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The Value Of Sacramentals

by Paul Kokoski

Descriptive Title

Value of Sacramentals, The


This essay explains the meaning of sacramentals, the ways in which they differ from Sacraments, and their value to the Church and individual spirituality.

Larger Work

Homiletic & Pastoral Review


14 - 21

Publisher & Date

Ignatius Press, San Francisco, CA, January 2003

As the negative influences of secularism, technology, science, and materialism continue to threaten the very existence of mankind, Pope John Paul II, in his Apostolic Letter Novo Millennio Ineunte, mentions that the time has come to rediscover the full practical significance of the Church's "universal call to holiness." The Holy Father asks, in Novo Millennio Ineunte "Can holiness ever be 'planned'? What might the word 'holiness' mean in the context of a pastoral plan"? (No. 31).

In fact, the Catholic Church already provides the faithful with a wealth of ways to grow in holiness. Unfortunately, however, these treasures, sometimes called sacramentals, have been forgotten or even dismissed in recent years. In this essay I will attempt to explain the meaning of sacramentals, indicate the ways in which they differ from the Sacraments and explain, using numerous examples, their value to the Church and individual spirituality.

Sacramentals consist of material things or of actions that the Church uses after the manner of Sacraments, so as to achieve though the merits of the faithful certain effects, primarily of a spiritual nature.1

There are three essential differences that separate sacramentals from the Sacraments. First, the Sacraments were instituted by Christ. This means that their protection and administration, though not their substance, are reserved to the Church. Sacramentals, on the other hand, were, for the most part, instituted by the Church and are therefore at the complete disposal of the Church. One exception is the washing of feet at the Last Supper. This ritual is considered a sacramental because it was not intended by Christ as something essentially related to the salvation or sanctification of the world.2

Second, the Sacraments are efficacious signs of God's grace. This means that, barring human obstacle, they convey to us the grace they signify in virtue of the rite or action performed (ex opere operato). "When the proper matter for each Sacrament is present and the correct words are spoken, the grace of the Sacrament is conferred."3

Hence, the Sacraments, sometimes called the Sacraments of salvation, do not depend on the character of the minister who might have unfortunately fallen into sin prior to presiding at one of the Sacraments. While the Sacraments "work" regardless of the person who administers them, or for that matter of those who receive them, there may be a hindrance to what the Sacrament has been instituted to bring about in the soul, if one is unwilling or fundamentally not disposed to receive them.

In contrast, sacramentals confer grace from the work of the one performing the action (ex opere operantis). "Here the grace received is determined by the spiritual disposition or worthiness of the individual and the intercessory prayer of the Church."4

The third difference consists in the grace received. While "the Sacraments confer both sanctifying and sacramental grace as they are conferred, such is not the case with sacramentals. [Sacramentals] do not confer sanctifying grace immediately, but rather, dispose the individual to receiving it. Moreover, the different graces are received in proportion to the various purposes of each sacramental."5

While it is perhaps difficult to classify the different sacramentals, since they tend to overlap in practice, some have distinguished between permanent sacramentals (blessed objects) and transitory sacramentals (actions which have a sacred significance when performed, i.e., ceremonies, independent religious actions and the religious use of blessed objects).6 Sacramentals may also refer to times, places, and gestures.

With respect to time, the Church has established liturgical seasons, feasts, and fasts. "They qualify as sacramentals in that they are established by the Church in order to stimulate the faith of the people and dispose them to a regular and more generous service of God."7

During Advent we anticipate the coming of Our Lord. At Christmas we celebrate Our Lord's birth and early years. During Lent we recall Our Lord's Passion and Death. The Easter season relives the Resurrection and Ascension and closes with commemoration of Pentecost. The period between Pentecost and Advent has salvation history as its basic theme.8

Throughout the seasons "Sunday is the pre-eminent day for the liturgical assembly, when the faithful gather 'to listen to the word of God and take part in the Eucharist.'"9 The annual commemoration of the actual day of Christ's Resurrection is celebrated on Easter Sunday. Hence, Easter is the "Feast of feasts," the "Solemnity of solemnities."

