Even if you’re not sure about the word, you are familiar with Sacramentals, and you probably use them regularly!
What Is A Sacramental?
The Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us: “Sacramentals are sacred signs instituted by the Church. They prepare men to receive the fruit of the sacraments and sanctify different circumstances of life.
Among the sacramentals, blessings occupy an important place. They include both praise of God for his works and gifts, and the Church’s intercession for men that they may be able to use God’s gifts according to the spirit of the Gospel.
Like any loving mother, the Church seeks to provide comfort and protection to her little ones… men, women and children of all ages who, when we allow ourselves to be simple, like little children, to delight and take consolation in our material reminders and gestures. The way little boys used to delight in their baseball cards and marble collections, girls and their favorite stuffed animals or soccer trophies… that’s how I feel about the blessed medals, rosaries and holy images arranged throughout my home. And actions, too, can be considered Sacramentals: the Sign of the Cross, genuflection before the Tabernacle, hands held in prayer, bowing of the head, and so on.
All these are just another obvious, beautiful, generous, natural way that Holy Mother Church nurtures us through the stretches of time in between more formal liturgies. But, indeed, even during these formal prayers in the Sacraments, we use Sacramentals (blessed oil at Confirmation and Holy Orders, Holy Water in Baptism, wine and unleavened bread as the substances before Consecration in Mass, etc).
Church tradition encourages us to wear holy reminders, to adorn our living spaces, to build beautiful churches as sacred spaces worthy of the celebration of the Mass. The Church uses fragrant incense on special days of celebration in the Liturgical Calendar and recommends the tactile use of the Rosary. (Who hasn’t noticed there are some rosaries that just feel better in your hands?!) We experience all of reality through our bodies, and there’s a natural, healthy tendency to want to fill that reality with meaning and beauty. Sacramentals do that for us.
It is important to distinguish between Sacraments and Sacramentals. Each of the Seven Sacraments of the Catholic Church was instituted directly by Jesus Christ, and they function ex opere operato (from the deed done), meaning, they do what they signify. Whereas Sacramentals, mainly given to us by the Church (after Christ) throughout the centuries, work by virtue of the faith placed in them (ex opere operantis), and by virtue of the faith, work, and prayers of the Church (ex opere operantis Ecclesiae).
In other words, by the power and promise of Christ, the Sacrament makes itself – if I can put it that way – when the priest follows the matter and the form. A Sacramental’s efficacy depends on our faith in it and on the blessings conferred on it by a priest – not by superstition (priest or lay), but humble piety, always properly ordered (i.e. we don’t value it more than the Sacraments or any dogmas or doctrines of the Church).
A Few Cool Tidbits About Sacramentals
One way to describe sacramentals is that they are extensions of the sacraments. They are not sacraments in themselves but are related to each of the seven sacraments and flow from them. Sacramentals were instituted by the Church to show how Christ came into the world to redeem every facet of life. Sacramentals are oriented to the sacraments and are meant to lead us to them.
Sacramentals help to distinguish the members of the Church from heretics, who have done away with the sacramentals or use them arbitrarily with little intelligence.
Read more in the “Why Do We Do That?” series from Deacon Mike Fritz.