What is the Significance of Sacramentals?
We all know that the Church has seven official sacraments. But then many of us have also heard about something called sacramentals. The similarity between the words can make these two things confusing to tell apart. Hopefully by the end of this you’ll be able to tell the difference and know how you can begin to use sacramentals in your own home and in your own family.
Most people know that only priests can be the ministers of certain sacraments such as the Eucharist, Reconciliation, the Anointing of the Sick, and Confirmation and that only a bishop can confer the Sacrament of Holy Orders. In our Western Christian understanding of marriage we believe that the couple getting married are the ministers of the Sacrament of Matrimony and anybody can administer the sacrament of Baptism (although a priest is the proper minister, in an emergency anybody can baptize). One of the most important distinctions is that sacramentals only obtain actual grace. They never administer sanctifying grace—only the sacraments can do that! But, by virtue of our baptism we all share in the common priesthood of Jesus Christ and so in some way share in the ability to act in a priestly manner. There are things which only those in the ministerial priesthood, our ordained priests, can do; but there are things that we can all do and these include sacramentals. Sacramentals are ways in which we offer praise and worship to God and in our act of offering worship to God we are acting in our common priesthood.
What are Sacramentals?
Sacramentals are “…sacred signs which bear a resemblance to the sacraments. They signify effect, 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” (CCC 1667). Let’s break that down a bit as it’s pretty heavy. First off, sacramentals are sacred signs- so they are physical, and they point to something beyond themselves. They point to things of a spiritual nature and come about through the prayers of the Church. They are ecclesial in this way. They help people to receive the graces which ordinarily come through the sacraments themselves and perhaps most importantly, they help make holy things in our lives.
Helping make events and occasions holy is the chief aid that sacramentals play in our own life. For some sacramentals are only rarely celebrated and merit large celebrations- the professions of perpetual virginity, the reception of vows for religious men and women, the blessing of a new abbot of a monastery, the dedication of a new Church or a new altar are all sacramentals. They all are sacred signs that are not sacraments proper which help prepare one for grace and make holy moments and occasions in our lives. But there are more simple sacramentals which we can all partake in much more frequently.
Blessings are the most commonplace of these. A prayer before meals in which we ask God to bless the food and the gathering is a sacramental. We can, and should, all offer this blessing and it can help as a sacramental; it can help prepare us to receive the grace of the sacraments and help sanctify the meal we are partaking of. Perhaps you have the family habit of blessing the children by the parents before the children go to bed. This is a sacramental as well and serves the same purpose. Perhaps you have a small holy water fount in your house with which you bless yourself when you enter or leave your house; again, a sacramental. It serves as a sacred sign designed to help sanctify moments and occasions in our lives.
Scapulars, medals, rosaries, candles, sacred images, and crucifixes are some other common and beautiful testaments of our faith and devotion that are considered sacramentals when they are blessed. Many other objects fit into this category as well.
Why Should We Use Them?
Sacramentals are real harbingers of sanctification and can truly help with leading holy lives, especially out in the world. If you do not have the habit of including them in your life you should start now. If you have children, offer a blessing over them at night. Keep a bottle of holy water in your house and use it to bless yourself and your family and the rooms of your house. If you don’t have a bottle of holy water, contact your local parish and ask if you may have some holy water for your house. Almost every one of them should be able to provide you with holy water, you just have to ask and come with a bottle!
Use these things! Use them to sanctify our world, to sanctify your life, and to help bring about God’s kingdom here on earth!