vii, p.201.
  14. vi.14.

From "Annals Australasia"April/May 1997

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