Catholic Symbols

by Tracey Rowland

Description: A List of Catholic Symbols and a short description of their meanings.

(1) The Pelican

The Pelican is used as a symbol of the Eucharist since the Pelican bird feeds its young by piercing its own flesh and taking blood from itself to feed its chicks. This is like Christ’s offering of Himself on the cross in atonement for our sins. Through His Passion and Death on the Cross we now have the Sacrament of Eucharist in which the bread and wine are changed into the Body and Blood of Our Lord. Like the Pelican, Christ’s manner of feeding us is through His self-sacrificial love. St. Thomas Aquinas makes reference to the Pelican symbol in his famous hymn ‘Godhead Here In Hiding’. The Pelican also appears on the Coats of Arms of Archbishop George Pell, and of Corpus Christi College at Oxford and Cambridge. Oxford and Cambridge are two of the greatest Universities in the world and were established in the thirteenth century. Many of the colleges in Oxford and Cambridge were established by Catholic religious orders for the education of their members and still retain reminders of their Catholic heritage, especially on their Coats of Arms. Within the quadrangle of Corpus Christi College in Oxford there is a large column on which is perched a statue of a Pelican. The words ‘Corpus Christi’ are Latin for ‘Body of Christ.’

(2) The Cross

The Cross is the most common of all Catholic symbols. It symbolises the Cross on which Christ died. Every year the Church celebrates a special feast called the ‘Feast of the Exhalation of the Holy Cross’. This is in memory of a miraculous apparition to Emperor Constantine in 312 AD as he prepared to fight a battle. He saw a vision in the sky of the words ‘In Hoc Signo Vinces’ which is Latin for: ‘By this sign you shall conquer’. There are also some special kinds of crosses. For example, paintings of St. Peter often depict him holding a cross which is upside down. This is because St. Peter was martyred by being crucified on an upside down cross. Similarly there is another type of cross called a ‘St. Andrew’s cross’. This cross is in the shape of an X because St. Andrew was crucified on two pieces of wood which were shaped like an X.

(3) The Crucifix

The Crucifix is a cross with a figure of the body of Jesus attached to it. Usually it has the letters INRI written across the top. These letters are short for the Latin phrase – ‘Jesus Nazaranus Rex Judaeorum’ which translates as ‘Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews’. These are the words which Pontius Pilate, the Roman Governor of Judea, ordered to be written above the Cross on which Christ was crucified. Sometimes a crucifix also has a skull and crossbones at the base of the cross. A crucifix must be placed on or over an altar where the sacrifice of the Mass is to be offered. In some Churches the Crucifix above the altar will depict Christ as the High Priest, crowned, robed and alive. This is because the Jewish High Priest was the person who offered the sacrifices for the Jews, and Christ is our High Priest who offers Himself to God for the remission of our sins. Crucifixes are carried in processions and displayed in Catholic homes as a constant reminder to us of Christ’s sacrifice for us. Some nuns and brothers also wear a crucifix as a part of their ‘habit’. A ‘habit’ is the word used to describe the special garments or ‘uniforms’ worn by members of religious orders.

(4) The Sacred Heart

This is a symbol of the love of Jesus for all of humanity. It reminds us that His love for us is eternal and unconditional. It usually takes the form of a heart shape with a cross on top and thorns twisted around the top of the heart and the base of the cross. This is a reminder to us that Christ’s love was so deep that he suffered crucifixion on our behalf. Over the centuries a series of saints have encouraged devotions to the Sacred Heart. These include: St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153), St. Bonaventure (1221-74), St. Mechtilde (1210-80), St. Gertrude (1265-1302), St. Margaret Mary Alocoque (1647-90) and St. Claude de la Colombiere (1641-82). Of these the most famous is St. Margaret Mary Alocoque who fostered the practice of Catholics attending Mass for nine consecutive first Fridays of each month to pray that they will be spiritually prepared for death when it happens. This is a special kind of novena, that is, a prayer that is said nine times over a particular period of time to pray for a special spiritual gift. In Australia devotion to the Sacred Heart has been spread by the Jesuit priests who have a special devotion to the Sacred Heart (St. Claude de la Colombiere was a Jesuit), and also by the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart. The Missionaries of the Sacred Heart are an order of priests founded in the Nineteenth century in France by Fr. Jules Chevalier. Many of the earliest Catholic missions in the Pacific region, including Papua New Guinea, were established by the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart. During the period of the French Revolution in the final decade of the eighteenth century many hundreds of thousands of Catholics were killed by the Revolutionaries. Some were beheaded by the machine known as the guillotine but many were also drowned. In the vendee region of France thousands of these Catholics went to their death carrying banners of the Sacred Heart or wearing Sacred Heart badges on their clothes. The Sacred Heart remains a very powerful symbol of the Catholic faith throughout the world, but especially in France. The French words for ‘Sacred Heart’ are ‘Sacre Couer’ and this explains the name of the girls’ school in Glen Iris and of other Catholic schools throughout the Archdiocese of Melbourne. After the French Revolution the French people built a magnificent basilica on top of Montmartre in Paris in atonement for the sins of the revolutionaries. The word ‘Montmartre’ means ‘hill of martyrs’. The Basilica is known as the ‘Sacre Couer’ basilica.

