Thomas J. Craughwell is the author of Thomas Jefferson’s Crème Brulee: How a Founding Father and His Slave, James Hemings, Introduced French Cuisine to America.
On February 3, the Feast of St. Blaise, Catholics line up to have their throats blessed. On March 1, Ash Wednesday, it’s back to church to have blessed ashes marked on our foreheads. And then at Mass on April 9, Palm Sunday, we receive blessed palms. All of these things are sacramentals, and there are many more: holy water, medals, scapulars, crucifixes, holy statues and holy pictures, blessed candles, to name just a few. And although the terms sound similar, there are important differences between a sacrament and a sacramental.
The sacraments were instituted by Jesus Christ as a visible sign of God’s grace at work in the life of a Catholic. The sanctifying grace that comes to us through the seven sacraments is essential for the life of the soul.
Sacramentals, on the other hand, are holy things or actions (making the sign of the cross, for example, is a sacramental) instituted by the Church to aid us in growing closer to God, His Blessed Mother, and the saints and angels, and to encourage us to ask God for spiritual and temporal gifts. No Catholic is obliged to use sacramentals, but over the centuries countless Catholics have found that sacramentals help them develop a deeper religious devotion. Let’s look at a few of the most popular.
Right from the start, let’s get this straight—there are statues, and then there are idols. An idol is an image made of any kind of material that people set up and worship as a god. The most notorious example in sacred history is the golden idol of a calf the Israelites worshipped just as God was presenting Moses with the Ten Commandments. Such an act is a grave sin and, as we can see throughout the Old Testament, it is hateful to God. For that matter giving the first place in our hearts, the place that rightfully belongs to Almighty God, to money, power, career, pleasure, or any other earthly thing is also the sin of idolatry.
But what about the crucifix and the statues of Our Lady and the saints that we see in our churches and keep in our homes, are they idols? The answer is, “No.” And the reason is based on the purpose those statues serve. Like the photographs of our family and friends that we display on a desk or a mantelpiece, holy statues are representations of someone we love. It is a simple concept that even small children can grasp: they know a photo of Grandma is just a picture, not the real thing. The same is true of the crucifix over the altar—it’s a three-dimensional “picture,” and definitely not the Real Thing.
But what about kneeling before a holy statue, and lighting candles before it, placing flowers before it, crowning it or dressing it in elaborate robes—aren’t these signs of idolatry. Again, the answer is, “No.” Crowning or dressing a statue may not be to your taste, but it is no different than placing your baby’s picture in a sterling silver frame. As for the candles and the flowers, they are also signs of esteem and reverence. Business does not take me to Washington, D.C., often, but when it does I try to visit the Lincoln Memorial after dark, when the statue inside is bathed in golden light. It is a beautiful, moving tribute to the man who laid down his life for the principles that the Union ought to be preserved and that all men are created equal. And although Lincoln is enthroned like a god and the Memorial itself is designed to look like a temple, no one denounces the light that shines on the statue as an affront to the Almighty.
Holy statues serve other purposes as well: they add beauty to our churches, and they serve as a visual focal point that makes it easier to concentrate when we pray. Properly understood, holy statues can only do good by deepening our love for the holy individuals they represent.
Then there are holy medals and scapulars. One of the little gems discovered in the catacombs is a fourth-century medallion that belonged to a Christian woman named Successa. Her name is engraved on the medal, along with a representation of the martyrdom of St. Lawrence. It is perhaps the world’s oldest surviving Christian holy medal.
The custom of wearing holy medals has common among Catholics for centuries, but the tradition experienced a genuine boom in the mid-19th century after Our Lady gave the design of the Miraculous Medal to St. Catherine Labouré. In fact, the Miraculous Medal is probably the most widely distributed medal in the Church’s history, with many millions of copies given out over the last 170 years.
