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Sign of the Cross at Final Blessing

Date: September 4, 2022
Author: Fr. Edward McNamara, LC

Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and sacramental theology and director of the Sacerdos Institute at the Pontifical Regina Apostolorum university.

Question: One priest here in our archdiocese instructed his flock not to make the sign of the cross (on themselves) as the presider blesses the people with the gesture of blessing (+). He instructed the people to, instead, make a bow of the head as the presider makes the said gesture while pronouncing the words of the final blessing, for instance: “May Almighty God bless you, the Father, and the Son, (+) and the Holy Spirit.” This is his reasoning:

-- Whereas the rubrics of the Roman Missal in the introductory rites explicitly state that the priest and the faithful, standing, sign themselves with the sign of the cross, no such explicit instruction is stated for the faithful to sign themselves during the final blessing. Neither is such instruction to the faithful stated in the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM), Nos. 167, 185, 250 or 272.

-- Since the final blessing involves the presider mentioning the three Divine Persons as he makes the gesture of blessing (+), the faithful are just supposed to bow their heads (in accordance to GIRM 275-a) without making the sign of the cross. Is his interpretation of the rubrics and the GIRM valid in this aspect? -- M.S., Philippines

Answer: It is not easy to give an absolutely certain answer to this question precisely because we are in the realm of interpretation of the meaning of a norm in which legitimate differences can exist.

Personally, however, I think that the absence of an indication regarding the actions of the faithful in the case of the blessing do not constitute a prohibition on the faithful’s customary gesture of making a sign of the cross during the above-mentioned final blessing.

My reasoning is the following:

In general, the liturgical norms do not minutely regulate the faithful’s gestures and postures. Where a gesture is regulated, it is usually when it involves both minister and people making the same gesture.

This is the case of the indication for the introductory rites (GIRM 50 and 124) in which the fact of ministers and faithful making the sign of the cross together manifests the unity of the gathered assembly. It is specifically indicated here because of the ritual importance of this moment and the nature of the rite. For this reason, and because it is not a blessing, it really has little to do with whether the people make the sign of the cross at the final blessing. The two rites are not theologically or ritually parallel in a strict sense.

The indication of GIRM 275-a mentioned by the priest could well be applicable here. It says:

“275. A bow signifies reverence and honor shown to the persons themselves or to the signs that represent them. There are two kinds of bow: a bow of the head and a bow of the body.

“a. A bow of the head is made when the three Divine Persons are named together and at the names of Jesus, of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and of the Saint in whose honor Mass is being celebrated.”

This text would usually be applied to such moments as the conclusion of the collect prayers rather than the blessing, although it is also true that the missal recommends that the assembly make a bow of the head whenever a solemn blessing is imparted at Mass (GIRM 185).

However, if this general principle applies to the final blessing, it would also equally apply to the sign of the cross at the beginning of Mass because the Trinity is evoked in both cases. It could be argued that making the sign of the cross substitutes the bow; but even if this were not the case, there is nothing contradictory in making a small bow while making the sign of the cross. In fact, this is quite a common gesture in some geographical areas and several Eastern Churches.

We could also add the indications for blessings in general and especially for the blessings found in the Book of Blessings.

As is known, many of the blessing formulas found in this book speak about extending the hands but no longer mention any moment of the priest or deacon making the sign of the cross. This left many priests and faithful somewhat confused as to when the person or object had been blessed. To address this confusion, the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments issued a decree that clarified the issue, even though the text is still available only in Latin (Prot. N. 1745/02/L (14 September 2002), AAS 94 (2002) 684).

This document indicates that the priest makes the sign of the cross in all blessings from the Book of Blessings, either at the word “bless” (or similar) or at the conclusion of the prayer if the word is missing from the prayer.

Again, there is no indication that the faithful make the sign of the cross simultaneously with the priest, but this would be the natural thing to do for most practicing Catholics.

Therefore, in conclusion, I would say that there is certainly no mandate in the liturgical documents that require the faithful to make the sign of the cross at the final blessing. Should there be any region where people are not accustomed to making the sign of the cross at this moment, this is a perfectly viable option. Nor would an individual Catholic be required to make the sign even if practically everybody else did so.

I have often insisted that the adage “What is not forbidden is permitted” does not apply to liturgical laws. But in this case, since we are dealing with a widespread, almost universal, pre-existing custom among Catholics, I do not think that the fact that the missal omits any mention of the sign of the cross at the final blessing constitutes grounds for attempting to suppress the gesture.

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