St Francis de Sales wrote with clarity about the extraordinary power of an apparently basic gesture

I have been reading a small book, The Sign of the Cross, by St Francis de Sales, published by the American publishing company, Sophia Institute Press. Written in 1600 it was a response by the saint, who became Bishop of Geneva in 1602, to the leading Geneva Calvinist theologians who had rejected what they saw as a Catholic gesture. According to the foreword of the book, crucifixes and bare crosses are still today largely absent in American Evangelical churches “and the act of making the Sign of the Cross is regarded by many non-Catholics as superstition at best.”

I hadn’t known this; I always assumed that this most basic gesture was a universal Christian act, understood by all Christians for what it is: a graphic reminder of Christ’s sacrifice. In his defence of it, de Sales lays out with authority and clarity all the reasons for its importance. As he puts it, “These are the arguments that my adversary has made and now I shall oppose them.” He does not go in for the kind of false ecumenism so popular in the post-conciliar 1970s and 1980s where Catholics would water down their faith in meetings with other Christians so as not to give offence or to appear divisive. For de Sales, his book is more than a defence of the Sign of the Cross; it is an act of charity to men who have gone astray in their beliefs: “My dear adversary,” he writes, “If you have not yet been healed from having written your treatise…” For him, his slim book, the third in a series of four that he wrote on this subject, was part of his apostolate to bring the Calvinists, who had largely overrun Geneva, back to the true Faith.

As he points out, the Cross is a “folly to the pagans”. It also represents the Passion of Christ and by it “we confess the Trinity.” He reminds his readers that it is used in blessings, consecrations and sacraments, as well as “to chase off demons” and as a protection from them. As de Sales writes, “The demons flee from the Cross as though it were a living representation of the Crucifixion.”

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St Francis also reminds us that the early Christians used the Sign of the Cross as “a public profession of their Christianity or as a confession of it either in public or in private. For when the persecutions were widespread and severe, the Christians…recognised one another by this sign when they crossed themselves.” In my last blog I happened to mention Blessed Maria Restituta Kafka, the only nun to be condemned to death in Nazi Germany: a modern-day example of persecution of people of faith – Christians as well as Jews. She had refused to take down the crucifixes she had placed on the walls of the hospital in which she worked. She knew that in if she did so it would be a betrayal of everything she believed and stood for.

Blessed Restituta understood the power and significance of the Sign of the Cross. Indeed, before her execution she asked the prison chaplain to make the Sign of the Cross on her forehead. At her beatification on June 21, 1998, St John Paul II stated, “Many things can be taken from us Christians but the Cross as a sign of salvation will not be taken from us…”

The biographical note to the little book by St Francis de Sales informs us that his apostolate was highly successful, but at the cost of much sacrifice. In trying to bring the inhabitants of the Chablais back to the Faith from Calvinism, he was sometimes “thrown out of his lodgings and has to sleep in the open air. Many times he celebrated Mass in empty churches or continued preaching when the congregation walked out…” Empty churches? Catholics offended at being corrected for their liberal attitudes? There is a familiar ring to this; we need more bishops like the Bishop of Geneva in our country today.

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