Lebrun: On the Sign of the Cross (and wigs!)


Beginning the Mass with the Sign of the Cross.

Image result for 18th century bishop's wig

Whatever the form of the preparation the priest has performed before he vests himself in the priestly garments, he now goes to the food of the altar and there recalls that he is full of misery, and that he has need of a very particular assistance from God to offer a victim as pure and holy as that of the adorable Body of Our Lord Jesus Christ. It is sentiments such as these that detain him at the foot of the altar as he prepares to ask for the grace to ascend in a holy manner.

The Christian people, who ordinarily do not prepare themselves in a particular way before coming to Mass, should take care that at the beginning of this public preparation, which he shares with the priest and which belongs to him as well, he disposes himself to obtain the graces necessary to participate in the fruit of the Sacrifice.


Standing at the base of the altar, at the last step, in the middle of the altar, with head uncovered and hands joined, he makes the sign of the cross with his right hand, from his forehead to his chest, saying in an audible voice: In nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti. Amen.


On the practice of leaving the head uncovered; on the permission to wear a cap or wig; on the several ways of making the sign of the Cross and the reasons we begin with this sign

Bishop Richard Challoner (Source)
  1. The priest begins the Mass with his head uncovered, because the ancient custom of the Church is that men prayer with their heads bared. St. Paul recommended it,[1] and the Council of Rome presided over by Pope Zachary (743) makes it clear that this custom must be observed absolutely at Mass, and forbids the bishop, priest, or deacon to assist at the altar with head covered, on pain of excommunication.[2] It was nothing less than necessity that forced the popes and bishops to permit the wearing of the skull cap during Mass, and this permission does not include the time from the Canon to the end of the Communion.[3]
  2. The priest joins his hands, and keeps them in this position for the whole Mass, except when he needs to use them for some other task or raise them in prayer. Pope Nicholas I says that it is very fitting to have one’s hands tied, so to speak, when praying before God, and to bear ourselves in his presence as ones prepared to suffer punishment and to avoid being condemned like the wicked men in the Gospel parable.[4]
  3. The priest makes the sign of the Cross with his right hand, because this is the hand we use ordinarily, and because it has always been done this way.[5]
  4. He makes it from the forehead to the chest, thus including all the different ways the sign has been made. The ancient Roman Ordines note that it was made on the forehead.[6] This was a very common way and is still followed in some places, but it has been made also on the mouth and the heart. Now when we make it from the forehead to the chest we include all these: the forehead, mouth, and heart.

After having brought his hand to his chest, the priest brings it to his left shoulder. The Greeks bring it to the right, and the Latins once did so as well, according to Innocent III,[7] who nevertheless believes that it is more natural and easy to touch the left shoulder before the right. We bless all manner of persons and things in this way as well: after making the first line of the Cross in the air, we pass the hand from left to right.

There are also different ways to hold the fingers when making the sign of the Cross. One common practice is to lift three fingers because of the number of the divine persons.[8] The Greeks join the thumb to the ring finger, leaving the others raised.[9] Among the Latins, the custom of raising the first three fingers while crossing the other two has lasted a very long time: it is expressly recommended by Leo IV in 847 and is still used by the Carthusians and Dominicans. But due to the difficulty of holding the last two fingers crossed nearly everyone extends the hand and all the fingers.[10] One must follow current usage on this point and praise whatever is edifying in the differing customs of other times and places. Finally, the priest begins the Mass with the sign of the Cross, as it is fitting for Christians to commence any great action, and especially the act of sacrifice.

Tertullian,[11] St. Cyprian,[12] and many other ancient Fathers[13] tell us that formerly Christians made the sign of the Cross at the outset of all of their actions, either on the forehead, or the mouth, or the heart, or on their arms, so to invoke God’s help in all their needs through the Cross. We make this sign in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, i.e., on the part of and by the power of the three divine persons who desire that we should invoke them with confidence through the sign of the Cross.

In addition to these general purposes, the priest begins the Mass with the sign of the Cross because it should be his intention to recall the memory of the death of Jesus Christ, and thus he says at the same time: In nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus sancti: In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, to indicate that he is recalling to mind the Sacrifice of Jesus Christ to the honor of the Most Holy Trinity.

The priest and the Christian people have been consecrated to the three Divine Persons through Baptism; to the Father who has adopted them as his sons; to the Son in whom they have been adopted; and to the Holy Spirit through whom they have been adopted by receiving a second birth.[14] This adoption gives the faithful the right to approach the Holy Mysteries, and to offer the Holy Sacrifice along with the priest in the name of the three Divine Persons: in the name of the Father who who has given them his Son to be sacrificed; in the name of the Son who has been given to be immolated; and in the name of the Holy Spirit through whom he is offered.[15] To be offered through the Holy Spirit is to be offered through the spirit of charity and love.


