By Father Thom Hennen
Question Box Column
Q. Why do we make the sign of the cross with the right hand?
A. I think the answer lies simply in the fact that most people are right-handed. Also, there was a long-held idea that the right was the side of goodness and the left was somehow evil. In fact, the
word for “left” in Latin is sinister. Of course, there is nothing inherently good about the right or “sinister” about the left.
I always get a kick out of watching little kids come into church and dip their fingers in the holy water font to bless themselves. Sometimes a kid will reach in with the right hand, sometimes with the left. Sometimes they will bless just the forehead and forget the rest. Sometimes it’s just an opportunity to splash. I know they’ll get it eventually and I’m just happy to see them trying, in imitation of their parents and older siblings. These are little ways in which the faith and our traditions are passed on.
Hence, there is no wrong way to make the sign of the cross, except to do so irreverently, as though swatting flies. I admit I am guilty of this myself at times, particularly in praying before a meal if I am alone — the hungrier I am, the faster I seem to pray.
Of course, there could also be good reason for using your left hand to bless yourself if you are unable to do so with your right hand due to injury or disability. In those cases, by all means make the sign of the cross with your left hand.
A related issue is which shoulder comes first? In the western, Roman/Latin tradition it is customary to go from forehead to chest, then to the left shoulder and end on the right. To me this seems a more natural motion for a right-hander, but there is undoubtedly some muscle memory at play here. In the eastern tradition, however, it is customary to go from the right shoulder to the left, effectively mirroring the gesture of the priest (as you are facing him) and he gives the blessing from (his) left to the right.
Yet another related question is how many fingers and in which formation? Generally in the Roman tradition we bless ourselves with the whole hand, all five fingers. In the eastern churches the index finger, middle finger, and thumb (symbolizing the Trinity) are held together and the pinky and ring finger are folded together into the palm (symbolizing the two natures of Christ, divine and human). Again, I don’t think there are wrong ways to do this, just different ways. That itself is testimony to the beautiful richness and variety of expression that exists within our faith.
Q. What is a role of a pastoral associate in a parish?
A. A pastoral associate is typically a lay person (though it could also be a deacon) who assists in the pastoral care of a parish. It is not a title found in Canon Law, though some dioceses have developed formal job descriptions. In looking at our most recent directory for the Diocese of Davenport, I count 11 parishes (out of 74) that list a pastoral associate. It tends to be a “catch all,” but as the word “pastoral” indicates, it is less focused on administration and more focused on ministering to the direct needs of the people. This is also different from a “parish life coordinator,” who is entrusted in a more formal way with the day-to-day running of a parish without a resident pastor.
(Father Thom Hennen serves as the pastor of Sacred Heart Cathedral in Davenport and Vicar General for the Diocese of Davenport. Send questions to email@example.com)