The Catholic Church also honors the Mother of God with a special love. Various feasts are dedicated to her because she is "inseparably linked with the saving work of her Son. In her the Church admires and exalts the most excellent fruit of redemption and joyfully contemplates, as in a faultless image, that which she herself desires and hopes wholly to be.10

In keeping additional days of memorial for martyrs and other saints the Church "proclaims the Pascal mystery in those who have suffered and have been glorified with Christ. She proposes them to the faithful as examples who draw all men to the Father through Christ, and through their merits she begs for God's favors."11

On All Saints Day the Church also remembers the great multitude of "anonymous saints" known only to God. Pope John Paul II describes some of these as "Mothers and fathers of families, who in their daily devotion to their children made an effective contribution to the Church's growth and to the building of society; priests, sisters and lay people who, like candles lit before the altar of the Lord, were consumed in offering material and spiritual aid to their neighbor in need; men and women missionaries, who left everything to bring the Gospel message to every part of the world."12

The Liturgy of the Hours is the official prayer of the Church used to consecrate the different hours of the day. It is the chief expression of that unceasing prayer which the Lord himself entrusted to his Church.13 While all those in Holy Orders are obliged to recite it, the Liturgy of the Hours is also highly recommended to all the faithful.

Sacramentals also refer to sacred places. "In Catholic Christianity the sacred place par excellence is the church or chapel where the Eucharistic sacrifice is offered and the Blessed Sacrament is reserved."14

In addition, there are numerous shrines or other places of pilgrimage where the faithful often travel seeking various favors and special graces. Two of the most popular sites are Lourdes in France and Fatima in Portugal. In such places as these where apparitions and miracles have been reported the Church, in her discernment of spirits, proceeds with the greatest caution so that the faithful will not be led astray. Such sacramentals may be beneficial when they are, like Lourdes and Fatima, officially approved by the Church.

Cemeteries are also sacred places. Visiting a cemetery and praying for the deceased is one of the conditions for obtaining an indulgence. Indulgences, depending on whether they are partial or plenary, are the remission before God of either part or all of the temporal punishment due to sins already forgiven.

Two of the most profound yet simple gestures are the Sign of the Cross and kneeling. Cardinal Ratzinger states that: "The most basic Christian gesture in prayer is and always will be the sign of the Cross. It is a way of confessing Christ crucified with one's very body . . . [it] is a visible and public Yes to Him who suffered for us . . . [it] is a confession of faith . . . a confession of hope."15

Cardinal Ratzinger also relates a striking example of the importance of kneeling, the practice of which in recent years, like the sign of the Cross, has eluded many within the Church. In his book The Spirit of the Liturgy the Cardinal speaks of a "story that comes from the sayings of the Desert Fathers, according to which the devil was compelled by God to show himself to a certain Abba Apollo. He looked black and ugly, with frightening thin limbs, but, most strikingly, he had no knees. The inability to kneel is seen as the very essence of the diabolical."16

Only recently the New General Instruction of the Roman Missal has distinguished between "adoration" and "reverence" mentioning that "genuflection [and thus kneeling] signifies adoration and is reserved to the most Blessed Sacrament and to the holy cross from the solemn adoration in the liturgy of Good Friday . . . [and] Bowing is seen as an expression of reverence and honor toward persons or what represents those persons."

Upon greater reflection of this simple truth one might uncover the greater meaning and implications this might have with respect to way in which the laity should be receiving the most Blessed Sacrament during Holy Communion today.

Ceremonies are also sacramentals. Included among the numerous ceremonies are the rites or rituals, which accompany the administration of each of the seven Sacraments. In Baptism, for example, the action of pouring water over the head of the candidate is, together with the proper words or formula, the ritual by which Original Sin is removed, and the individual is initiated into the Church of Christ; in Confirmation, it is the imposition of hands and anointing with the sacred chrism, which confers the power of the Holy Spirit to reinforce one's faith; in Holy Communion it is the bread and wine which are changed into the Food of Life, whereby, we receive the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Christ.

The exposition of the Blessed Sacrament is another ceremony in which the priest removes the Sacred Host from the tabernacle and places it on the altar for adoration. This type of veneration, which is offered to Christ as if he were standing in front of us in the flesh, is called latria.

Another popular Eucharistic devotion is that of the Forty Hours Devotion. Introduced by St. Anthony Maria Zaccaria in 1527 this is the solemn exposition of the Blessed Sacrament in a particular parish during forty consecutive hours, in honor of the forty hours that the Body of Christ is believed to have rested in the tomb.

One can also make a holy hour. This devotional exercise draws its inspiration from Christ's own words to his apostles in the Garden of Gethsemane: "Had you not the strength to keep awake one hour?"17 A holy hour can be made either privately or publicly. If it is done publicly, then it is usually directed by a priest and may include common prayers, hymns, Scripture reading, homily, silent meditation and adoration.18

There are also numerous ways in which Our Blessed Mother (hyperdulia) and the saints (dulia) are venerated. Among the most popular are the weekly devotions in many parishes to Our Lady of Perpetual Help as well as to St. Jude. The faithful traditionally invoke Saint Jude as the patron saint of "desperate cases."

