Sunday, September 1, 2013

Why popes bless with three fingers according to Aramis's Jesuit adviser in Three Musketeers

Pope Pius XII


Aramis is one of the The Three Musketeers (Bantam Classic) in Alexandre Dumas's book.  Aramis is a Jesuit Novice who is writing his thesis in preparation for his ordination to the priesthood.  Aramis's adviser is a Jesuit, and his adviser suggested to him the following topic in Latin:
Ultraque manus in benedicendo clericis inferioribus necessaria est
In English, "Both hands are necessary for priests of the lower orders when they give benediction."

The Jesuit adviser explained to Aramis:
Moses, the servant of God--note that he's only a servant! Moses blesses with his arms held up while the Hebrews defeat their enemies; he therefore blesses with both hands.  Moreover, the Gospel says 'imponite manus,' and not 'manum,' 'lay on hands,' and not a 'a hand.... And Saint Peter, of whom all the popes are successors, is old, 'Porrige digitos'.... 'Extend the fingers'.... The fingers!... Saint Peter blesses with his fingers.  The pope also blesses with his fingers.  And with how many fingers does he bless?  With three: one for the Father, one for the Son, and one for the Holy Ghost....
The pope is the successor of Saint Peter and represents the three divine powers; the rest, ordines inferiores in the ecclesiastical hierarchy, bless in the name of the angels and the holy archangels.  The humblest clerics, such as our deacons and sacristans, bless with holy-water sprinklers, which simulate an indefinite number of blessing fingers.  There, the theme is now simplified, argumentum omni denudantum ornamento. With that, I could write two volumes the size of this one [Saint's Chrysostom folio that nearly made the table collapse beneath its weight]."
An outline of Aramis's thesis would probably be the entry in the Catholic Encyclopedia, where the history of the sign of the cross was discussed.  Here's the entry regarding the blessing using the three digits:
At a somewhat later date, throughout the greater part of the East, three fingers, or rather the thumb and two fingers were displayed, while the ring and little finger were folded back upon the palm. These two were held to symbolize the two natures or wills in Christ, while the extended three denoted the three Persons of the Blessed Trinity. At the same time these fingers were so held as to indicate the common abbreviation I X C (Iesous Christos Soter), the forefinger representing the I, the middle finger crossed with the thumb standing for the X and the bent middle finger serving to suggest the C. In Armenia, however, the sign of the cross made with two fingers is still retained to the present day. Much of this symbolism passed to the West, though at a later date. 
On the whole it seems probable that the ultimate prevalence of the larger cross is due to an instruction of Leo IV in the middle of the ninth century. "Sign the chalice and the host", he wrote, "with a right cross and not with circles or with a varying of the fingers, but with two fingers stretched out and the thumb hidden within them, by which the Trinity is symbolized. Take heed to make this sign rightly, for otherwise you can bless nothing" (see Georgi, "Liturg. Rom. Pont.", III, 37). Although this, of course, primarily applies to the position of the hand in blessing with the sign of the cross; it seems to have been adapted popularly to the making of the sign of the cross upon oneself
It may be outside the scope of Aramis's thesis, but it is worth mentioning here that St. Thomas Aquinas presented arguments for the use of the Sign of the Cross in the Liturgy of the Holy Eucharist. This was pointed to by David Berger in his book, Thomas Aquinas and the Liturgy (thanks to the New Liturgical Movement for the review).  You may read St. Aquinas's nine reasons in his Summa Theologiae (Summa Theologiae: Complete Set (Latin-English Edition)), Ques. 83, Art. 5, Reply to Object 3 (see New Advent).  But what may be within Aramis's thesis is St. Aquinas's succeeding Reply to Object 5 in the same Article, which concerns Moses's lifting of his hands and the priest's closing of his thumb and first finger after the Consecration:
The actions performed by the priest in mass are not ridiculous gestures, since they are done so as to represent something else. The priest in extending his arms signifies the outstretching of Christ's arms upon the cross. He also lifts up his hands as he prays, to point out that his prayer is directed to God for the people, according to Lamentations 3:41: "Let us lift up our hearts with our hands to the Lord in the heavens": and Exodus 17:11: "And when Moses lifted up his hands Israel overcame." That at times he joins his hands, and bows down, praying earnestly and humbly, denotes the humility and obedience of Christ, out of which He suffered. He closes his fingers, i.e. the thumb and first finger, after the consecration, because, with them, he had touched the consecrated body of Christ; so that if any particle cling to the fingers, it may not be scattered: and this belongs to the reverence for this sacrament.
The Three Musketeers
The Three Musketeers
St. John Chrysostom: Six Books on the Priesthood (St. Vladimir's Seminary Press Popular Patristics Series)
St. John Chrysostom: Six Books on the Priesthood (St. Vladimir's Seminary Press Popular Patristics Series)
Photographic Print of Prince Alfred and Pope Leo IV
Photographic Print of Prince Alfred and Pope Leo IV
Thomas Aquinas and the Liturgy
Thomas Aquinas and the Liturgy
The Jesuits
The Jesuits