Of course, it is essential to remember that a holy medal Is not a good luck charm: to wear it or keep it on one’s person is an expression of love for and confidence in Jesus, or Mary, or the particular saint whose image is stamped on the medal. Nor is a holy medal magic: any grace that may come to the wearer comes from God who uses the medal as His instrument to accomplish something wonderful.
Related to holy medals but not nearly as old is the scapular. The word refers to part of a religious habit, a long piece of cloth worn over the shoulders and hanging down front and back. (Scapulae in Latin means shoulders). Sometime before 1265 Our Lady appeared to St. Simon Stock, Prior General of the Carmelites, and promised that whoever wore the brown scapular of the Carmelite habit would be assured of eternal salvation. As it was not practical for laypeople to wear a full-size scapular, it was modified until it reached the form we are familiar with today: two small pieces of cloth connected by two strings or cords. There are other types of scapulars, but the Carmelite, or Brown Scapular, remains the most popular.
And remember, a scapular in itself has no supernatural power. A persistent, unrepentant sinner can wrap himself in scapulars from head to foot, but that is no guarantee that he will get into Heaven. Catholics who wear a scapular commit themselves to striving to live good and holy lives—that is why at the end of their lives they should have no reason to fear the fires of hell.
Now we come to incense. An unusual tree grows in the sultanate of Oman. Standing about 15 feet high, with thick stems and dense branches, the Boswellia sacra looks like a shrub that needs pruning. Slash the trunk and a thick resin oozes out; wait a day or two and the resin will harden into nuggets that look like rock candy. These nuggets are the raw material of incense. For thousands of years the Boswellia trees of Oman have provided the incense that burned in ancient temples, including the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. Today, the incense burned in your parish church at a solemn Mass, Benediction, or at a funeral probably came from Oman.
In ancient Jerusalem incense played a significant symbolic role. Because it was rare, expensive, and would be completely consumed by fire, it was considered a suitable sacrifice to God. Furthermore, priests and people hoped that their prayers would rise to heaven like the great clouds of sweet-smelling smoke.
Both the Old and the New Testaments tell us that incense is pleasing to God. In the book of Exodus God commands Moses to build a small, gold-plated altar specifically for burning incense every morning and evening (Exodus 30:1-8). And the book of Revelations describes a scene in Heaven in which an angel burned incense in a censer, “and the smoke of the incense rose with the prayers of the saints… before God” (Revelations 8:3-4).
It’s hard to pin down when Christians began to burn incense in their churches, but we know that by the late 4th century the practice was common in the Church in the East. Etheria, a nun from present-day France who in 381 began a lengthy pilgrimage to the Holy Land, tells us that incense was burned in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem.
Certainly the most popular and widespread sacramental is the rosary. According to tradition, Our Lady gave the rosary to St. Dominic (1170-1221) as a spiritual weapon against the Cathar heresy. Yet, as early as the 5th century hermits and monks in the Middle East used strings of beads to keep track of their prayers. By the 11th century, many clergy, religious, and laypeople had strings of prayer beads. For example, in 1075, Lady Godiva, famous for her naked ride, donated her rosary of precious stones to a monastery near her home in Coventry, England.
The rosary combines prayer and meditation: while reciting the prescribed prayers, we contemplate a mystery from the life of Jesus or Mary. Traditionally, there have been fifteen mysteries—the Joyous, the Sorrowful, and the Glorious. In 2002, to mark the 25th anniversary of his election to the papacy, St. John Paul II introduced a new set of mysteries, the Luminous, which focus on events in Christ’s ministry.
No limit is set on the number of sacramental. In fact, more and more of them are added all the time to meet new forms of devotion, a good contemporary example is the Chaplet of the Divine Mercy.
Can a good Catholic live without sacramentals? I suppose so. Although why one would want to have such an austere faith is difficult to understand. The devout use of any sacramental will deepen our life of prayer, while intensifying our friendship with Almighty God and His saints, which are the twin goals of anyone who hopes to grow in holiness.