QUAERITUR: sign of the Cross when passing a non-Catholic church

From a reader:

I was taught to cross myself when passing by a Roman Catholic Church out of reverence for the Real Presence in the Eucharist that is present in that house of God. I live outside Washington D.C. and I see various Orthodox Churches, including a Ukrainian Orthodox, Indian Orthodox, Armenian (Iglesia Getsemani AIC), Russian Orthodox, Eastern Orthodox, Antiochian Orthodox, Greek Orthodox, et. al.

Given that the Vatican recognizes other churches as having the Eucharist, how do I know which churches, besides Roman Catholic ones, I should show reverence for when I pass by? Or should I keep it simple and only cross myself by Roman Catholic ones?

I think it is a good idea to make the Sign of the Cross, and you can accompany the pious gesture with any one of a number of short phrases which can gain partial indulgences.

 

If you know you are going in front of a Church where you are certain the Blessed Sacrament, valid Eucharist, is being reserved, I cannot see the harm in blessing yourself.

But it is up to you.  It isn’t a sin not to make the Sign of the Cross when going in front of a Church unless, perhaps, you are purposely ignoring the Lord whom you know to be present.

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50 Responses to QUAERITUR: sign of the Cross when passing a non-Catholic church

  1. Flambeaux says:

    I observed Greeks doing this when I was in Athens and, newly reverted to the practice of the Catholic Faith at the time, adopted the practice. As I pass it along to my children it creates some interesting conversations during car rides.

  2. dmwallace says:

    I often pass a Coptic Orthodox church on my way home from work. In a special nod to Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament dwelling in an Eastern setting, I always reverence Him there with an Eastern sign of the Cross, i.e. “backwards” and with three fingers joined, two folded down (representing the Trinity and the Hypostatic Union). It always reminds me of the necessity for unity between the Eastern and Western “lungs” of the one mystical Body of Christ.

  3. Patikins says:

    I am under the impression that most Orthodox/Eastern rite churches reserve the blessed sacrament. I cross myself Eastern style when I pass by Orthodox churches as well as either of the two Eastern Catholic churches in town.

    I really love this devotion and was glad to extend it to include the Eastern churches. Perhaps a quick prayer for unity would be apropos when passing Orthodox churches.

  4. cheekypinkgirl says:

    I think this practice is fine and well for those who like it.

    But I have to say that as someone who doesn’t do it, but travels quite often with someone who does, it really annoys me. Combined with crossing oneself when we motor past any cemetery, it seems as if when we drive it’s a constant motion of crossing oneself – and often mindlessly, as that. (It strikes me as mindless when we’re talking and chatting, but the crossing oneself by churches and cemeteries continues despite the talking. It seems almost robotic.)

    But that’s just one person I know and spend alot of time with. I’m sure it’s a different experience for lots of folks.

    However, I often feel like a “less-than” Catholic because I am not moved or called to do the same.

  5. Father G says:

    I myself make the sign of the cross when passing in front of an Eastern Orthodox church. If the Eastern Orthodox church happens to be open, then I step in for a moment of adoration and say a prayer for unity.
    Fr. Benedict Groeschel has mentioned in a talk he gave how he adored the Blessed Sacrament when visiting an Eastern Orthodox Church.

    Eastern Orthodox churches are of the Byzantine liturgical tradition. Theses include Greek, Russian, Ukrainian, Serbian, Antiochian, Bulgarians, Albanians, etc.
    These churches do reserve the Blessesd Sacrament in a tabernacle that is either in the shape of a church or as a dove suspended from the ceiling. The tabernacle is not normally seen from the nave because it is located in the sanctuary behind the iconostasis.

    There are also the Oriental Orthodox Churches. They are in communion which each other but have different liturgical traditions respectively. These include the Armenian, Coptic, Syrian, Ethiopian, Eritrean, and the Indian (Malankar) Orthodox Churches. They have valid sacraments, but not all reserve the Eucharist. Armenians do reserve the Blessed Sacrament but the Copts do not. I am not sure about the rest.

    Finally, there is the Assyrian Church of the East which does have valid sacraments, but I am not sure whether the Eucharist is reserved in their churches.

