Ash Wednesday — A Sacramental Moment in the Life of the Church
Ash Wednesday is the perfect time to consider the use and efficacy of Sacramentals in the life of the Church. I recently posted a document (The Seven Sacraments) that outlined the Catholic Understanding of the traditional Seven Sacraments. One commentator reminded me of a story I heard many years ago regarding missionaries working with some aboriginal peoples, deep in the jungle: the story goes that immediately after explaining to a group, teaching them about the seven sacraments, and how we believe they are mysterious encounters with God; the group huddled together in discussion for a long while. When finished, the leader came forward and commented: if what you’re saying is true, we just counted a couple hundred sacraments in our culture where we recognize God’s interaction. This story shows that many peoples around the world recognize the movement of God in the everyday moments of life. What sacramental theology does is differentiate between those moments which simply impart a particular grace, and those which go a step further and work towards our individual “justification” and ultimate salvation.
When the Catholic Church teaches and practices the Seven Sacraments, we are agreeing with the ancient church, recognizing these as essential and universally accepted aspects of our faith that provide significant and specific graces, which if an individual is inwardly disposed, are efficacious towards our eternal destiny. My post on the sacraments was not intended to be all-inclusive treaties on the sacraments. I didn’t touch on all aspects of the Sacramental theology, or even discuss Sacramentals, or that some considered the “Church” itself to be a Sacrament. The Assyrian Church of the East has the “Sacrament of the Cross.”
The point is that there are multitudes of examples where we can point to Encounters with the divine in our lives. I don’t know of anyone who would say that His divine relationship with us is somehow limited to the seven sacraments.While the Sacraments are recognized as being vehicles of the particular graces they symbolize, the Church also recognizes certain “Sacramentals” which are moments, actions or things which excite our thoughts and focus our active intention upwards towards God.
Did you know that the “Sign of the Cross” we catholics make, often habitually, is a Sacramental? We consider much of our liturgical movements and rituals to be Sacramental moments, causing those, so disposed, to encounter Christ — the living word proclaimed regularly in the Liturgy of the word. This article is being written and published on “Ash Wednesday,” where Catholics begin the penitential season of Lent, with the application of ashes in the shape of a cross on their foreheads. The ashes themselves are the sacramental. The sign, or kiss of peace during mass, and washing of the feet on Maundy Thursday, IMHO should be viewed as Sacramental moments as well.
A sacramental is anything set apart or blessed by the Church to excite good thoughts and to increase devotion, and through these movements of the heart to remit venial sin. The chief sacramental is the Sign of the Cross.
–The Baltimore Catechism
What is a sacramental?
The Catechism teaches us that sacramentals are “holy things or actions of which the church makes use to obtain for us from God, through her intercession, spiritual and temporal favors.” A sacramental is anything set apart or blessed by the church to excite good thoughts and to help devotion. It is through the prayers of the church offered for those who make use of these sacramentals, as well as through the devotion they inspire, that they convey and obtain God’s grace and blessings.
Sacramentals are not totally dissimilar with the sacraments in that they are channels of particular grace and can obtain for us many of these benefits:
Forgiveness of venial sins
Remission of temporal punishment
Health of body and material blessings
Protection from evil spirits
An important aspect of sacramental theology is that these signs, symbols and actions are only as effective as our internal disposition, allowing God to work within us, moving us towards sanctifying grace.
One difference between sacraments and sacramentals is that the latter do not produce sanctifying grace, a power that belongs to sacraments alone. Another difference is that sacraments were instituted directly by Christ while sacramentals were instituted by Christ through His church. Sacramentals should never take the place of sacraments. The sacraments are necessary for salvation; sacramentals are not necessary. Nevertheless, the prayers, pious objects, sacred signs, and ceremonies of Mother Church are means to salvation.
Since they are blessed objects, sacramentals should always be treated with reverence and devotion. It is a custom of Catholics to kiss a rosary or scapular that they have accidentally dropped on the ground. The sign of the cross or a genuflection should be made deliberately and prayerfully.
How do they work?
