Why Does the Catholic Church Use a Crucifix?

An altar boy carries a large crucifix mounted on a staff as part of a Mass procession.
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To Catholics, the crucifix is a powerful symbol that represents the focal point of their beliefs: that Jesus died on the cross to redeem humanity. While other Christian denominations use a bare cross to emphasize Jesus' resurrection, Catholics include the image of Christ's body on the cross to represent his sacrifice.

1 The Crucifix as a Sacramental

According to the Catholic catechism, the crucifix is a sacramental, a "sacred sign" instituted by the church that prepares Catholics to receive God's grace. For example, Catholics believe that gazing at the crucifix during prayer will help stimulate feelings of hope, love and trust. According to the catechism, a sacramental draws its power from the paschal mystery which is central to the Catholic faith and refers to Jesus' suffering, death and resurrection.

2 Jesus' Presence on the Cross

For Catholics, the figure of the suffering Jesus is present on the crucifix to symbolize Jesus' death as a powerful act of sacrifice to atone for the sins of the world, reconcile the relationship between God and humanity and make it possible for humans to enter into heaven. They believe it demonstrates that God's love is more powerful than sin and death, and that it can heal and redeem those who turn to him.

3 The Crucifix vs. the Bare Cross

Catholic writer Patrick Madrid explains that Catholics use the crucifix instead of the bare cross like other Christian denominations because Christ's death is of chief importance. He asserts that "the cross only has meaning because Christ died on it for our salvation." But according to the Rev. Arvin Luchs, a United Methodist pastor, Protestants place the emphasis on the resurrection of Jesus and the "assurance of life beyond the power of death." In contrast to the Catholic view, they believe the bare cross illustrates that Jesus is no longer suffering; rather, he is reigning in heaven. Luchs also explains that Protestant churches historically have avoided the use of images because of the fear that "people will direct their worship to the image and not to God."

4 Examples of Use

The crucifix is used prominently during Mass, the celebration that is the central act of worship for Catholics. It is used in the Mass procession affixed to a staff and also placed at the center of the altar. During Holy Week, a life-sized crucifix may be incorporated into the services. Crucifixes are also found outside the church. They are hung in Catholic homes, schools and hospitals and attached to necklaces and rosary beads.

Based in Kansas City, Andrea Adams has been been writing for the non-profit sector since 2006. Her areas of interest include higher education, social issues and cultural phenomena. She has a Bachelor of Science in social policy from Northwestern University.