    Their Eastern Catholic counterparts (i.e., in union with Rome) do reserve the Blessed Sacrament in their churches.

    P.S. I am not sure why the “Iglesia Getsemani AIC” is listed among the Eastern Churches, but they are not an Eastern Church and therefore do not have valid sacraments.

  6. asperges says:

    Those of us who remember such niceties of the past recall that gentlemen wearing hats (and shoolboys wearing caps)raised them when passing a Catholic church. I personally would not make the sign of the Cross (as they do, for example, in Ireland) but this is not a Catholic country.

    Personally I would not do the same passing an Orthodox church (rare in this country) or Old Catholic Church or any other but a Catholic Church since I am a Catholic. Observing modified signs of Cross etc of separated and schismatic brethren is a step too far I feel, but each to his own. I am sure the Lord understands in both cases without taking offence.

    Once when I was visiting in Ireland, an old man on a very rickety bike raised his hat as a matter of course when passing a Church and in so doing swerved violently into the way of an oncoming car. Swerving back again and in reponse to the horn sounded at him by the car, he uttered a stream of most “choice” words most unbecoming to an act of respect!

  7. tihald says:

    I’m glad someone else asked this question. At times I pass by a Coptic Orthodox Church here in Nashville and have been wondering the same thing. I decided that if they had valid sacraments then it would be right to cross myself. But seeing above that they do not reserve the Eucharist I guess it’s a moot point.

  8. Dr. Eric says:

    tihald,

    There are no Sacraments in a cemetery either, but we still cross ourselves when we pass by. So, I think you could still cross yourself when passing by a Coptic Church if you wanted too. The Holy Sacrifice still takes place upon the altar of the church.

  9. Father G says:

    dmwallace,

    You mention making the Eastern sign of the cross (“backwards”) when passing in front of a Coptic Church. Actually, the Copts and other Oriental Orthodox Christians (Armenian, Syrian, Ethipian, Eritrean, Indian) make the sign of the cross the same way as we do. It is Eastern Orthodox Christians(Byzantine tradition) that make the sign of the cross from right shoulder to left.

    asperges,

    Modified forms of the sign of the cross are not limited to Eastern Christians separated from Rome, but include Eastern Catholics who are in full communion with the Holy See. Also, I would like to mention that there are modified forms of the sign of the cross among Roman Catholics, such as in Mexico.

    tihald,
    Even though the Eucharist is not generally reserved in a Coptic Orthododx Church, I would still make a sign of cross when passing in front of one as a recognition that Our Lord is truly made present during their liturgy.

  10. Cheekypinkgirl,

    I don’t think it is fair to assume that your friend is being robotic or mindless in her practice of crossing herself even if you are chatting or something else at the time. I know well from experience that it is possible to do so with intent as an act of respect even while engaged in chatting. Have I ever done it mindlessly? I’m sure I have, but doing it while engaged in conversation does not equal doing it mindlessly.

  11. Alice says:

    One semester I rode the bus from the residential section of town to the University with a nominally Orthodox girl quite frequently. She’d make the Sign of the Cross when we passed the Orthodox church and I’d make the Sign of the Cross when we passed the Catholic cemetery and the Catholic chapel. I sometimes make the Sign of the Cross when I pass an Orthodox church as a prayer for unity and I try to make the Sign of the Cross whenever I pass a cemetery. I wouldn’t assume something is being done mindlessly just because someone does it out of habit. It took practice for me to get into this habit and I formed the habit with the intention of reverencing the Blessed Sacrament and praying for the Poor Souls.

  12. Nathan says:

    Cheekypinkgirl: “However, I often feel like a “less-than” Catholic because I am not moved or called to do the same.”

    Please don’t worry about this. One of the great things about being a lay Catholic is that we are allowed, even encouraged, to show our love for Our Blessed Lord in different individual and varied cultural ways. Someone who is demonstratively reserved and makes the Sign of the Cross only at private prayer or Holy Mass out of love for Christ is just as Catholic as one who makes the Sign of the Cross out of love for Christ every five minutes. A good staid Englishman in the mold of Blessed Cardinal Newman is just as Catholic as a good passionate Spaniard in the mold of St John of the Cross.

