Sacramentals: What Are They?

Author: Regina Doman


Regina Doman

"Welcome!" we said to Todd and Terry and their children, who had arrived for the first visit to our home. Our guests, dressed in the simple, modest clothes of their Anabaptist sect, knew we were Catholic—we had discussed our faith and the Scriptures with them several times, and had shared a meal at their home. But I wondered what they thought of our apartment, with a huge picture of Our Lady of Guadalupe dominating the entrance way.

They were warm and polite, but their small children stared at the Divine Mercy image in the hallway, at the icons in the bedroom, at the Mary night-light in the bathroom.

Before we left to go for a walk, Terry and I found her two oldest children in the living room, gazing in distress at the large realistic crucifix on the wall. "Look. He's hurt," their 5-year-old boy said, with a worried look on his face.

"That's Jesus," his mother said. "Remember how I told you that Jesus suffered on the cross for your sins? That's because He loves you so much."

As the child stared at the terrible wounds of the Man on the cross, the expression on his face turned from horror to awe. It was obvious to both of us that the teaching of his Christian parents had come home to his heart in a new way.

Our crucifix, icons and other articles are examples of what we call sacramentals. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, sacramentals are sacred signs instituted by the Church to prepare us to receive the fruit of the sacraments and to sanctify different circumstances of our lives (no. 1677).

Practically speaking, the myriad of little things that are sacramentals are the parts of catholicity that jostle against us in our everyday life, those little extras that often tell others we are Catholic. They are the images, actions and blessings that are unique to our faith; those sometimes humble reminders of what the Catholic faith is all about, like the crucifix on our wall.

Sacramentals run the gamut from blessings of consecrated virgins to articles such as relics and rosaries. Some, such as holy water, are used by almost every Catholic. Others are more personal, such as devotionals to a particular saint.

Sacramentals have embellished the official liturgies of the Church or sprung from the cultures of different peoples and different times.

For being Catholic is more than the bare bones: attending Mass, receiving Communion twice a year, going to confession, getting confirmed, married and buried in the Church. It is even more than practicing virtues and avoiding sin. It is a way of life in which the body, its senses and spirit are intermingled.

Sacramentals, by their very voluntariness, their apparent status as extras, can supply the externals that make the Catholic way of life singular and outstanding.

Sacramentals are not superstitions, holdovers from pre-Christian days, or Catholic substitutes for the longing of pagans to dance around trees and mutter spells. There is a part of us that longs for something tangible we can hold on to, something to look at, something to touch, something to sing, chant or recite, something that interacts with the senses. The sacraments, those sacred mixtures of matter and the Holy Spirit, fulfill that need. And so, in a lesser way, do sacramentals.

What is the difference between correct use of the sacramental and superstition? It has to do with an inner attitude, for superstition is second cousin to magic. The superstitious person says, "If I sprinkle holy water here, say these prayers and cross myself, I will make God or His saints do this for me." But the person using a sacramental properly says. "I want to be closer to God—to be constantly and effectively reminded of the power of His love and glory, of His protection, forgiveness and mercy. So I will cross myself when I pass a church to remind myself of His passion. I will make a novena to ask God's saints for their prayers. I will do these things, not because I am strong and have the power to make God and His saints do my will, but because I am weak, distractable and forgetful, and need to remind myself of True Reality."

So Catholics hang crucifixes and holy images in their homes to remind them of God and His works. They cross themselves, bless themselves and their homes with holy water and oil. They pray the Angelus at noon in remembrance of the Incarnation. They kiss the Bible or holy object they have accidentally dropped.

Catholics who choose to weave the use of sacramentals into their daily lives can experience a richer, more textured Catholicism. For instance, one young father sprinkles holy water around the beds of his children and prays to God to protect them against nightmares, which sometimes are a problem in their house. Another mother I know uses blessed salt when she bakes bread for her family. Before setting out on a long trip, one youth group blesses its cars with holy oil for a safe journey. I myself have experienced peace during difficult times when I kissed or touched the Miraculous Medal I wear as a reminder of the loving protection of my Mother in heaven. The list of how sacramentals have affected my life and the lives of those I know goes on and on.

If you do not use sacramentals, consider looking into their use. Ann Ball's excellent "Handbook of Catholic Sacramentals" (Our Sunday Visitor) provides explanations of the history and proper use of many popular and obscure sacramentals. As Christ was the invisible God made visible, so sacramentals, like sacraments, are visible signs of His invisible grace, sanctifying daily life. In a way, they are daily restatements of the Incarnation, of God made flesh, and are dwelling among us in mysterious and wonderful ways.

Regina Doman writes from Steubenuille, Ohio. Her work has appeared in Nazareth Journal, Caelum et Terra and You! magazines.

This article appeared in the June 1996 issue of "New Covenant" magazine. To subscribe write Our Sunday Visitor, Inc., 200 Noll Plaza, Huntington, IN 46750-9957 or call 1-800-348-2440. Published monthly at a charge of $18.00 per year.