Concerning the importance of sacramentals the Catechism stresses how "blessings (of persons, meals, objects and places) come first . . . [and that] the Church imparts [such] blessings by invoking the name of Jesus, usually by making the sign of the cross of Christ."19

Blessings 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 and widows, the rite of religious profession and the blessing of certain ministries of the Church (readers, acolytes, catechists, etc.)."20

Benediction with the Most Blessed Sacrament is another sacramental — one that has been neglected in recent years. During benediction "the priest or deacon blesses the congregation in the form of a cross with the raised monstrance. Usually a bell is rung during the blessing. The Blessed Sacrament may also be incensed as the blessing is being given. Following the blessing the Divine Praises are recited."21

There is also the official exorcism of the Church, which is performed on a person "when 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."22

The blessing of food in churches, especially at Easter, is another sacramental that is customary in many cultures. In addition, there are a number of table blessings, which are practiced in the home for both ordinary and special occasions.

Abstinence (refraining from certain kinds of food and drink) and fasting (a form of penance that imposes limits on the quantity of food and drink) are also religious actions which dispose the individual to a reception of grace and enhances one's relationship with God. The Gospel reminds us that "One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes forth from the mouth of God."23 Christian fasting then is not an end in itself. Nor is it purely a means to look healthy or to impress others but, rather, it is always motivated by a desire for conversion of the heart. Unfortunately, religious fasting, such as the ancient tradition of abstaining from meat on Fridays has declined in recent years and to a great extent it has been replaced by non-religious fasting.

St. Thomas Aquinas identified three values in fasting: repression of one's concupiscence of the flesh, atonement for one's sins, and the disposition of oneself to higher things. Christian fasting, together with prayer provides the most powerful means of healing. Thus, when Christ's disciples asked him why he was able to cast the demon out of a boy but they could not, Christ replied "This kind can only come out through prayer and fasting."24 Other penitential acts which complement fasting include works of charity, such as the corporal and spiritual works of mercy, and alms-giving.

With respect to objects, sacramentals include both the blessed objects themselves as well as the pious or religious use of these blessed objects.

The Holy Rosary is a devotional prayer of the Catholic Church which is both mental and vocal and which honors the Blessed Virgin Mary. It consists of fifteen decades of Aves, each decade being preceded by a Pater and followed by a Gloria, which are recited on beads. A different mystery is contemplated during the recital of each decade. These are the fifteen joyful, sorrowful and glorious mysteries of the life of Christ and His Blessed Mother. The Rosary begins with the recitation of the Apostles' Creed (on the crucifix), one Our Father and three Hail Marys.

Other rosaries have also been approved by the Church which consist of varying arrangements of beads and which honor the various saints as well as the mysteries of the faith. It has often been said that the Rosary is the favorite prayer of our present Pope John Paul II. The Holy Father has thus spoken of the Rosary as a prayer which "wonderfully combines simplicity and depth, the individual and community dimensions . . . [it] is a contemplative prayer and is also a powerful form of intercession: indeed, whoever recites it is united with Mary in meditating on the mysteries of Christ and is led to ask her for the grace of these same mysteries in the various situations of life and history."25

Since Vatican II, Sr. Lucia, to whom Our Blessed Mother appeared at Fatima, has mentioned that the Rosary's power is so great the devil has declared war against it. By the command of the Council we are obliged to preserve it.

Another object of popular piety, introduced by the Franciscans (who also originated the Christmas Crib), is the Way of the Cross. Around the walls of most Catholic Churches will be found fourteen plaques or pictures from the Passion and Death of Christ, each of which is placed above or below a wooden cross. The crosses are known as the "stations" of the cross and are richly indulgenced.

The devotion of the Stations of the Cross consists in walking round the church and visiting each of these stations, pausing at each one to meditate on the event each one recalls to our minds. This exercise, which is performed especially during the season of Lent, helps us to relive the events of the final stage of the earthly journey of the Son of God whereby Christ reveals to us the truth about God and man. To share the cross of Christ in this way "means to experience, in the Holy Spirit, the love hidden within the cross of Christ. It means to recognize, in the light of this love, our own cross. It means to take up that cross once more and, strengthened by this love, to continue our journey."26 One here recalls Christ's invitation and command: "If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me."27

Some of the most expressive sacramentals in Catholicism are candles. On the feast of The Presentation of the Lord, sometimes called "Candlemas Day," candles are blessed before the main Mass of the day and distributed to the faithful for use in their homes, especially whenever the Sacraments are administered, i.e., Viaticum or Anointing of the Sick. Candlemas Day recalls the Purification of Mary, the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple and the meeting of Jesus with the aged Simeon and the widow Anna.