    IMO, how we, in individual devotions, express our love for God is perhaps less important than the actual love we have for Him.

    In Christ,

  13. Thom says:

    I very much enjoy tipping my hat to Our Lord as I pass by a Catholic Church. It’s one of the many pleasures of wearing a hat. These little devotions are akin to saying, “I love you,” or even simply, “Hello. How are you?” to your spouse and children. They remind us that He is really here with us.

  14. albizzi says:

    I remember that my mother never missed the sign of the Cross when she passed in front of church or a cemetery and even each time she passed before a single cross like there are many in France at roads crossings.

  15. tihald says:

    Dr Eric,

    Quiet right. I don’t think that I will stop. Just that the more intellectual part of the question has been answered. Hopefully one day soon we can relegate those questions to the past and start breathing with both lungs as John Paul the Great put it.

  16. Geoffrey says:

    “If the Eastern Orthodox church happens to be open, then I step in for a moment of adoration and say a prayer for unity. Fr. Benedict Groeschel has mentioned in a talk he gave how he adored the Blessed Sacrament when visiting an Eastern Orthodox Church.”

    How beautiful! There is a Coptic Orthodox Church right down the street from my house. I never thought to drop in. I wonder how they would look upon a Roman Catholic coming in to pray?

  17. archambt says:

    Geoffrey,

    I don’t think they would mind. The Coptic I’ve visited here even had kneelers!

    As long as you don’t start in on whether Christ has one or two natures…or castigating post-Cyrilline theology, I think you’ll fit in.

  18. Traductora says:

    The mainstream Orthodox have valid sacraments, although they don’t reserve the Blessed Sacrament. However, they are very pious about their churches, regarding them as the gateways to Heaven, and will cross themselves when they pass them.

    Being a pre-Vatican II but youngish fossil, I still remember riding on the bus in NYC in the early and mid 60s and seeing virtually every hand go up in blessing when we passed a Catholic church.

  19. Andrew says:

    I wonder how many people make the sign of the cross when passing by the white house?

  20. Mashenka says:

    When entering a Coptic Church to pray or visit, it is advisable to remove one’s shoes immediately on stepping through the door. Place the shoes near the door but out of the way so nobody will trip over them. Ladies should not enter Coptic Churches attired in shorts, slacks or sleeveless clothing.

  21. Marcin says:

    @ Father G

    Even though the Eucharist is not generally reserved in a Coptic Orthododx Church, I would still make a sign of cross when passing in front of one as a recognition that Our Lord is truly made present during their liturgy.

    While not obsessing about that, I also tend to cross myself indiscriminately passing by all those churches. After all they are true temples of the Most High, sanctuaries where God dwells and moves. It’s not simply a matter of Tabernacles being present.

  22. The Cobbler says:

    I am confused… how do they differentiate “Eastern Orthodox” and “Oriental Orthodox” in languages in which they don’t have one word for Eastern and a semantically identical loan word for the same, or, more to the point, what would be the different two names of these if we didn’t have two different words meaning “Eastern”?

  23. Dean says:

    Fr. G.
    Question. I have beed to churches all over Mexico, from the basilica at Tepeyac to tiny remote chapels in the mountains. I don’t recall any Sign of the Cross different than the way the Dominican Sisters in my California parish taught, lo, those many years ago.

    Those same sisters encouraged us to make the Sign of the Cross as a kind of form of divine protection when passing an non-Catholic house of worship.

  24. Mashenka says:

    Forgot to mention that ladies always cover their heads in Coptic Churches. Nobody should wear a mini-skirt there either. In Egypt, there are Sisters who tell the tourists these things as the tourists come up to the Church’s door. In Jerusalem, the lovely Russian Orthodox Church of St. Mary Magdalene on the Mount of Olives (it has lots of gold domes–you can’t miss it) has a dear old lady stationed outside the door with a box of “one size fits all” dresses, for the tourist ladies who arrive insufficiently attired, and she can say, in several languages, as she holds out one of the dresses to the ladies in the shorts and halter-tops, “Put on the dress!”

