Thomas L. McDonald has been a writer and editor for the past 25 years, covering technology, history, archaeology, games, and religion. He has degrees in English, Film, and Theology with a concentration in Church History. He’s been a certified catechist for twelve years, and taught Church History for eight. His other writing can be found at Weird Catholic.
Sacramentals--all the stuff and thing-ness of Catholicism--are at once an obstacle and an opportunity for evangelizing. They're an obstacle, because people see superstition in our statues, gestures, and holy objects. They're an opportunity, because humans are tactile, sensory creatures, and a faith grounded in the incarnation has something profound to say about the way we use the material world to access the sacred. Here are some questions and answer to help explain sacramentlas to people who only encounter holy water and medals in movies.
What is the difference between a sacrament and a sacramental?
A sacrament is a visible sign of an invisible grace. Jesus instituted seven of them, and they are gifts from Him to His Church. They convey grace.
A sacramental is a sign of the power of the sacraments. Think of it as a material prayer. According to Vatican II, sacramentals are
sacred signs which bear a resemblance to the sacraments: they signify effects, particularly of a spiritual kind, which are obtained through the Church's intercession.” They are objects, prayers, and actions that dispose people to receive grace. They provide “access to the stream of divine grace which flows from the paschal mystery of the passion, death, the resurrection of Christ, the font from which all sacraments and sacramentals draw their power. There is hardly any proper use of material things which cannot thus be directed toward the sanctification of men and the praise of God. (Sacrosanctum concilium, 61)
Sacraments bear grace because they are the actions of Christ himself.
Sacramentals participate in the prayer of the Church and prepare us to cooperate with grace.
How do they work?
In the incarnation, the Divine touched the material world and made it an instrument of grace. Thus, in Catholicism, matter matters. The most powerful evidence of this is the Eucharist. Outside of the sacraments, however, sacramentals act as devotional tools which prepare the individual to receive grace, participate in the blessings of the Church, and create tangible, everyday links to the divine. Humans are very tactile. We respond to touch, signs and images, sounds, smells, and tastes. Sacramentals allow the material world to become alive and part of our faith.
What is a blessing?
At the root of all sacramental use is the idea of blessing. A blessing is the invocation of God’s protection and sanctification. The Church blesses people, animals, objects, and even time itself. Thus does she remind us that every day, as we go through our actions, we travel as companions of Christ and His Church. A blessing can be a request for some good to be granted by God on an individual (called invocative) or to set apart something for divine service by imbuing it with a sacred character (called constitutive).
What does it mean for an object to be blessed?
The blessing of objects—for example, water, a building, or a piece of jewelry—is meant to set that object apart for holy use. Water becomes holy water, a building a Church, and jewelry a holy medal. Once a blessing is imparted by a priest or deacon, the object should be treated with respect, and not disposed of casually or disrespectfully. The object, in being blessed, has become the bearer of a blessing.
How is this not superstition?
The use of medals, statues, holy water, and other sacramentals can slide into superstition quite easily, and we must guard against it. We are merely regarding the objects—say holy water or a crucifix—as set aside for sacred use and imbued with a blessing that derives any “power” from God’s will alone. The object itself is not the source of the power. To believe an object is powerful on its own would be a form of idolatry. The object is a sign and a material bearer of a blessing. God alone has power. Once with think of objects as powerful in-and-of-themselves rather than merely signs and bearers of God’s love and mercy, then we are engaging in superstition.
Is it magic?
It’s the opposite of magic. The difference between magic and religion is that magic seeks to bend the power of God (or, more commonly, lesser spirits) to the will of the user, while religion seeks to cooperate with and serve the will of the one true God. Magic orders, faith asks. “Magical” objects are believed to be imbued with power independent of the will of God. Blessed objects merely serve the will of God. A person who presumes to wield a “magical” object wishes to be Lord. A Christian can never be more than his Master, who was a servant even unto death.
Some Examples of Sacramentals
The Sign of the Cross
The most basic prayer of all, the sign of the cross is full of meaning. With our hands, we trace the four points of the cross on our bodies, remembering the method of our salvation. We touch our heads and hearts so God may always be in both. We can do this with two fingers to signify the two natures of Christ, or thumb and two fingers to recall the trinity. With our lips we profess the central mystery of our faith: the trinity. The sign of the cross is a tiny creed united words and gestures.
