Reflection: Basics of Our Catholic Faith

A Few Catholic Traditions

by Father Don Thomas

Externals for the sake of externals are senseless. Jesus blasted the Pharisees, since God reads the heart and judges accordingly. Yet, He also tells us to let our light shine forth, and that is our witness. Externals can be used very effectively to teach us a great deal about our Faith. The following should be taught slowly and with meaning. Do each of them repeatedly. If these are not done properly, it is a waste of time and it would be better to skip them than to do them sloppily. Let us start.


The Sign of the Cross


With the right hand, touch the forehead, chest, left shoulder and then the right shoulder. Have the student memorize that without doing it: head, chest, left and right. Repeat it several times. Then let them start in this way: as they touch the forehead, let them say "In the name of the Father" then as they touch the chest, say: "And of the Son"....and then without stopping touch the left shoulder first and then the right shoulder and say: "And of the Holy Spirit. Amen".

Note: correct them right on the spot if they are doing it wrong. Do not be bashful and make them do it slowly, so it will have meaning .

Why make the Sign of the Cross?

First of all, because it shows that we are Christians and we believe that Jesus died on the cross for each of us. Secondly, when we do it properly, it shows that we believe in the Holy Trinity, which means that there is One God, but three Persons who share in the life of God ... The first person of the Trinity is the Father; the second person of the Trinity is the Son, and the third person is the Holy Spirit.

Challenge: Just watch others who make the cross and you will see how sloppy it really is. It is so sad — using the left hand, just touching the chest and missing the shoulders, and that's it. They look like they're fanning themselves.


We Genuflect


We bend the knee. When we go into church, we have a chance to say "hello" to God and "good-bye" when we are ready to leave. As Catholics we believe that Jesus is present in the gold box up in the front of the church (the box is called the Tabernacle), and if we can say hello and good-bye to our relatives and friends, why can't we do the same for our best Friend, Jesus Christ. Here is how to teach it correctly and easily: stand up straight, take one step forward with the left foot, and then go down on the right knee and place it by the heel of the left shoe. As you are genuflecting, simply say something like "Hello God, or Jesus I love You"...Either one is o.k. You do this before you go into the bench. When we do it properly, it makes a lot of sense. When it is done carelessly or sloppily, it would have been better to skip it, since it looks so bad. Over in England, if people genuflect as they greet a human being called the King, we should be more than eager to greet Christ our King by genuflecting properly. It is beautiful.

Challenge: Just watch others coming into church and this is what you will see. Look carefully. You will see some come in, skip the genuflection and go right into the bench or pew, others will make a half-genuflection, sometimes on the left leg, or the right, instead of doing it as I described above. It is a beautiful thing to see parents showing their little children how to do it. If we learn how to do it slowly, we will., learn how to do it properly. Jesus is worth it & deserves it.


The Gospel Sign


At the beginning of the Gospel (which means "good news", we use our right hand and we close the four fingers and hold the right thumb up, and we make a little cross (like a plus sign) — come down about an inch with the thumb on our forehead and then from left to right, push the thumb across. So, straight down, then left to right. So it is the forehead first, then do the same thing on the lips, and then over the heart, over the left breast. Here are the words we say: While touching the forehead, we say "The Lord be on my mind", and as we touch the lips we say "on my lips" and as we touch over the left breast, we say "and in my heart". The whole prayer put together is: "The Lord be on my mind, on my lips and in my heart", which is a short way of saying "Please God, bless my mind so I can remember the Gospel that is about to be read; please God, bless my lips so I can tell others about what I hear or read in the Bible; and please God, bless my heart so that I will always do things with the right intention, since you do read our hearts, what we are on the inside. Really, this would be a fine gesture to make even at home or anywhere else where we find ourselves ready to read the Bible.

Challenge: Watch other people at the Gospel time and see how funny some look, because they do it wrong. Some use the left hand, some look like they are swatting flies, because they are not even touching their heads, and they definitely are not saying the words at the proper time. Do it slowly and do it properly as explained above.


Striking Our Breast! Why?


As the American Flag is a symbol of our country, in religion "striking the breast" is a sign that we are all sinners. In making this gesture, it is as if we are saying in effect " O God, have mercy on me, a sinner". In the Bible Jesus told the parable of the two men who went into the temple to pray. One was like a braggart and went up to the front of the temple, praising himself for all the great qualities he had, while the other man stayed in the back of the temple, praying and striking his breast as he said "O Lord, have mercy on me a sinner". That is the origin of this gesture of faith, striking the breast as we seek the mercy of God at prayer or at various parts of the Mass that would indicate we are sinners.

This could occur during any prayers, but let me point out three parts of the Mass where it is appropriate to strike one's breast, where it is indicated that we are sinners. At the beginning of the Mass during the Penitential Rite, we are confessing to God that we have sinned "through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault", As we say those words, we strike our breast because we are admitting that we are sinners and we are saying in effect "0 Lord, be merciful to me a sinner".

Then, just before Communion we say three times "Lamb of God, You take away the sins of the world, have mercy on us". We strike our breast as we say "have mercy on us", because we are sinners; and finally, as the priest holds up the consecrated host for Holy Communion, we all say "Lord, I am not worthy to receive You" — and why are we not worthy to receive the Body and Blood of Christ? Because we are sinners and that is why we strike our breast when we say that we are not worthy. As I stated above, one could be reading from any prayer book and when the words come up where we ask for God's mercy and forgiveness, we can strike our breast at any of those situations.


Always Remember


These gestures or traditions are really optional. If you understand what was explained above, you should be proud as a Christian to express your faith through these signs. On the other hand, just because someone does not do these things, there should be no criticism at all. It is a free choice. I do feel that the main reason many do not use these gestures of faith is because as youngsters they were probably told to do them but were never given the reason "why". Then they got sloppy about it and just stopped using them. It is as simple as that.

The other thing I would like to comment on is the use of the right hand as opposed to the left. There is no special reason for the right hand but it is more for the sake of uniformity that it is recommended. However, if one uses the left hand, it is not a matter of right or wrong. In fact, with a broken hand or arm, then it would be wise to use the left hand. So, do not make a big deal out of left or right. What is important is the significance of the gesture of faith.


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