“Sacramentals obtain favors from God through the prayers of the Church offered for those who make use of them, and through the devotion they inspire.”
Sacramentals should not be thought of as contracts, investments, or good luck charms. To wear the scapular does not give us free reign to commit mortal sin and still be assured of heaven. The scapular is a symbol of Marian devotion and a silent prayer to Our Blessed Mother in heaven for salvation that she most certainly will not ignore. Using holy water is not an infallible wiping away of our venial sins unless we have contrition for our sins when we use it. The power of sacramentals, then, depends greatly on the devotion of both the priest who gives the blessing and the person who is receiving the sacramental. They depend on the prayers of the Church, the prayers of the blessings that are imposed on them, and the merits of Jesus Christ, the Blessed Mother, and the Saints. Of themselves they do not save souls, but they are the means for securing heavenly help for those who use them properly.
Regarding blessed objects of devotion, it is good to remember that it is the blessing the priest gives an object that makes it a sacramental. The blessing gives God ownership over the object and dedicates it to Him, and He then works through it. This is why it is very important to have sacramentals blessed; without the blessing they do not hold any of the graces of benefits promised by the Church. To believe otherwise is to degrade the sacramental to the level of a good luck charm. It is superstition to hold that the grace and spiritual benefit one may receive comes from the sacramental itself; all grace comes from God. A sacramental is merely a channel through which He has chosen to work.
Types of Sacramentals
We are surrounded by sacramentals. The Church has placed them in every aspect of our day-to-day life. They may more or less be divided into categories, though some sacramentals may fall under more than one. For instance, a rosary is both a prayer and a blessed object of devotion.
Blessings of deacons, priests, and bishops — All blessings are considered sacramentals. The blessings of deacons, priests, and bishops, such as the consecration of churches, the absolution contained in the Confiteor at Mass, the Asperges, and the blessings bestowed on palms, candles, or ashes are all sacramental actions.
Lay Catholics are free to bless objects, and we do so often in blessing our children, blessing meals, blessing Advent wreaths or Mary Gardens, etc. However our blessings act as ‘mere’ plea to God.Ordained Catholic clergy (deacons, priests, bishops) alone have been given the power to bless with a guarantee, as it were, and it is they and they alone who can take a new crucifix or rosary and turn them into sacramentals with the power and prayers of the entire Church behind them.
Exorcisms — One of the most remarkable effects of sacramentals is their ability to drive away evil sprits. Exorcisms constitute the second category of sacramentals. They can be found in prayers or even placed upon other sacramentals such as the St. Benedict medal.
Blessed objects of devotion — The Church blesses an untold variety of objects which the faithful use to inspire devotion. It would be impossible to list them all, but some of the main ones are holy water, candles, ashes, palms, crucifixes, medals, rosaries, scapulars, and images of Our Lord, the Blessed Virgin, and the saints. Some of these blessed objects, namely candles, ashes, and palms, are given to us directly through the liturgy. Others, such as the scapular, rosary and Miraculous Medal have been instituted or directly propagated by Our Blessed Mother. Sacramentals such as these play a pivotal role in the devotion and spiritual life of any Catholic and should be treated with the respect and dignity they deserve.
Rubrics and prayers — It is easy to forget that rubrics and prayers are all sacramentals, such as the bowing of the head at the holy name of Jesus or the sign of the cross. Many of these actions are used so often that they are performed flippantly and without thought. How easy it is to forget that a sincere recitation of the Confiteor before communion and the absolution of the priest afterwards can remit venial sin and be used as a way of purifying one’s soul before receiving Holy Communion. How often in a day do we make the sign of the cross, forgetting that it is a testimony of faith in the Trinity to Whom we belong and in the act of Redemption. All these things should be done deliberately and devoutly, since they were deliberately instituted by the church to aid us in attaining a deep love of God.
I encourage everyone to study the richness of Sacramental theology. St. Thomas Aquino’ Summa Theologiae is a great place to start.
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Michael Callahan is the Presiding Archbishop of the Catholic Church in America as well as the International Catholic Confederation. Bishop Callahan is also the founder of Koinonia News and has been a conservative blogger for several years.