(5) Alpha and Omega

These are the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet. In the book of Revelation which is the last book of the New Testament, Christ is referred to as the ‘Alpha and Omega’. This means that He is both the origin and end of all creation. We only exist because we are created by God, and the final purpose of our lives is to spend eternity with God in heaven. The Alpha and Omega symbols are placed on the paschal candle at Easter. Pope John Paul II often reminds us that Jesus Christ is the ‘center and purpose of human history’. All time, and all creation is under His command.

(6) IHS

The letters IHS are frequently found in Catholic churches and on gravestones and sacred vessels. They are a monogram for the name of Jesus, formed by abbreviating the Greek word for Jesus. In the Middle Ages the IHS was widely used among the Franciscans and it later became popular with members of the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits).

(7) The Fleur-De-Lis

This is the shape of the lily and is used throughout the world, but especially in European countries, as a symbol of Our Lady. The whiteness and beauty of the lily is a symbol of Our Lady’s purity. This symbol is found in many side chapels to Our Lady, including the Lady Chapel in St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Melbourne.

(8) Fish

The Fish has been used as a symbol for Christ and Christianity since the earliest days of the Church. The Greek word for fish is Ichthus. This is treated as an acronym for Iesous, CHristos, THeou, Uios, Soter – Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour. The fish is also an emblem of those apostles who were fishermen and Christ’s promise to make them ‘fishers of men’ (Mark 1:17). It is found on many Christian tombs in Rome dating from the first centuries AD, sometimes with a basket of loaves and a glass of wine. The loaves are a symbol of the miracle described in the Gospel when Christ feeds a multitude of people on a small number of fish and loaves of bread. The Pope is also known as ‘The Fisherman’, since he is the successor of St. Peter, and St. Peter was a fisherman. The expression ‘the shoes of the Fisherman’ refers to the institution of the Papacy. The ‘Fisherman’s Ring’ is a special signet ring worn by the Pope and used for sealing important Papal documents. It represents St. Peter fishing and carries the name of the ruling Pope. When a Pope dies his ring is destroyed.

(9) The Evangelists

The Evangelists are the writers of the four gospels – St. Matthew, St. Mark, St. Luke and St. John. In the Book of Revelation, the final book of the New Testament, at (4: 6-10) the evangelists are represented by symbols. St. John has an eagle, St. Luke an ox, St. Matthew, the face of a man, and St. Mark, a lion. These symbols can be found on the marble floor of the sanctuary in St. Patrick’s Cathedral, in Melbourne. In Venice a huge statue of a lion stands above the piazza of St. Mark and throughout the Christian world these symbols are found on copies of the Gospels and in paintings of the evangelists.

(10) The Crossed Keys

The crossed keys are a symbol of the Papacy. This is because Christ said to St. Peter that he would give him the ‘keys of the kingdom’ and that whatever he bound on earth, would be bound in heaven, and whatever he loosed on earth, would be loosed in heaven. (Matthew 16,19). St. Peter was the first Pope and those who have followed share this power of the keys to bind and loose. While St. Peter is often depicted in art work with the crossed keys, St. Paul is usually depicted with a sword which is a symbol of the ‘sword of faith’ – the weapon against the devil.

(11) The Lamb

The Lamb is a symbol of Christ. The whiteness of the lamb symbolises its purity, and lambs are often associated with innocence and in the Old Testament, with sacrifice. Christ was thus the sacrificial lamb for the sins of humanity. Sometimes the lamb carries a flag symbolising Christ’s victory over death in His Resurrection. This is known as the ‘Lamb of Victories’ symbol. Another form of the symbol shows a lamb standing on a book which is closed with seven seals. This symbolises Christ as judge at the end of the world. In the book Isaiah (53:7) are found the words: ‘harshly dealt with, he bore it humbly, he never opened his mouth like lamb that is led to the slaughterhouse’. These words are found in various readings for Good Friday. The Latin word for Lamb is ‘Agnes’ and St. Agnes is also symbolised by a figure of a lamb. St. Agnes was a Roman martyr during the period of the persecution of the emperor Diocletian. She is one of the saints mentioned in the First Eucharistic Prayer, otherwise known as the ‘Roman Canon’.

(12) The Dominican Dog

A picture of a dog carrying a firebrand in its mouth is used as a symbol for members of the Order of Preachers which was founded by St. Dominic. The priests are usually called Dominicans. Although this is because St. Dominic was their founder, the word ‘Dominican’ can also be turned into a kind of pun, to mean ‘dog’s of the Lord’. The Latin word for Lord is ‘Dominus’ and the Latin word for Dog is ‘Canis’ , hence Dominicans are ‘dog’s of the Lord’. The firebrand is a symbol of their preaching which sets the world on fire.

(13) The Dove

This is a symbol of the Holy Spirit. When Christ was baptised by St. John the Baptist a dove descended over him. (Matthew 3:16; and Mark 1:10). Sometimes in art a dove is depicted with seven tongues of fire which symbolise the seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit. A dove with an olive branch in its mouth also symbolises peace. This is because of the Old Testament account of the great flood after which Noah released a dove from the ark which returned with an olive branch in its beck. The olive branch was a sign to Noah that the waters had resided. Some saints also have the dove as their special symbol. These include: St. Ambrose, St. Augustine, St. Gregory the Great, and St. John Chrysostom.

(14) CHI-RHO

This is a symbol of Christ arranged as a monogram The first two letters of His name in Greek are XP. The two are usually written with the P superimposed over the X. The Emperor Constantine used the symbol on his military standards and it continues to be used in religious art, especially on liturgical vestments.