Sacramentals – What Are They and Why Are They
Sacramentals are a deeply-rooted presence in the lives of Catholics – rosaries, holy water, scapulars, medals, devotions. Yet many people do not understand this aspect of the Catholic Faith. To some, sacramentals seem like an array of meaningless trinkets and gestures; to others, they seem like talismans and superstitions. Of course sacramentals are neither of these things, but are in fact “sacred signs which bear a resemblance to the sacraments” (Catechism, 1667). This guide will help you to understand the types, significance, and theological basis of sacramentals.
What is a Sacramental?
Sacramentals are associated with or imitate the Church’s official rituals. They are sacred signs which remind us of the sacraments. Sacramentals can include physical objects such as rosary beads, chaplets, scapulars, devotional medals, statues, and other objects. They can also be non-physical, including music, gestures such as genuflecting and making the sign of the cross, and novenas and other devotional prayers. Some sacramentals are exclusively part of official Church rituals – such as sacred oils – while others are commonly (but not necessarily exclusively) used in parishioners’ private lives – such as candles and rosaries.
The Difference Between Sacramentals and Sacraments
Sacramentals are related to and remind us of the sacraments. The sacraments were instituted by Jesus, while most sacramentals were instituted by the Church.
Sacramentals are not “lucky” rabbits’ feet or spiritual “get out of jail free” cards. Sacraments give grace themselves but sacramentals do not. Rather, sacramentals excite and encourage pious dispositions and are made effective through faithful devotion, love of God, prayer, and sorrow for sin.
Theology of Catholic Sacramentals
The Catechism of the Catholic Church describes the theology of the sacramental in this way:
“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.
Sacramentals are instituted for the sanctification of certain ministries of the Church, certain states of life, a great variety of circumstances in Christian life, and the use of many things helpful to man. In accordance with bishops' pastoral decisions, they can also respond to the needs, culture, and special history of the Christian people of a particular region or time. They always include a prayer, often accompanied by a specific sign, such as the laying on of hands, the sign of the cross, or the sprinkling of holy water (which recalls Baptism).
Sacramentals derive from the baptismal priesthood: every baptized person is called to be a ‘blessing,' and to bless.Hence lay people may preside at certain blessings; the more a blessing concerns ecclesial and sacramental life, the more is its administration reserved to the ordained ministry (bishops, priests, or deacons).
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. ‘For well-disposed members of the faithful, the liturgy of the sacraments and sacramentals sanctifies almost every event of their lives with the divine grace which flows from the Paschal mystery of the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Christ. From this source all sacraments and sacramentals draw their power. There is scarcely any proper use of material things which cannot be thus directed toward the sanctification of men and the praise of God.'” – (CCC, 1667 – 1670)
You can read more in detail about specific sacramentals, including genuflecting, bowing, rosaries, medals and more in Catholic Customs and Traditions.