Sit, stand, or kneel! Make up your minds already! People often make fun of Catholic postures during mass, but each has meaning for the moments they are done.
- Standing is the posture of proclaiming prayer, so we standing during the opening and closing prayers.
- Sitting is the posture of learning, so we sit during the readings and homily, standing only for the proclamation of the Gospel.
- Kneeling is the posture of devotion, which we assume in preparation for and coming of Christ in the Eucharist.
- Genuflecting is done when we enter a church or take or seat, in order to show respect the Real Presence of Christ in the tabernacle.
Holy water is simply water that has been blessed by a priest according to a standard rite, with some salt added a sign of purity. Holy water recalls our baptism, indicates repentance for sins, and protects against evil. Holy water is used in the rite of sprinkling to remind us that we are sinners in need of repentance and renew our baptismal promises. There’s no reason to use it merely at church. You can mount a small font on the wall in your house. Holy water can be found in any church, put in a suitable receptacle, and brought home.
From the prayer of blessing of water: "Lord, God Almighty, creator of all life, of body and soul, we ask you to bless this water: as we use it in faith forgive our sins and save us from all illness and the power of evil. Lord, in your mercy give us living water, always springing up as a fountain of salvation; free us, body and soul, from every danger, and admit us to your presence in purity of heart."
Medals are small pieces of metal with an image or text, worn as an act of devotion. They “commemorate persons (e.g. Christ, the Blessed Virgin, and the Saints), places (e.g. famous shrines) and past historical events (e.g. dogmatic definitions, miracles, dedications, etc.), as well as personal graces like First Communion, Ordination, etc., but they are also often concerned with the order of ideas (e.g. they may recall the mysteries of our Faith, such as the Blessed Sacrament or the Divine Attributes), they are used to inculcate lessons of piety, are specially blessed to serve as badges of pious associations or to consecrate and protect the wearer, and finally are often enriched with indulgences.” (Catholic Answers) They’re a visible sign of your faith, a reminder of the virtues symbolized by the subject of the medal, and a bearer of blessings.
Because of their role in the Protestant schism, indulgences are assumed to be inherently corrupt and a thing of the past. Neither is true. An indulgence is merely the remission of all or part of the penance required for a sin already absolved in confession. They typically involve saying certain prayers, visiting certain holy sites, or other actions. An indulgence does not forgive sins. It only reduces the penance. According to the Catechism, "An indulgence is partial or plenary according as it removes either part or all of the temporal punishment due to sin. The faithful can gain indulgences for themselves or apply them to the dead.”
A scapular consists of two small pieces of cloth attached by a string, and worn over the shoulders. The squares of cloth rest on the chest and back, emulating the full size scapulars worn by certain monastic orders. They indicate an attachment to a particular confraternity or religious order, and are traditionally invested during a ritual or ceremony. Indulgences are sometimes associated with wearing one. The most familiar is the brown scapular of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel.
Statues, Icons, Images
The images used for Catholic worship and devotion are reminders of the things we revere. Protestants mistakes this for idolatry. Idolatry is the belief that an image is divine, or is itself an object of worship. We do not worship stone, plaster, or paint. We worship that which these objects represent. A crucifix is not Jesus. It is a reminder of His saving passion. An image of the Madonna is not the Mother of God, but an object that points to her Son. Much like we have pictures of loved ones in frames and in our wallets, so we have pictures of the loved ones of God (the saints) in our homes and churches. Through the beauty of the images, our minds and hearts are drawn to what they signify. They are are signs pointing the holy.
From ancient times, certain places were regarded as holy, consecrated by the actions of God. Thus, we talk of the Holy Land, where the drama of salvation took place, but also of sites where great saints lived and died. Pilgrimage is the act of prayerful travel, and indulgences are usually attached to visiting a church, shrine, or holy site. Within a short drive from my home, there are the tombs of saints, shrines to Padre Pio and the Medal of the Immaculate Conception, and basilicas and cathedrals.