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Catholic Symbols Explained

Every religion has its sacred symbols, and Catholicism may have more symbols than other religions. The cross that represents what Jesus suffered for his followers is a common Christian symbol, but Catholics take it a step further and add a representation of Christ’s body to the cross and call it a crucifix. The more common symbols used by the Catholic faithful are explained in the following list:

  • The crucifix: The crucifix is a typically Catholic symbol, a cross bearing an image of Jesus being crucified. The graphic symbol of the crucifix became predominant in the Western Church to remind Catholics that Jesus was true man as well as true God and that his suffering and death were very real and painful. The crucifix reminds Catholics of the high price paid for humankind’s sins and inspires believers to repent of their sins and be grateful for the salvation obtained by Jesus’ death on the cross.

  • Holy water: Water blessed by a priest, bishop, or deacon, holy water is a sacramental — a religious object or action created by the Catholic Church as opposed to those instituted by Jesus himself. Holy water is used as a symbolic reminder of Baptism. On entering or leaving a church, Catholics dip their right hand, usually with two fingers, into a font, a cup of holy water on a wall near the doors of the church, and make the sign of the cross.

    Non-Catholics may think of holy water as the stuff that burned the face of the possessed 12-year-old in the movie The Exorcist. Holy water can be used to drive out demons; so on rare occasions the Church uses it for that purpose.

    Anytime a priest or deacon blesses a religious article, such as rosary beads, a statue, or a medal of one of the saints, he sprinkles holy water on the object after saying the prayers of blessing.

  • The rosary: Before Christianity, Hindus strung beads and used them to help count their prayers. Buddhists, Taoists, and Muslims have also used prayer beads to assist them in their private devotions. Hebrews used to tie 150 knots on a string to represent the 150 Psalms of the Bible. According to pious Catholic tradition, in the 13th century, Mary, the Mother of God, appeared to St. Dominic de Guzman, gave him a rosary, and asked that instead of praying the Psalms on the beads or knots, the faithful pray the Hail Mary, Our Father, and the Glory Be. Today, most Catholics use the five-decade Rosary. (A decade refers to ten Hail Marys preceded by the Our Father and ending with a Glory Be.)

  • Scapulars and medals: Catholics often wear special religious articles, such as medals and scapulars, as a type of personal devotion. Scapulars are worn around the neck and have two pieces of cloth — one piece rests on the chest and the other on the back.

    These items aren’t considered good luck charms, magical amulets, or the like. Catholics don’t believe that medals and scapulars prevent sickness or stop you from sinning. And they’re not a get-out-of-hell-free card. Catholics use them as mere reminders to stay close to God and to try to imitate the sanctity and holiness of the saints. They’re just tangible symbols of the faith, such as a crucifix.

    Scapulars are good reminders of prayer and faith.
    Scapulars are good reminders of prayer and faith.
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