  25. Penguins Fan says:

    Dear The Cobbler,
    The “Oriental Orthodox” are those Orthodox Churches not in communion with Constantinople. Among them are the Coptic Orthodox and the Assyrian Church of the East. I believe these Churches were part of the “Nestorian” heresy. Someone please correct me if this is in error.

    The “Eastern Orthodox” are those churches that recognize the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople as “first among equals”. Among them are the Greek Orthodox Church, the Antiochian Orthodox Church and the Slavic Orthodox Churches (Russian, Ukrainian, Bulgarian, Serbian, etc).

    Here in Pittsburgh, there are many Latin Catholic parishes, as well as several Byzantine Catholic and Ukrainian Catholic parishes and a Maronite Catholic parish. I’m surprised we don’t have a Syro-Malabar Catholic parish, as there are a lot of Indians here who attend Mass.

    There are also many Eastern Orthodox parishes.

  26. Father G says:

    Penguins Fan,

    Corrections:

    1) The Assyrian Church of the East is not part of the group known as the Oriental Orthodox churches. The Assyrian church was referred to as the “Nestorain” church; however, that title is no longer appropriate since the Assyrian Church of the East and the Holy See signed a Christological Statement several years ago stating that both churches share the same faith in the union of the two natures of Christ.

    2) The Oriental Orthodox Churches were not part of the “Nestorian” heresy. The Oriental Orthodox Churches were known as “Monophysites” (that Christ only had one nature), but all these churches have signed Christological Statements with the Holy See and thus that title is no longer appropriate to use. The Oriental Churches are also referred to as “non-Chalcedonian” since they broke communion with Rome following the Council of Chalcedon in 451.

  27. Father G and Penguins Fan, thank you so much for the clarifications. I SO need a chart or a cliff’s notes on this!

    Fr. Z, thanks for posting this. I find the whole complexity confusing but this is definitely helping!

  28. Andy F. says:

    There’s nothing wrong with crossing yourself when passing by a protestant house of worship so long as you understand the the “REAL” difference. It would be even better if you whispered a prayer for the unity of all Christians to Holy Mother Church when making said cross.

  29. Father G says:

    Dean,

    Many, if not all, Mexican Catholics make three small signs of the cross before making the regular sign of the cross: The first cross on the forehead, the second on the mouth, and the third on the chest. As this is being done, the person says:

    Por la señal de la santa cruz, (By the sign of the holy cross)
    de nuestros enemigos (from our enemies)
    líbranos, Señor, Dios nuestro. (deliver us, O Lord our God)
    En el nombre del Padre (In the name of the Father)
    y del Hijo (and of the Son)
    y del Espíritu Santo. (and of the Holy Spirit.)
    Amén.

    This form of making the sign of the cross is done when entering a church, beginning the Rosary, or doing some other devotion.

  30. Venerator Sti Lot says:

    Visiting Russian in the Soviet era, I was moved and heartened to see people crossing themselves as they passed churches. (What would be a characteristic equivalent of ‘Dum spiro…': ‘Dum Signum Crucis facio, spero’?)

  31. Leonius says:

    “There’s nothing wrong with crossing yourself when passing by a protestant house of worship so long as you understand the the “REAL” difference.”

    I disagree, it is not appropriate to treat a mere empty worship building which does not have the body, soul and divinity of Christ in it with the same reverence that you treat a Chruch which does.

    If you treat both situations with the same reverence than the reverence to Christ is not there, instead what you are showing is reverence to a building where worship takes place.

  32. Roland de Chanson says:

    Quaeritur a quodam: I wonder how many people make the sign of the cross when passing by the white house?

    It might be a good idea. Even better, brandishing a Rosary Crucifix might drive the ensconced demon with its hellish minions from its lair.

    Re: the Monophysite Copts, Armenians, etc.:

    They are considered heretical by the RC’s and Orthodox. Though both, particularly the Orthodox have made significant steps towards rapprochement in recent years. The Orthodox and the RC’s consider each other schismatic but not heretics (except by the most extreme, i.e. nationalistic, elements.) A lot of the theologic foofaraw with the Orientals has been mere semantics. Sic transit gloria Dei.

