Catholic Culture Overview
Catholic Culture Overview

The MOST Theological Collection: A Basic Catholic Catechism

"Part XVIII: The Sacramentals"


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The generosity of Our Father is so great that it seems He never can do enough for us. He made the Redemption itself as rich as possible, by going beyond infinity - an Incarnation in a palace, without death, would have been infinite. He added to that the cooperation of Our Lady. He gave us the Mass and the Sacraments. In addition, He gives us a real wealth of what we call sacramentals.

Sacraments were instituted by Christ; sacramentals were instituted by His Church. Sacraments have the power within them to as it were automatically give grace, if only the one who receives does not place an obstacle. Sacramentals do not do that. Yet they have great power, from a twofold source, from the prayer of the Church, which is His Mystical Body, and from the good dispositions of the one who receives. It is evident that we need to work at receiving the sacramentals. (We need also to work to get the best from the Sacraments. Pope John Paul II (Redemptor hominis § 20) said if one does not try hard, he could even take a loss from frequent Holy Communion).

There are many kinds of sacramentals: they may be actions, words, or objects to which the Church either gives a ritual blessing, or by which the Church teaches we can obtain certain graces.

Examples of sacramental actions are the gestures, postures, bodily movements that are officially associated with the Eucharist and the other sacraments. Genuflecting and kneeling, folding hands, making the sign of the cross, bowing the head or the whole body -- these are all examples.

There are also sacred words, such as indulgenced prayers. We notice too there is a difference between private prayers, and those which are said in the name of the Church, by those appointed to do so, the Liturgy of the Hours. Vatican II spoke of the Divine Office as "the voice of the Church, or of the whole Mystical Body publicly praising God."(On Liturgy § 99)

Objects that are sacramentals can include buildings, blessed food or drink, clothing, medals, vestments, religious habits, rings for marriage, Rosaries, medals and Scapulars. Holy Water is found at the entrance to our Churches, and is used by the faithful entering and leaving. It is also good to have a bottle of it in the home, as an aid against the temptations of satan, and for other purposes.

Of course we cannot take up every kind of sacramental, the list is much too long. But we can comment on some specially important sacramentals.

Fast and abstinence are sacramentals of great importance, yet they are often neglected today, since the Church no longer specifies very much in this category. In the early Church there were two days of fast each week with very little or no food. In 1966, Pope Paul VI greatly mitigated the law of fasting. The Bishops of many nations have dispensed from Friday abstinence. However not even the Pope can dispense from the basic obligation of penance for sins. Hence the U. S. Bishops in their document on Fridays, pointed out that if one eats meat on Fridays, he must do something equivalent instead. Many err today saying: Let us just be positive, do nice things and forget the negative. However, the negative has a special kind of value. If someone were to eat only one food element, even the best, there would soon be deficiency diseases. Similarly, even though love is the greatest virtue, it is not enough to just be nice to people: negative mortification is indispensable for spiritual eyesight, which is improved when we cut down the pulls of creatures upon us, by giving up things. Those pulls, if we let ourselves be strongly gripped by them, make it just so much less easy for our hearts and thoughts to rise to the divine level (cf. Matthew 6. 21:"Where your treasure is, there is your heart also").

A specially great sacramental is the Rosary. There is an ancient tradition that St. Dominic received the Rosary from Our Lady in an apparition at Prouille in 1206 A.D. as a weapon against the Albigensian heresy. What is entirely certain is that in one way or another, numerous Popes have spoken of St. Dominic as author of the Rosary, without pronouncing on the authenticity of the Prouille vision. They have strongly recommended the Rosary. Vatican II in its Constitution on the Church § 67 wrote that whatever the Church has ever recommended in Marian devotion should still - in spite of updating - be considered of great importance. Not long after, Pope Paul VI in his Encyclical Christi Matris Rosarii pointed out that that statement obviously included the Rosary. Countless are the favors individuals have experienced through the Rosary. The whole Church benefited especially when in October 1571, Pope St. Pius V announced that the Christian fleet had won a decisive victory over the Muslim fleet at Lepanto in the Gulf of Corinth. The Muslims were trying to take over all Europe. The Pope explicitly attributed that victory to Rosary processions being held the day of the victory. Our Lady at Lourdes and at Fatima called for a great increase in the prayer of the Rosary, declaring it one of the conditions needed for world peace and the conversion of Russia.

