Sacramentals “are sacred signs which bear a resemblance to the sacraments. They signify effects, particularly of a spiritual nature, which are obtained through the intercession of the Church. By them, men are disposed to receive the chief effect of the sacraments, and various occasions in life are rendered holy” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, #1667).
The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) has identified three distinctions among sacramentals: blessings, exorcisms, and forms of piety and devotions:
The Church prioritizes the sacramental of blessings, which includes people, food and meals, objects, and places. The act of blessing coincides with the Lord’s power to “make all things new” and for his purposes. Therefore, when a priest or deacon gives a blessing, he is renewing whatever he blesses as a consecration to God. When a bishop dedicates a new church, or a priest blesses a new chalice for use in the Mass, he is consecrating—reserving—the object for a liturgical use. Similarly, when a blessing is invoked over a meal, the special intention of praise and thanksgiving to God for the nutrition is reflective of the eucharistic meal and the heavenly banquet.
Some might be surprised to hear that exorcisms are also sacramentals. They are functionally and effectively different from blessings. In an exorcism, the Church asks publicly and authoritatively in the name of Jesus Christ that a person or object be protected against the power of the evil one and withdrawn from his dominion (CCC 1673). To put it plainly, exorcisms are directed at expelling demons and liberating persons, objects, and places from demonic possession through the power Christ invested in the Church (Mark 6:7). A simple exorcism is given with baptism and in deliverance prayers against oppression, but a major exorcism may be administered only by a specially trained priest, in strict compliance with the Church’s rules, with a bishop’s approval.
Forms of piety and devotion are tremendously important to the life of a Catholic—not because they replace the liturgy, but because they extend it. These are sacramentals that belong to religious and the laity, such as the full brown scapular of a Carmelite nun or the small brown scapular worn by pious lay Catholics. In this category, we also find the vast majority of recognizable devotions and items belonging to these such as the stations of the cross, the crucifix, and the rosary. Forms of devotion also include genuflections (as one performs prior to entering a pew) and bowing at the head or waist. Answer 6 will cover the most common forms of devotion in further detail.
Sacramentals are not superstitions, holdovers from pre-Christian days, or Catholic substitutes for the longing of pagans to dance around trees and mutter spells. There is a part of us that longs for something tangible we can hold on to, something to look at, something to touch, something to sing, chant or recite, something that interacts with the senses. The sacraments, those sacred mixtures of matter and the Holy Spirit, fulfill that need. And so, in a lesser way, do sacramentals.
What is the difference between correct use of the sacramental and superstition? It has to do with an inner attitude, for superstition is second cousin to magic. The superstitious person says, “If I sprinkle holy water here, say these prayers and cross myself, I will make God or His saints do this for me.” But the person using a sacramental properly says. “I want to be closer to God—to be constantly and effectively reminded of the power of His love and glory, of His protection, forgiveness and mercy. So I will cross myself when I pass a church to remind myself of His passion. I will make a novena to ask God’s saints for their prayers. I will do these things, not because I am strong and have the power to make God and His saints do my will, but because I am weak, distractable and forgetful, and need to remind myself of True Reality.”
So Catholics hang crucifixes and holy images in their homes to remind them of God and His works. They cross themselves, bless themselves and their homes with holy water and oil. They pray the Angelus at noon in remembrance of the Incarnation. They kiss the Bible or holy object they have accidentally dropped.
Catholics who choose to weave the use of sacramentals into their daily lives can experience a richer, more textured Catholicism. For instance, one young father sprinkles holy water around the beds of his children and prays to God to protect them against nightmares, which sometimes are a problem in their house. Another mother I know uses blessed salt when she bakes bread for her family. Before setting out on a long trip, one youth group blesses its cars with holy oil for a safe journey. I myself have experienced peace during difficult times when I kissed or touched the Miraculous Medal I wear as a reminder of the loving protection of my Mother in heaven. The list of how sacramentals have affected my life and the lives of those I know goes on and on.
- Holy Water
- Blessed Salt
- The Crucifix
- The Rosary
- Medalians (Miraculous Medal, St. Benedict Medal, etc.)
- Beautiful Churches
- Beautiful Liturgical Vestments
- Blessed Candles
- Scapulars (Brown, Green, etc.)
- Daily Missal
- Icons and Statues
- Palms / Ashes
- Stations of the Cross