    One thing to be aware of if you are an RC — you cannot receive Communion in an Orthodox church. The Pope doesn’t care but the Patriarchs do. Orthodox are permitted to receive in a Catholic church but only if their own hierarch does not object. I am not aware of any Orthodox jurisidiction that permits its adherents to communicate in a Roman church of any rite.

    At any rate, don’t try this stunt in the Ukraine, or you’ll find your Uniat arse in need of extreme unction. The miniscules are to duck the rap of sacrilege. These people are very “religious”, i.e. patriotic. Such considerations might temper the crucisignificatory ardor of the readership here.

    Remember, there is NO second Rome, let alone a third. When Peter and Paul were martyred, Byzantium was a backwater fishing village and Moscow a couple of huts in the forest.

    Roma. Urbs Unica. Urbs Aeterna.

  33. The Cobbler says:

    Ah, wow; thanks for the info!

  34. Philangelus says:

    {I think it is a good idea to make the Sign of the Cross, and you can accompany the pious gesture with any one of a number of short phrases which can gain partial indulgences.}

    I hope “Hi!” counts because that’s usually what I do…

  35. Geoffrey says:

    “One thing to be aware of if you are an RC —you cannot receive Communion in an Orthodox church. The Pope doesn’t care but the Patriarchs do.”

    Good to know! I always read this in the “Guide to Receiving Communion” in the pew missalettes, but wasn’t sure how the Orthodox felt about this.

  36. Central Valley says:

    My father, being old school , always wore a hat, usually a fedora. Sometimes he would wear a regualr baseball cap. I recall from my earliest years whenever he passed a church in the car or on foot he would always tip his hat in the direction of the church. Whenever we passed a cemetery we would make the sign of the cross and pray, eternal rest grant unto them oh Lord… When an ambulance passed by with lights and siren, there was always a quick Hail mary as the patient may be at the “hour of their death.” These were taught to me as a child and I have passed them onto my children.

  37. Subdeacon Joseph says:

    The Coptic Orthodox never reserve the sacrament because of the Islamic persecution they have faced for years. Far to often the Eucharist was defiled by the Mohammedans.

  38. Discussions like this are part of why I love this blog. :)

    Don’t worry, cheekypinkgirl. I don’t do it, either. But it’s nice that some people do; and I’m sure you have your own ways of pious recollection, whether visible or not. (Even if you don’t recognize them as such.)

  39. Andy F. says:

    Protestants are taught to respect the buildings they worship God in. You can’t deny that God does not visit his people who have been baptized. I am grateful to God for the God-fearing, bible believing, holiness family that made sure my butt was in a pew every time the doors were opened. That’s enough reason (to be thankful for a good family) to make the sign of the cross. You pray for your hooligan siblings, probably more so than your not-hooligan siblings. How much more should you say a TRINITARIAN prayer for our separated brethren?

    Like I said, nothing wrong with it. When you look up mortal sins and find which one prayer falls under, I’ll believe it.

    I’d pray for the devil if it would do any good.

  40. Andy F. says:

    correction, “You can’t deny that God visits his people who have been baptized.”

  41. Girgadis says:

    I agree with you Andy. I haven’t been moved to make the sign of the cross when passing by a Protestant house of worship, but I do always offer a prayer of some kind for the congregation, in particular that their worship and their lives may be in conformity with the Gospel.

    It saddens me to pass by a locked Catholic church and think that the Prisoner of Divine Love, as St. Therese referred to Jesus in the Eucharist, is alone and perhaps even neglected in the tabernacle. Some gesture of reverence and a few silent words of praise and love are not too much to ask.

  42. tech_pilgrim says:

    personal story here, when I was in seminary a group of us went to visit the Orthodox Church. Our intention was simply to ask if its okay if we took a look around. The holy priest not only let us look at the Church, but gave us a personal tour, showed us his vestments, the icons and at the end of the tour gave us a couple of post card like icons that he had blessed. We genuflected before the Sacrament, at gesture which I would say the priest respected, though it is not their custom to genuflect but to bow. God willing, we will unite someday, allowing the Church to breath with both lungs.