[1] 1 Cor. 11.

[2] Nullus episcopus, presbyter, aut diaconus ad solemnia missarum celebranda praesumat cum baculo introire, aut velato capite altario dei assistere: quoniam et apostolus prohibet viros velato capite orare in ecclesia: et qui temere praesumpserit, communione privetur (Conc. tom. 6. Co. 1549; dist. 1, art. 2 de consecratione, cap. “Nullius”).

[3] The dispensation to wear a wig at the altar is based on necessity, is more dangerous, and should consequently be more rare, not only because it is granted for the whole duration of the Mass, but also because this permission should not be requested except for reasons of grave inconvenience, nor should it be granted by those competent to do so except under fitting restrictions on its length, curling, color, and worldly air, so that while introducing this new invention the rules prescribed by the canons regarding the modesty of the head will not be completely violated. Most people are of the opinion that that it would cause less evil to wear a cap throughout the Mass in order to remedy these inconveniences, rather than to wear a wig which is usually regarded as a sign of worldliness. It is certainly in order to avoid the difficulty of deciding between what is necessary and what is worldly that many cathedral chapters in France have resolved not to permit a priest, deacon, or subdeacon to officiate at the choir altar while wearing a wig, even though the permission has been granted to them by their bishops. The reader may find the Statutes, disputes, and judgments rendered on this article in M. Thiers’s Histoire des perruques (Paris, 1690), chapters 18, 19, and 28.

Love for the ancient discipline has moved the pope to be more rigorous on this point than the chapters have been. He has caused the following Ordinance to be hung in all the sacristies of Rome: “His Holiness desiring to put an end to the unbecoming practice found in sacristies and churches with regard to priests who wear wigs, orders the Rector, Sacristan, and other ministers of this church not to allow any priest to celebrate the Holy Mass nor exercise any ecclesiastical function while wearing a wig, either leaving it in the sacristy or not bringing it there in the first place, and this on pain of being deprived of their office, or of imprisonment, at our discretion. 30th September 1702, Gaspard, Card. Vic.” Today in the diocese of Avignon, which is part of the Papal States, the custom is to take off the wig in the sacristy before saying Mass.

[4] Respons. Ad Consult. Bulg.

[5] Justin. Quaest. 118.

[6] Faciens crucem in fronte sua (Ord. Rom. I and II).

[7] De sacro altaris mysterio, Book 2, Chapter 45.

[8] Honorius, Gemma Animae; Innocent III, De S. altaris myst., Book 5, Chapter 33.

[9] See Hierolexicon Macri et Genebrard on the liturgy, pg. 187. [Ed.: This claim lacks support.]

[10] The rubrics of the Missal of Trèves (1585), based on those of St. Pius V, indicate that the priest should extend all his fingers when to make the sign of the cross on himself, but only three when blessing anything else.

[11] Ad vestitum, etc. frontem crucis signaculo terimus (Coron. Mil. chapter 3 and Book 2 ad uxor.)

[12] Cypt. epist. 58.

[13] Ad omnem actum, ad omnem incessum manus pingat crucem (Jerome, Letter to Eustachius). Cum os stomachumque signaret (Idem ibid.) In fronte, ut semper confiteamur: in corde, ut semper diligamus; signaculum in brachio, ut semper operemur (Ambrose, chapter 8). Basil On the Holy Spirit. Cyril ().

[14] Renatus ex aqua et Spiritu sancto (John 3:5).

[15] Qui per Spiritum Sanctum semetipsum obtulit immaculatum (Hebr. 9:14).




4 thoughts on “Lebrun: On the Sign of the Cross (and wigs!)

  1. As a Greek I need to say that we have traditionally in the East made the sign of the cross with the three fingers joined at least since the 10th century. St. Peter of Damascus (d 775) told the faithful to make the sign with two fingers raised to deny the heresy of the one nature. By the 10th century it is documented in the writings of the Orthodox Pope Leo IV of Rome (and surely in practice before his writing) that the seal was made with three fingers joined. This prevailed in the East while in the West, at least today, the seal seems to be always made with an open palm.

    I have never seen documentation that the sign was made in the East by joining the thumb and the fourth finger as Lebrun writes.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Neither have I, Fr. Khoury. The Latin dictionary Lebrun cites on this point (which I’ve linked in footnote 9) notes the Greek usage you have described (tribus digitis dexterae manus unitis) but curiously Lebrun does not. The dictionary also makes the claim about the thumb-ring finger without support (but does provide an engraving!) explaining only that “the Greeks say this signifies the Α and the Ω.”

      Thanks for your comment. An error like this would be interesting in itself as an indication of how much was really known at the time by Latins about Greek practices.


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