Candles are used in many rites and ceremonies in the Church, beginning with the Baptism and ending with the funeral. They are also required on the altar for the proper celebration of Mass. The lighting of the Paschal candle is one of the most solemn of the Easter ceremonies.

The advent wreath is a band of green foliage surrounding four candles that are lighted successively in the four weeks of the Advent season. "They symbolize [and prepare us for] the coming celebration of Christmas, when Christ the Light of the World was born in Bethlehem."28

The scapular is another object that was originally an outer garment worn by members of certain religious orders. An abbreviated version consists of two small pieces of cloth joined at the upper corners by a ribbon and is worn over the neck of the individual.29 Originating as the working frock of Benedictines, the scapular symbolizes the yoke of Christ. In 1251 Our Blessed Mother gave the brown scapular to St. Simon Stock promising, "whosoever dies wearing this scapular shall not suffer eternal fire." Of the eighteen blessed scapulars in use today the most popular are: Our Lady of Mount Carmel (brown), the Passion (red), Seven Dolors (black), Immaculate Conception (blue) and the Holy Trinity (white).30 The green scapular, approved by Pope Pius IX in 1863, has the particular efficacy of conversion.

Medals are coin-shaped objects bearing the image of Christ, Mary, or some saint, some shrine, or sacred event.31 Like many other sacramentals their efficacy depends upon the Church's indulgenced blessing attached to the sacred object as well as the faith of the person who wears or carries it. During the Middle Ages the pilgrims, on leaving a place of pilgrimage, were given medal tokens of that shrine."32 Today, pilgrims to Lourdes, Fatima, Rome and elsewhere often purchase medals that commemorate their visit. Numerous medals have been approved by the Church. Among the most common is the Miraculous Medal revealed by Our Lady in 1830 to St. Catherine Laboure.

Statues and pictures of Our Lord, Our Lady or the various saints are also sacramentals. They help aid a person in his devotion. Some images have been made at the express command of God and His Mother. St. Margaret Mary, for example, "to whom Jesus revealed His Sacred Heart, told us that He wanted an image of His Heart to be enthroned in every home."33

In fostering one's piety Christian images of past events can serve as a kind of pictorial history lesson as well as a narrative, which while calling something holy to mind, makes it present . . . through the sacramental action of the Church.34 Unfortunately, today we are experiencing "a crisis of sacred art . . . [which] for its part is a symptom of the crisis of man's very existence."35 In churches, for example, the many statues and paintings which once breathed the inspiration of holy genius, have in many cases been either removed or replaced by such simple-minded artifacts as banners. Even some of the Churches themselves today, especially the newer ones, betray a kind of "Steak and Stein" architecture.

Holy Water is a sacramental blessed by a priest in the name of the Church. "It is a symbol of spiritual cleansing and its use is advised in moments of physical danger and temptation."36 St. Teresa of Avila recommends in a special way the use of Holy Water: "I often experience that there is nothing the devils flee from more — without returning — than holy water . . . the power of holy water must be great. For me there is a particular and very noticeable consolation my soul experiences upon taking it."37

Holy Oils (there are three) are also sacramentals, which are used in Baptism, Confirmation and the Anointing of the Sick. They are symbols of "spiritual nourishment and the light of grace,"38 and are used to bless people, places and things. Sacred Chrism may be blessed only by the bishop and takes place during the Mass of Chrism on Holy Thursday. The oil of the catechumens and the oil of the infirm may be blessed by priests during the actual administration of the Sacrament. Any oils, which are left at the end of the year are burned.

The veneration of relics is yet another sacramental. On Good Friday it is customary to venerate the relic of the True Cross, on which Christ died.

In addition, there are many other sacramentals such as the palms on Palm Sunday as well as the ashes on Ash Wednesday and the blessing of the throat on St. Blaise's Day.

However important these expressions of our faith may be, it is important to emphasize the cautionary tone of the Catechism in stressing that while these expressions "extend the liturgical life of the Church they don't replace it."39 Popular piety "must never lessen but rather increase devotion to and reception of the Sacraments and promote prayer and penitence. In all expressions of spiritual life, the center must be the Liturgy and the Eucharist from which all these other things retain any value."40

Also, while sacramentals derive from the baptismal priesthood such that every baptized person is called to be a blessing and to bless, the Catechism stresses how "the more a blessing concerns ecclesial and sacramental life, the more is its administration reserved to the ordinary ministry (bishops, priests or deacons)."41 This may be of grave importance where, in certain quarters today, there is a tendency to devalue the sacramental priesthood and even, at times, replace it.

