I’ve started and stopped writing this blog post many times. At first it was just supposed to be informational and light; but the further I dug, the more frustrated I became. I thought I had a pretty good handle on Sacramentals, but I was wrong.
The more definitions of “sacramental” I found, the more frustrated I grew. I felt like I was getting farther and farther away from understanding what they actually were and how they fit into our Catholic faith.
According to the Catechism (CCC #1667) 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.”
Ummm… I still didn’t quite get it.
I knew that rosaries and scapulars were sacramentals; I also knew the list was longer than that, but I couldn’t quite understand what made a sacramental a sacramental.
And because I, as a person who works with rosaries, scapulars, and all things Catholic objects all day long, felt confused, I guessed that there were others out there in the same boat: You know they exist, they help in prayer life, but it just never felt super important to have a solid understanding of what a sacramental is or isn’t.
In light of this, I’ve been reading up! And here’s what I’ve found.
Sacrament vs Sacramental
As Jesus instituted the Seven Sacraments, the Church has instituted sacramentals.
The clearest definition I’ve found comes from Julie Dortch Cragon: “Sacramentals are items, actions, and blessings that remind us to be faithful, to pray, to love one another and to be grateful to our God.”
While Sacraments are signs and instruments of God’s grace, the role of Sacramentals is to magnify the grace of the sacraments. They show us what is holy and “draw us into a deeper devotion and prayer.” (Cragon’s Amazing Graces – The Blessings of Sacramentals)
Below are examples of Sacramentals under their 3 different forms – Actions, Blessings and Items. These are by no means comprehensive, but I find that examples help me understand the abstract better.
A few weeks back I had written about crossing our head, lips and heart before the Gospel at Mass. This is a sacramental. It reminds us to be witnesses to God’s Word.
A few more actions:
The Sign of the Cross
Ringing the bells during the liturgy of the Eucharist
Sprinkling Holy Water
Prayers, scripture and the accompanying gestures are used to bless tools, people and experiences like pilgrimages and quinceañeras.
The clergy are not the only one able to bestow blessings (although they are certainly needed for blessing that call for a little more fire power. “[T]he more a blessing concerns ecclesial and sacramental life, the more is its administration reserved to the ordained ministry (bishops, priests, or deacons” (CCC 1669)
In baptism we laypeople are called to bless. Even a step farther, Luke 6:28 tells us to ‘Bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.” So be liberal with spreading those blessings!
Blessed items, beyond rosaries and scapulars, are considered sacramentals when they are blessed and are used to sanctify ourselves.
The Catechism (1670) tells us that the list of items that can become sacraments is boundless. “There is scarcely any proper use of material things which cannot be thus directed toward the sanctification of men and the praise of God.”
A few more common sacramental items include:
Candles, Advent Wreaths, Altar Linens, Pictures and Statues of saints, Medals, and Relics. Really, the list is inexhaustible.
Sacramentals in your life
We often talk about bringing more prayer into our lives. Using sacramentals helps us on this quest. Creating habits around them like crossing ourselves when we wake up in the morning, enrolling in a scapular, or keeping a bottle of holy water handy all serve us in completing the meaning of our lives: Get to Heaven.
“The soul who blesses will prosper, whoever satisfies others will also be satisfied.” Proverbs 11:25