High on the list of sacramentals is also the Brown Scapular of Our Lady of Mount Carmel. There are many Scapulars, all valuable, but this one is eminent among them. There is a very ancient tradition that St. Simon Stock, Superior of the Carmelite Order in England in 1251, after imploring the help of Our Lady, was favored with a vision in which she gave him the Scapular, saying: "This will be a privilege for you and for all Carmelites, that he who dies in this will not suffer eternal fire." The historical evidence for this vision is very impressive, and gives at least some degree of moral certitude that the vision really did take place. To gain this promise one must be enrolled in the Confraternity of the Scapular. Pope Pius XII, on the 700th anniversary of this vision, wrote to the Major Superiors of the Carmelites, clearly showing his belief in it: "For not with a light or passing matter are we here concerned, but with the obtaining of eternal life itself, which is the substance of the Promise of the Most Blessed Virgin which has been handed down to us." However, the Pope warned that the mere physical wearing of the Scapular is not enough: "May it be to them a sign of their Consecration to the Most Sacred Heart of the Immaculate Virgin, which in recent times we have so strongly recommended." If one then uses the Scapular as the outward sign of living such a Marian consecration, then faith in the fulfillment of the promise is well justified. In fact, Pope Pius XI said (Explorata res, Feb. 2, 1923): "Nor would he incur eternal death whom the Most Blessed virgin assists, especially at his last hour. This opinion of the Doctors of the Church, in harmony with the sentiments of the Christian people, and supported by the experience of all times, depends especially on this reason: the fact that the Sorrowful Virgin shared in the work of the Redemption with Jesus Christ." In other words, a solid Marian devotion will assure one of reaching salvation, even if the vision to St. Simon Stock might not be authentic. Also, when Vatican II said that all things recommended by the Magisterium of the Church towards her should still be considered matters of great importance, the Scapular was clearly included, for numerous Popes have recommended it strongly.

There are many religious medals that are sacramentals. One of these is the Scapular medal. It may be used in place of the cloth scapular, although the cloth is to be preferred. It needs to be blessed before use, while the cloth Scapulars that replace the original one blessed in the enrollment need not be blessed.

It is important to notice that some Scapular medals are incorrect. On one side there must be the image of Our Lord, pointing at His Heart (this Heart is sometimes omitted), on the other side, any image of Our Lady.

Specially well known is the Miraculous Medal. In 1820 The Blessed Virgin appeared three times in the chapel of the motherhouse of the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul, to Catherine Labouré, then a novice. It is a medal in honor of the Immaculate Conception. St. Catherine was canonized in 1947. Her body was found incorrupt, and attracts many pilgrims to the original shrine.

Sacred places are also sacramentals. Especially important of course is the church building itself, in which the Mass and Divine Office are celebrated and in which the Real Presence in the Eucharist is found.

The sites of important things in the history of salvation in the Holy Land, are of course preeminent.

Countless shrines throughout the world are also sacred places, and numerous miracles are reported to take place at many of these locations. Specially famous among these are Montserrat in Spain, Assisi in Italy, St. Anne de Beaupré in Canada, the North American Martyrs Shrines in both the United States and Canada, Knock in Ireland, Banneux in Belgium, Czestochowa in Poland.

In our own day, Lourdes and Fatima attract pilgrims by the thousands. Our Lady appeared 18 times at Lourdes, in the Pyrenees mountains in southern France, in 1858, to Bernadette Soubirous, a fourteen year old peasant girl. A spring appeared there which feeds the baths at the shrine today. Many miraculous healings are reported from bathing in the waters. The fact that there is no spread of infection, even though no sanitary precautions are taken when people with all sorts of diseases take baths there, is a marvel in itself. Many miracles take place when the Blessed Sacrament passes in procession during the great pilgrimages. In passing, we notice that this fact testifies to the Real Presence there, a Presence which only the Catholic Church has, and only the Catholic Church teaches. There is a medical bureau there, to which any qualified M. D. can come to check alleged cures. Early in this century, Dr. Alexis Carrel came to scoff, was converted instead. The Church's demands for checking and proof of alleged miracles are so stringent that in the more than a century since 1858 only a few more than 60 miracles have been approved. Madame Biré in 1908 came there, blind because her optic nerve was withered, regained her sight when the Blessed Sacrament passed. But when the Doctors inspected her eyes, they found she was able to see even though the nerve was still withered - arranged, doubtless, to keep anyone from saying it was a case of suggestion. The nerve did recover within a few weeks.

On December 9, 1531 an Aztec Indian, Juan Diego, saw the Virgin Mary near Mexico City. She put her image on his cloak, a cloak still to be seen in the great shrine of Guadalupe. The fiber of the cloak should have disintegrated in about 30 years, is still sound. Scientific checks find that the process of impressing the image is nothing known to science. And there are images in the eyes of the picture of several persons, who probably were present there. The images are threefold, just as they would be found in a living eye (following the Purkinje Sanson Law).

The little town of Lanciano, Italy, is a most remarkable shrine. Around the year 700 A.D. a priest saying Mass there began to doubt the Real Presence: then the outer part of the host changed to flesh, the wine changed to 5 clots of blood. In November 1970 the Church authorities gave permission for a team of biologists and medical scientists to take small samples of both the flesh and the blood. They found the flesh is human heart tissue, with type AB blood in it, the same as in the clots of blood at the base of the monstrance in which the relics are preserved. There is no trace of any preservative in either the flesh or the blood. Hence they should have decayed centuries ago. They are still to be seen in the church there. A further investigation was made in 1980, revealing even nerves and blood vessels in the flesh.

Momentous for our own times is the shrine of Fatima, where Our Lady appeared 6 times to three small children, each less than 10 years of age. She asked for penance, the Rosary, and Immaculate Heart devotion, saying that on these conditions, God would keep Russia from spreading her errors throughout the world - this was said at a time when Russia was still greatly religious, under the Czar. The great miracle of the sun dancing on Oct 13, 1917 was seen by thousands, including nonbelievers. The clothing of all had been drenched from heavy rain, yet when the sun settled down again, all clothing was found to be dry. Hallucinations do not dry clothing.

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