It is often supposed, with respect to sacramentals, that there is a good deal of routine involved, giving rise to the common notion that Catholicism is largely formalism. One has to recognize, however, that "though routine may be dull, an orderly and fruitful life will to a great extent be sustained by routine."42

In conclusion, the Church, concerned with providing the means of sanctification for the People of God, has instituted various sacred signs called sacramentals, which can prepare for or prolong the effects of the Sacraments themselves. While sacramentals are not as central to our faith as Sacraments — though they can be the means of remission of venial sins — they dispose us better to receive the Sacraments. They can also sanctify various things and situations in our everyday lives, teaching us, by the divine grace which flows from the Paschal mystery of the Passion, Death and Resurrection of Christ, to pause, lift up our minds and hearts, and be reminded of things that are above.43 Regarding sacramentals, "there is scarcely any proper use of material things which cannot be thus directed toward the sanctification of men and the praise of God."44


1 Our Sunday Visitor's Encyclopedia of Catholic Doctrine edited by Russell Shaw. (Huntington, IN.: Our Sunday Visitor Publishing, 1997), p. 593. (Hereafter cited as Encyclopedia.)

2 John A. Hardon, S.J., The Catholic Catechism (Darton, Longman & Todd, Ltd. and Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1981), p. 549. (Hereafter cited as Hardon.)

3 Rev. Christopher M. Buckner, Theology Of The Sacraments, Part Two (Hamilton, Virginia: The Catholic Distance University, 1995), Lesson 9-2.

4 Ibid.

5 Ibid, Lesson 9-3.

6 Code Of Canon Law Annotated edited by E. Caparros, M. Theriault, J. Thorn. (Montreal: Wilson & Lafleur Limitee, 1993), p. 732.

7 Hardon, p. 549.

8 Ibid., p. 550.

9 Catechism of the Catholic Church (New York: Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc., 1995), 1167. (Hereafter cited as The Catechism.)

10 Ibid., p. 1172.

11 Ibid., p. 1173.

12 Pope John Paul II, L'Osservatore Romano (Baltimore: The Cathedral Foundation, Inc., Weekly Edition In English, Nov. 8, 2000), 5.

13 Sacrosanctum Concilium no. 88.

14 Hardon, p. 551.

15 Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, The Spirit of the Liturgy (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2000), p. 177. (Hereafter cited as Ratzinger.)

16 Ibid., p. 193.

17 Mark 14:37.

18 Rev. Christopher M. Buckner, Theology Of The Sacraments, Part One (Hamilton, Virginia: The Catholic Distance University, 1995), Lesson 7-3.

19 The Catechism, no. 1671.

20 Ibid., no. 1672.

21 Theology of the Sacraments, Part One Lesson 7-4.

22 The Catechism, no. 1673.

23 Matt 4:4.

24 Matt. 17:21.

25 L'Osservatore Romano Oct. 13,1999.

26 Ibid., May 10, 2000.6.

27 Matt. 16:24.

28 John A. Hardon, S.J. Pocket Catholic Dictionary (New York: Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc., 1985), 11. (Hereafter cited as Dictionary.)

29 Theology of the Sacraments, Part Two Lesson 9-4.

30 Dictionary, p. 397.

31 Ibid., p. 253.

32 Ibid.

33 Fr. Francis J. Ripley, This is the Faith (St. Helens, Lancashire: Wood, Westworth & Co. Ltd., 1954), 384. (Hereafter cited as This is the Faith.)

34 Ratzinger, p. 117.

35 Ibid., p. 130.

36 Theology of the Sacraments, Part Two Lesson 9-4.

37 St. Theresa of Avila, The Book Of Her Life . Trans. by Kieran Kavanaugh and Otilio Rodriguez. Washington: ICS Publications, 1976), Chapter 31, no.4.

38 Theology of the Sacraments, Part Two Lesson 9-4.

39 The Catechism, no. 1675.

40 Rev. Nicholas Halligan, The Catechism of the Catholic Church (Hamilton, Virginia: The Catholic Distance University, 1995), Lesson 9-13. (Hereafter cited as Halligan.)

41 The Catechism, no. 1669.

42 Theodore Maynard, The Catholic Way (Great Britain: Staples Press Ltd., 1954), p. 140.

43 Halligan, Lesson 9-13.

44 The Catechism, no. 1675.

Mr. Paul Kokoski is an undergraduate student at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, where he is pursuing a degree in philosophy. In addition, Mr. Kokoski is a correspondence student with the Catholic Distance University in Hamilton, Virginia. His last article in HPR appeared in June 2002.

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