Why does the laity (and sometimes the priest) cross themselves 3 time before the Gospel is read?

Like holding hands during the Lord's Prayer, and unlike bowing at the mention of the Incarnation during the Creed, it's not something that is called out in any of the missals or Mass cards I've ever seen in the pews, but it seems to be a pretty common practice; at least in my diocese.

  • Never done it or even seen it in my life, in over 60 years of Catholicism.
    – user207421
    Commented Jun 14, 2016 at 11:07
  • Similarly, I am glad I've never seen anyone holding hands at Mass - that's definitely not an approved liturgical gesture.
    – OrangeDog
    Commented Jun 14, 2016 at 13:02
  • 1
    I was told by a monk there’s a short prayer in conjunction with the three crosses. But we do the crossing three times very fast and don’t realize there’s this prayer. Which I’m trying to find. Anybody know it? Commented Sep 13, 2021 at 14:35
  • 1
    @WayneYasuhara I believe that is "In my mind, on my lips and in my heart"
    – Peter Turner
    Commented Sep 13, 2021 at 14:42

5 Answers 5


Before the Gospel is read, a Catholic makes signs of the cross, with the thumb, on his or her

  1. forehead,
  2. mouth, and
  3. heart,

which represents that the Catholic must

  1. understand the Gospel,
  2. proclaim it, and
  3. "take it to heart," i.e., put it into practice, with charity.

Dom Prosper Guéranger's Explanation of the Prayers and Ceremonies of the Holy Mass (hardcover ed. p. 32-33) says:

[While the priest] makes the sign of the Cross upon the Book, and at the place where begins the text of the Gospel…[, the priest and the faithful] at the same time, signs himself on the forehead, the lips, and the breast, asking, in virtue of the Cross, which is the source of all grace, that he may always have the Gospel in his heart, and on his lips, and that he may never be ashamed of it.

(I've edited what Dom Guéranger said to apply also to the faithful, not just the deacon. Dom Guéranger is describing a Solemn High Mass, where a priest, deacon who sings the Gospel, and sub-deacon, along with altar servers, assist. The deacon in such Masses does the three signs of the cross to himself just as the faithful do to themselves in all types of Masses, High or Low, before the Gospel. The reason for the three signs of the cross is the same.)

  • Can you support this answer with references?
    – curiousdannii
    Commented Jun 14, 2016 at 0:32
  • 1
    @curiousdannii Yes, I hope it helps.
    – Geremia
    Commented Jun 14, 2016 at 2:37

Why do Catholics sign themselves three (3) times just before the Gospel is read?

To understand the significance of this tradition, let us take a look into its origins.

Concerning the making the sign of the cross at the proclamation of the Holy Gospel, after the deacon or priest says, “A reading from the Holy Gospel according to ….,” he and the faithful make the sign of the cross with the thumb on the forehead, lips, and breast over the heart. (The deacon or priest also makes the sign of the cross on the Lectionary or Book of the Gospels.) The first recorded instance of making the sign of the cross at the proclamation of the gospel is found in the ninth century: Regimius of Auxerre (d. c. 908) in his Expositio recorded how the people in the congregation would sign their foreheads, and the deacon would sign his forehead and breast. By the eleventh century, as attested to by Pope Innocent III, the deacon would make the sign of the cross on the Lectionary or Book of Gospels, and then both he and the congregation would sign the forehead, lips, and breast. The significance of the threefold signing is that we want to hear the Holy Gospel with an open mind, proclaim it with our lips, and cherish and safeguard it in our hearts. We are imploring the Lord for the grace to receive, acknowledge, and then profess the faith that has been received in the Holy Gospel through our Lord, Jesus Christ, the Word of God incarnate. - Catholic Straight Answers.

Not everyone of the Roman Rite follows this tradition.

Carmelites do not make the three-fold sign of the cross on their forehead, mouth, and breast when saying the words "Gloria tibi, Domine" before the proclamation of the Gospel during Mass. The reasoning is that their rule predates the introduction of the gesture into the liturgy. - EWTN

There are Religious Orders that make a rather large sign of the cross, in lieu of three small ones just before the proclamation of the Gospel.

  • An authoritative source (i.e. promulgated by the Magisterium, e.g. CCC, CCL, etc.) would be ideal...
    – OrangeDog
    Commented Jun 14, 2016 at 13:09

Contrary to what you say about missals, the rubrics in my missal (The CTS New Daily Missal) say that before the reading of the gospel, "He [the deacon/priest] makes the Sign of the Cross on the book and, together with the people, on his forehead, lips, and breast." (emphasis added)

  • Pretty sure it doesn't say so in the Leaflet Missal.
    – Peter Turner
    Commented Jun 13, 2016 at 16:51
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    But why do they do so?
    – curiousdannii
    Commented Jun 14, 2016 at 0:33
  • 1
    @curiousdannii Per Ken's answer, it's a thousand year old tradition. That's why. Commented Sep 13, 2017 at 12:57

Having been a lifelong Catholic, I have only picked this up through seeing other people do it. That being said, I have always seen it as being symbolic of keeping the Gospel in my mind, on my lips, and in my heart.

You can find some other perspectives on it here and here.

  • That's my experience too. I knew the meaning was "in my mind, on my lips and in my heart" and have taught that to my kids and catechism students. But, I could use some historical/traditional perspective and contrast to other practices. (paraphrasing what's int he links would probably be a help)
    – Peter Turner
    Commented Jun 13, 2016 at 16:04
  • This is exactly what is taught to our RCIA catachumens and candidates by our Deacon. Commented Jun 14, 2016 at 22:15

It is in the General Instruction of the Roman Missal Number 134:

  1. At the ambo, the Priest opens the book and, with hands joined, says, The Lord be with you, to which the people reply, And with your spirit. Then he says, A reading from the holy Gospel, making the Sign of the Cross with his thumb on the book and on his forehead, mouth, and breast, which everyone else does as well. The people acclaim, Glory to you, O Lord. The Priest incenses the book, if incense is being used (cf. nos. 276-277). Then he proclaims the Gospel and at the end pronounces the acclamation The Gospel of the Lord, to which all reply, Praise to you, Lord Jesus Christ. The Priest kisses the book, saying quietly the formula Per evangelica dicta (Through the words of the Gospel).
  • Welcome to Christianity.SE, and thanks for taking the site tour. For more on what this site is all about, see: How we are different than other sites. I hope you'll browse some of the other questions and answers on this site as well. Commented Sep 12, 2017 at 17:03

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