Catholicism Explained: Catholic Symbols And Gestures

The Roman Catholic Church maintains many ancient traditions. This article explains some of the symbols and gestures that the church uses in accordance with those traditions.

The Roman Catholic Church exists in nearly every country on Earth, ministering to millions of worshippers worldwide.In addition to the original Latin, the Catholic Mass is served in hundreds of languages.However, even if a Catholic travels to a foreign country, where he or she is unfamiliar with the language, some gestures and symbols remain universal.These similarities make the unfamiliar, familiar.

* Symbols *


Every year, on the Wednesday following Palm Sunday, Catholics receive the ashes of the previous year's palms as a blessing, traced into the form of a cross on their foreheads.These ashes symbolize the dust from which humankind came, and the dust to which we all shall return, a concept familiar to many people through the phrased "ashes to ashes, dust to dust."By using the ashes of the previous year's palms, the ashes come to symbolize both the joy of Christ's entry into Jerusalem and the regret over His sacrifice.Ashes were once a symbol of both penance and mourning.At the time Christ lived, both were expressed by sitting in dust and ashes, as well as placing dust and ashes on one's forehead.


The cross is a powerful Christian symbol, not limited to Catholics.It represents the cross upon which Christ died.The cross is present all around the church's interior: on the altar cloth, in the Stations of the Cross, and even on the priest's vestments.


The Crucifix differs from the cross, in that it depicts the image of Christ being crucified, rather than that of the empty cross.The addition of His figure to the empty cross is intended to emphasize His human nature, which enabled him to suffer physical pain and death.

Not all crucifixes are identical.Depending on the mission of the church, the depiction of Jesus may evoke various emotions ranging from sorrow, to fear, or to awe.However, the purpose of the crucifix remains the same: to remind Catholics of the price Christ paid for humanity's redemption.


Catholics use incense during important services to symbolize the prayers of the congregation rising to heaven.One of the gifts traditionally associated with the Magi was frankincense.This aromatic resin was part of the traditional incense associated with the Old Testament Temple of Solomon.Frankincense represents the continuity of faith between the Old and New Testaments.


A monstrance is a kind of vessel intended to display the consecrated Host to the Catholic faithful.One important part of the Catholic Mass is the Elevation of the Host.The monstrance "elevates" the Host when the priest is unable to do so.

There are two kinds of monstrance.The one most Catholics are familiar with is that which is seen inside the church.This type of monstrance is usually displayed on an altar, or is stored in a tabernacle.The monstrance is usually gold- or silver-plated.Most often, the monstrance has a sun-like appearance, topped by a cross.The Catechism of 1913 recommended this appearance, because the monstrance represents the light of Christ, the "sun of righteousness."

Symbolism exists not just in these things, but also in the written word of the church, itself.The parables of the New Testament are symbolic, rather than literal, teaching lessons through the actions of the people who move through them.Just as the sharing of communion is symbolic of the Last Supper, but is only part of the Mass, none of the symbols are intended to be viewed or used alone, but make up the whole of the Catholic experience.

* Gestures *


Catholics often bow or kneel during prayer.At times, they bow as they pass the altar or pray before a painting or statue.Neither the bow nor the prayer is symbolic of worshipping the structure, the painting, or the statue.Rather, the bow is a display of respect for what the altar represents, or for the person represented by the image.


The definition of genuflection is literally, 'to bend the knee.'In the Catholic Church, genuflection is an act of reverence, a sort of minor prostration in which the person touches the floor with the right knee while bending the left knee.In addition, the Catholic makes the sign of the cross while genuflecting.Genuflection is a relatively new form of devotion, added to the church practices during the Middle Ages.Formal recognition of genuflection did not come until 1502, although it was some time before priests were expected to genuflect as part of the Consecration.

Sign of the cross

There are actually three signs of the cross in the Catholic Church.All of them represent the same thing, which is the Cross that Jesus died upon.

The first sign of the cross is that which most people are familiar with, the gesture with which the Catholic faithful cross themselves.The symbolism of this gesture is twofold: first, the sign of the cross asserts the Christian doctrine of the Holy Trinity, and second, it affirms the doctrine of humanity's redemption through Christ's sacrifice.Catholics start the gesture their foreheads (In nominee Patris), touch their chests (et Filii), and then touch the left shoulder followed by the right (et Spiritus Sancti).This gesture is seen many times during Mass and in private prayer.It may have come from medieval practices, symbolizing Jesus' coming to earth from Heaven, His descent into Hell (the left being associated with evil) and Ascending to sit at the right side of God, the Father.

The second sign of the cross is that which the priest uses to bless the congregation.This gesture is also large, and is inscribed in the air in the direction of the congregation.The priest makes this gesture several times during Mass and during other rituals of the church.

Finally, there is the small sign of the cross, which the priest or deacon will inscribe on the book of the Gospel using his thumb before it is opened and read, after which he repeats the gesture on his forehead, lips, and breast.The Catholic congregation also makes this triple gesture immediately before the reading of the Gospel.

Using Holy Water Entering and Leaving the Church

Catholics bless themselves with holy water while entering a church.Not only does this gesture contain the symbolism of signing themselves with the cross, it also is an act of symbolic purification.This practice was known to be in common use during the second century and may go back to the Jewish rite of purifying oneself before entering the Temple.

Holy water is blessed water, containing a measure of salt.The salt itself has a symbolic meaning: water purifies and salt preserves from decay.The church combines them, to preserve the faithful from relapsing into sin after having their sins washed away.Catholic priests use a solemn prayer to ask protection from the powers of darkness to bless holy water.At times, water is blessed for certain purposes, such as baptism.Holy water is used to bless the congregation (the Asperges, or "sprinkling") on Sunday, and to anoint the recipient during the Sacrament of the Sick.

The Catholic faith is long-standing and complex.Although these are some of the symbols and gestures, almost every action made or item used in the faith has deep symbolic meaning.Most Catholic churches have resources to answer any questions you might have and welcome visitors to their services.

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