Sacramentals are the hidden treasures of the Church. Looking back, going to a Catholic school all my life, rubbing shoulders with the nuns and priests, it was a very sad thing not be let in on these wonderful “secrets” of the Catholic Church, one being the sacramentals.
It is up to us to learn about these sacramentals, teach our children about them and finally, to use them!! It is up to us to spread this good news so Catholics, once again, can be the recipients of unused graces that are so available in these treasures!
Sacramentals and Their Efficacy by Father Arthur Tonne, 1950
“Waters are broken out in the desert, and streams in the wilderness. And that which was dry land shall become a pool, and the thirsty land springs of water.” Isaias, 35:6.
Some years ago two women were touring a desert region of our southwest. They wandered off from their party and were lost. For two full days they tramped and tramped in search of a road or dwelling. They found none. Completely exhausted, aching with thirst and hunger, they could not walk another step. One of them, in true womanly fashion, took out her compact to repair the damage done by sun and dust. The sun flashed off the mirror.
She got an idea. Someone might see the reflected light. They flashed the mirror in all directions. Rescuers saw the flashes, hurried to the source, and saved the two ladies.
Who would have thought that such a simple thing as a mirror could save human lives? This essential piece of female equipment did not directly save their lives, but it was the means, the instrument for attracting attention and bringing help.
The sacramentals are something like that. Of themselves they do not save souls, but they are the means for securing heavenly help for those who use them properly.
A sacramental is a sacred object or religious action which the Catholic Church, in imitation of the sacraments, uses for the purpose of obtaining spiritual favors especially through her prayer.
A sacramental is anything set apart or blessed by the Church to excite good thoughts and to help devotion, and thus secure grace and take away venial sin or the temporal punishment due to sin.
Let us compare and contrast the sacraments and the sacramentals:
- The sacraments were instituted by Christ Himself; the sacramentals were founded by Christ’s Church.
- The sacraments are limited to the seven instituted by Christ, namely, Baptism, Confirmation, Confession, Holy Eucharist, Extreme Unction, Holy Orders and Matrimony; the sacramentals are numerous and varied, according to the directions of Mother Church.
- The sacraments produce grace directly in the soul, if there is no obstacle on the part of the recipient; the sacramentals do not produce grace directly and of themselves–they produce grace indirectly by disposing and preparing the soul for this divine gift.
- The words used in the sacraments, except in Extreme Unction, positively declare that God is producing certain effects in the soul; the prayers used in the sacramentals merely ask God to produce certain effects and to grant certain graces.
- The sacraments give or increase sanctifying grace; and the sacramentals are the means to actual graces.
We might divide the sacramentals into prayers, pious objects, sacred signs, and religious ceremonies. Some sacramentals are a combination–they fall into two or more classes. The Rosary, for example, is a pious object and a prayer. The sign of the cross is a prayer and a sign. The crucifix, pictures and statues are pious objects. The ceremonies performed in the various sacraments are also sacramentals, like the extending of the hands in Confirmation.
How can mere material things help us on the way to heaven? How can water, metal, or a piece of cloth help save our souls?
You must ever remember that these objects in themselves have no power to save or help us. It would be superstitious to say they had any such power. But things like a crucifix, a holy picture, a statue, a candle, do excite spiritual thoughts and feelings in those who use them correctly.
They excite the fear and love of God; they arouse trust and hope in His mercy; they awaken sorrow and joy in the Lord. Their value lies in the fact that they have been set aside by the Church for sacred purposes, by the power of the Church’s official prayer, and by the merits of Christ, preserved and distributed by His Church.
That Church not only sets things aside for a sacred use, she also attaches definite benefits and blessings to certain objects and good works. Many sacramentals have indulgences attached. An indulgence is the taking away, outside of confession, in whole or in part, of the temporal punishment due to sin which is already forgiven.
The sacramentals also try to express the supreme beauty and goodness of Almighty God. The words and language of the blessings are beautiful; the form and art of statues and pictures is of the best very often; the ceremonies of the sacraments are adapted to express the graces given.
Do we have to use sacramentals? Does a Catholic have to wear a scapular, or use holy water, or pray the Rosary? Strictly speaking, no. The sacraments are necessary for salvation; the sacramentals are not necessary. Nevertheless, the prayers, pious objects, sacred signs and ceremonies of Mother Church are means to salvation.
If you were lost in a desert, as were the two women of our story, you don’t have to have a mirror to be saved. But that lifeless, senseless object was the means of saving their lives.
In a similar way the sacramentals, lifeless, helpless in themselves, are helps to winning life-giving graces. They must never take the place of the sacraments. You will find Catholics who place more confidence and trust in these material objects than they do in the reality of the sacraments.
For example, you may see a Catholic enter Church and go directly to the vigil light stand without seeming to pay any attention to our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament. That Catholic does not appreciate the difference between a sacrament and a sacramental.
It is with a desire and holy ambition to make you appreciate these aids to spiritual life, the sacramentals, that we propose to explain some of them.
In the desert of daily life they are mirrors that will lead us to the fountains of spiritual help and spiritual life. Amen.
“When rumors, curiosity, gossip, and the vanities of the world threaten to overwhelm us, let us quickly retire by a swift interior movement to the Heart of Jesus; there we shall always find recollection and peace.” – Divine Intimacy