Generally speaking, the use of sacramentals is one of the most misunderstood practices in the Catholic Church. They have been a part of the Church’s life from the very beginning, but are commonly viewed as some sort of superstition. This is largely due to the fact that many Catholics over the centuries have used sacramentals in a superstitious way and were not taught how to use them properly. Using sacramentals is an art form that requires careful attention and should not be viewed as something casual.
It is unfortunate as sacramentals are meant to enrich our spiritual lives, not hinder them. They have been instituted by the Church to draw us into a deeper relationship with Christ and are focused on sanctifying every part of our lives. Sacramentals have great potential to benefit our spiritual life and that is why we should not abandon using them because of a misinterpretation.
Sacramentals are extensions of the seven sacraments and bring the grace of God into everything that we do. They are “radiations of the sacraments. Both are sources of divine life; both have an identical purpose—divine life" (The Roman Ritual: The Blessings, xii). Additionally, they “continue the work of the sacraments or prepare for their reception.”
This teaching was echoed by the Second Vatican Council, which did not abolish sacramentals, but affirmed the proper use of them. In Sacrosanctum Concilium, we read,
“Thus, for well-disposed members of the faithful, the liturgy of the sacraments and sacramentals sanctifies almost every event in their lives; they are given 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, § 62.)
Sacramentals have the capacity to be the source of such powerful graces in our lives and can sanctify even the most mundane of activities. The Church does not limit sacramentals to just Miraculous Medals and rosaries, but encompasses all human activity. Sacramentals are not only religious articles that we carry with us, but also include blessings of “persons, meals, objects, and places” (CCC 1671). For example, when looking at the older Roman Ritual, we see blessings for: bread, wine, butter, beer, oil, fire, and tools for scaling mountains to name a few. There are also blessings for medals, rosaries, chalices, sacred vessels, churches, chapels, homes and schools.
In the new Roman Ritual (called the Book of Blessings), the sacramentals are revised and expanded to cover more modern aspects of life. We see blessings for homes, libraries, offices, shops, factories and centers of social communication (radio, television, etc.). There are blessings for gymnasiums, fields for athletics (and athletic events) as well as various means of transportation (bridges, highways, cars, airplanes and boats). Included in this updated Book of Blessings, there are even blessings for fishing gear, tools, animals, fields, flocks, and meals. There are, of course, blessings for religious articles and rosaries as well as liturgical objects.
Both of these ritual books are approved by the Church and can be used by any priest. Together they echo a single voice that says all must be brought under the dominion of Christ. This is something profound and often we lose sight of it. We think we can live a double-life. It is as if God only dwells in the four walls of the church and cannot see what we do in our own homes. On the other hand, we may think that God does not care what we do, so long as we go to Mass on Sundays.
In the end, even though sacramentals have been misused in the past, we should not abandon them. God wants us to unite our entire life in one act of praise to Him who has given us every “spiritual blessing” and sacramentals can help us do that.