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Deacon-structing Sacramentals

Deacon Pedro

Monday, February 10, 2020

Pope Francis blesses a medal presented by a woman during his general audience (CNS photo/Paul Haring)
Last week we looked at Catholic devotions. The discussion was sparked by the Feast of St. Blaise on February 3. Perhaps many of you had your throats blessed. Having your throats blessed is a devotion to St. Blaise. But using candles to bless the throats is using the candles as sacramentals.
Before we speak about sacramentals, let’s review some of the basics.
We know that there are seven Sacraments. You can read my Deacon-structing Sacraments to get all the details, but for now let’s just say that they are defined as “visible signs of invisible grace”.
As the Church grew there were varying opinions as to what was a Sacrament with a capital S. St. Augustine thought there were some 30 Sacraments, including the Lord's Prayer and the Creed. Peter Lombard in the 12th century fixed the number of Sacraments at seven. St. Thomas Aquinas accepted the seven Sacraments that Lombard had listed, and it became dogma at the Council of Trent in the mid-16th century. The major change in our understanding of the Sacraments from the time of St. Augustine to the time of Trent is from “this leads to God” to “this is an encounter with God”.
This is why I brought it up: Saying that a Sacrament is something that “leads to God” is not quite right. But we do have things that can help lead us to God.
Those are sacramentals.
Sacraments are instituted by Christ and make Christ present. Sacramentals are instituted by the Church and point towards God.
The Church’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, says that 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. By them men are disposed to receive the chief effect of the sacraments, and various occasions in life are rendered holy” (SC 60).
They differ from Sacraments:
The purpose of the sacraments is to sanctify men, to build up the body of Christ, and, finally, to give worship to God; because they are signs they also instruct. They not only presuppose faith, but by words and objects they also nourish, strengthen, and express it; that is why they are called "sacraments of faith." They do indeed impart grace, but, in addition, the very act of celebrating them most effectively disposes the faithful to receive this grace in a fruitful manner, to worship God duly, and to practice charity. (SC 59)
The Catechism of the Catholic Church says:
Holy Mother Church has, moreover, instituted sacramentals. These 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. (CCC 1667)
Examples of sacramentals are holy oils, holy water, bells, incense, candles, medals, a Rosary, a scapular, a prayer card, holy image, statue or icon, or a candle.  Even the church building can be considered a sacramental. Of course, many things in life can be sacramental (small s), in that they point towards God or they reveal something about God to us: something in nature or a friendship, for example. Wedding rings that married couples share are sacramental in that sense.
The Constitution says:
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. (SC 61)
But it is important not to confuse those kind of sacramentals with sacramentals instituted by the Church.
The Catechism says:
Sacramentals do not confer the grace of the Holy Spirit in the way that the sacraments do, but by the Church's prayer, they prepare us to receive grace and dispose us to cooperate with it. CCC 1670
 The Catechism of the Catholic Church singles out blessings as the prime Sacramentals:
Among sacramentals blessings (of persons, meals, objects, and places) come first. Every blessing praises God and prays for his gifts. In Christ, Christians are blessed by God the Father "with every spiritual blessing." This is why the Church imparts blessings by invoking the name of Jesus, usually while making the holy sign of the cross of Christ. (CCC 1671)
This is because in order to “make” a sacramental, the object has to be blessed:
Certain blessings have a lasting importance because they consecrate persons to God, or reserve objects and places for liturgical use. Among those blessings which are intended for persons - not to be confused with sacramental ordination - are the blessing of the abbot or abbess of a monastery, the consecration of virgins, the rite of religious profession and the blessing of certain ministries of the Church (readers, acolytes, catechists, etc.). The dedication or blessing of a church or an altar, the blessing of holy oils, vessels, and vestments, bells, etc., can be mentioned as examples of blessings that concern objects. (CCC 1672)
 The Catechism reminds us that every person is called to “be a blessing” and “to bless”. That means that anyone can preside over certain blessings, but “the more a blessing concerns ecclesial and sacramental life, the more is its administration reserved to the ordained ministry" (see #1669).
Sacramentals are not lucky charms. As I explained last week with devotions, if they do not lead you to Christ, then they are distractions. I’d say with sacramentals, if they are not bringing you closer to Christ, then they are more than a distraction, they are a hindrance. We should not be superstitious about sacramentals.
The Church acknowledges that human beings are physical beings. That is why our Church uses matter to convey meaning. In the Sacraments, the matter is more than just a sign that points to something; it is also the destination. In sacramentals, the matter, the holy object or even the blessing is truly a sign that shows us the way.

Every week, Deacon Pedro takes a particular topic apart, not so much to explore or explain the subject to its fullness, but rather to provide insights that will deepen our understanding of the subject. And don’t worry, at the end of the day he always puts the pieces back together. There are no limits to deaconstructing: Write to him and ask any questions about the faith or Church teaching:

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