  43. Marcin says:

    @Andy F and Girgadis

    There’s nothing wrong with crossing yourself when passing by a protestant house of worship so long as you understand the the “REAL” difference

    I concur with Leon. After all, these are not really churches (read: temples), just mere meetinghouses, however pious and God-fearing the congregants are. I would not cross myself in such instances.

  44. Marcin says:

    @Roland de Chanson

    Remember, there is NO second Rome, let alone a third. When Peter and Paul were martyred, Byzantium was a backwater fishing village and Moscow a couple of huts in the forest.

    I hope you don’t mean by that that the Eastern Churches are somehow chronologically secondary. Their current chief Sees of course are. After all their rise is a product of accomodation.

    Now, as for the ‘New Rome’ – when in an irenic mood I can see their point. The Byzantines were ‘Romaioi’ (Romans), right? And the court administration was speaking and recording in Latin for quite long time. But the Third Rome? – don’t get me started…

  45. Andy F. says:

    The issue on the table is whether or not it is wrong, not whether or not you would do it. I rarely do it, but common prsxis is not in question. The question is should one cross onself when passing by a non-Catholic Church? I merely wanted to take the issue beyond Church and also include an ecclesial community of our brethren, in spite of their separation.

    Their meeting places are not temples, protestants do not have the Real Presence, and they don’t do Church the way Jesus Christ revealed it to his Apostles, nevertheless we see them as belonging to Christ according to Lumen Gentium, paragraph 15.

  46. Subdeacon Joseph says:

    I would not make the sign of the cross when passing by a protestant meeting house because there is no Eucharist present in the tabernacle, if they even have a tabernacle. The sign of the cross is made because of the Eucharist and not because of the building itself. While the protestants genuinely worship God imperfectly, they still don’t possess valid sacraments. As Orthodox we don’t even believe they possess valid baptism. While our national churches usually only chrismate a person into her ranks, versus baptism. The protestant baptized in the name of the Trinity is chrismated only out of oikonomia, and it is the chrismation which gives life and validity to the baptism that had no life or validity to begin with because it was performed outside of the Church. No sacraments exist outside of the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. I know western Catholics do accept baptisms outside of the Church, but the Eastern Orthodox Church does not.

  47. AJP says:

    The bus I take home from work passes by both a Catholic and a Russian Orthodox church. I’ve never been in the habit of crossing myself in public, but I have developed the habit of mentally saying “hello Jesus” when passing by these (and other RCC and Orthodox churches). I don’t suppose there’s an indulgence attached to that! :)

    Never heard of anyone crossing themselves when passing by a Protestant church. I wouldn’t do it. Depending on what denomination it was, I might be more inclined to mentally pray the St Michael prayer!

  48. PostCatholic says:

    I’ll hazard the guess that your questioner must drive New Hampshire Avenue in Montgomery County to be confronted with all these faiths “outside of Washington DC” in one go.

  49. luiz says:

    I was taught by my parents to do it every time I pass in front of a catholic church or chapel. I don’t do it in front of a schismatic or heretic church.

  50. fatherlucas says:

    Just a clarification: virtually all Eastern Orthodox Churches reserve the sacrament for communing the sick. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reserved_sacrament#Eastern_Christian.

    On a side note, Subdeacon Joseph’s statement, “As Orthodox we don’t even believe they possess valid baptism,” seems to me to be an over-generalization. I have yet to hear a satisfactory argument as to how there is more economia in accepting someone by chrismation alone than by baptism + chrismation. We accept sacramental actions: elsewhere. Not all couples who convert are expected to be crowned in the OC. Likewise there have been relatively recent examples of clergy being received by rather than being re-ordained. Granted, some Orthodox bishops and jurisdictions are consistent in these practices; others are not.

    As for the topic at hand, whether one or not one feels comfortable making the sign of the cross when passing a church of a different tradition, I think it be an excellent practice to say a little prayer for unity.