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Sacramentals In The Life Of The Church

March 17, 2018 Our Catholic Faith No Comments

By DON FIER

For almost two years we have been examining the Church’s teaching, as articulated in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC), on the seven sacraments. As has been emphasized repeatedly, it is an infallibly taught dogma of our faith that Christ Himself instituted each of the seven sacraments during His visible stay on Earth.
Moreover, it has been demonstrated that each of the sacraments is administered with “perceptible signs (words and actions) accessible to our human nature. By the action of Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit, they make present efficaciously the grace that they signify” (CCC, n. 1084). Simply stated, each sacrament is “an outward sign instituted by Christ to give grace” (Baltimore Catechism, volume 1, q. 136).
The Catechism next apportions 13 paragraphs (nn. 1667-1679) and the 1983 Code of Canon Law (CIC) allocates seven canons (canons 1166-1172) to the topic of sacramentals, which, although similar in some respects to sacraments, differ in both their origin and nature.
As expressed by the Vatican II fathers in the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, sacramentals can be defined as “sacred signs which bear a resemblance to the sacraments: they signify effects, particularly of a spiritual kind, which are obtained through the Church’s intercession. By them men are disposed to receive the chief effect of the sacraments, and various occasions in life are rendered holy” (Sacrosanctum Concilium [SC], n. 60; cf. CCC, n. 1667 and CIC, canon 1166).
How, then, do sacramentals differ from sacraments? In The Question and Answer Catholic Catechism (QACC), Fr. John A. Hardon, SJ, identifies three ways: “in institution, cause, and effectiveness” (n. 1538).
As already established, sacraments were instituted by Christ and cannot be substantially changed or abolished; in contrast, sacramentals are instituted by the Church and are subject to change — new ones can be added and old ones suppressed.
The Code specifies that “the Apostolic See alone can establish new sacramentals, authentically interpret those already received, or abolish or change any of them” (CIC, canon 1167 § 1); however, some latitude is given to conferences of bishops and diocesan bishops regarding the development and revision of sacramentals in already existing categories (see SC, n. 22; CIC, canons 835, 838).
Regarding cause and effect, sacraments produce their effects ex opere operato (“by the very fact of the actions being performed” [CCC, n. 1128]). The spiritual effects of sacramentals, on the other hand, are obtained through the intercessory power of the Church and depend on the disposition of the recipient.
“Unlike the sacraments, they do not really produce [cause] the extraordinary and distinctive grace they signify but are the occasion for receiving some blessing from God through the Church because a person uses sacramentals with faith” (QACC, n. 1538).
What are the various forms of sacramentals and what characteristics do they possess? Fr. Hardon explains that they “are classified according to sacred time and sacred place; they are also sacred actions, words, or objects” (QACC, n. 1539).
The Catechism elaborates: “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” (CCC, n. 1668).
Sacred time refers to the liturgical year and its seasons as well as feasts and times of fast and abstinence. “It qualifies as a sacramental,” says Fr. Hardon, “because it has been established by the Church to stimulate the faith of the people by disposing them to a regular and more generous service of God” (QACC, n. 1555).
In speaking of sacred places in his exposition on sacramentals in The Catholic Catechism (TCC), Fr. Hardon states: “In Catholic Christianity the sacred place par excellence is the church or chapel where the Eucharistic sacrifice is offered and the Blessed Sacrament is reserved” (p. 551).
He also makes reference to the numerous shrines and places of pilgrimage where the faithful travel to seek various favors and special graces.
Sacred actions, words, and objects — too numerous to list — form the widest grouping of sacramentals. Sacramental actions are first and most prominently “the gestures, postures, and bodily movements that the Church officially associates with the Eucharist and administration of the sacraments” (TCC, p. 552).
For example, genuflecting and kneeling, making the Sign of the Cross over oneself or another person or object, devoutly folding one’s hands in prayer, bowing one’s head when passing a church, sprinkling with holy water — all commonplace forms of piety — are classified as sacramental actions. “They testify to the faith that inspires them,” attests Fr. Hardon, “and on the Church’s authority, carry with them the promise of God’s help, always in spirit and often also temporally and in the body” (ibid.).
Words become sacramentals “when what is said or sung, or the time it is done, or the manner of doing it has been ‘sacramentalized,’ that is prescribed or officially approved by the Church” (QACC, n. 1543). Fervently saying an Act of Contrition or confessing such as in the Confiteor are examples; indulgenced prayers also belong to this category.
Other examples include rites of blessing for the dedication of churches and altars, consecration of virgins and widows, profession for entrance into a religious order, and for the institution of lectors and acolytes.
The number and variety of sacramentals referred to as “blessed objects” are limited only by the Church’s ritual legislation. Blessings of objects as sacramentals “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” (CCC, n. 1668).
Included in the category of blessed objects are statues, medals, icons, and sacred pictures; altar vessels used at Mass; vestments for divine service; the distinctive habits of religious; wedding rings exchanged at marriage; holy water for blessing oneself or others or for use in the home; blessed salt; and blessed oil to be applied in case of illness.
Popular objects that are blessed as sacramentals that most of the faithful are familiar with include the Brown Scapular of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, crucifixes, the Miraculous Medal, and the rosary. “There is hardly any proper use of material things,” teach the Vatican II fathers, “which cannot be directed toward the sanctification of men and the praise of God” (SC, n. 61).
Who can perform a blessing? According to the Catechism, “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” (CCC, n. 1669).
“Priests are the ordinary minister of blessings,” explains Fr. William P. Saunders. “The priest’s blessing is imparted with the weight of the Church and therefore has great value in the eyes of God” (Straight Answers, p. 140). The value in God’s eyes of a lay person’s blessing on another (e.g., a parent blessing a child) “depends on the person’s individual sincerity and sanctity” (ibid.).
Blessings are categorized into two types: invocative and constitutive. In an invocative blessing, God’s divine favor is implored to grant a spiritual or temporal good without any change of condition. Examples include the blessing of a parent for a child or the blessing for food at mealtime.
A constitutive blessing, in contrast, is invoked by a bishop, priest, or deacon and signifies the permanent sanctification and dedication of a person or thing for a sacred purpose — the person or object takes on a sacred character and normally would not be used for a profane purpose again. An example is the blessing of a chalice to be used only as a sacred vessel in offering Mass. Some blessings (e.g., dedication of a church) can be performed only by bishops.

Moral Certainty

An exorcism, perhaps unknown to many, is classified as a sacramental by which “the Church asks publicly and authoritatively in the name of Jesus Christ that a person or object be protected against the power of the Evil One and withdrawn from his dominion” (CCC, n. 1673).
Canon 1172 of the 1983 Code (which pertains to solemn exorcisms and not to simple exorcisms in the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults or the Baptism of infants) is exacting in its requirements.
A solemn exorcism “can be performed only by a priest and with the permission of the bishop. The priest must proceed with prudence, strictly observing the rules established by the Church. . . . Before an exorcism is performed, it is important to ascertain that one is dealing with the presence of the Evil One, and not an illness” (ibid.).
Only a priest who is properly prepared and endowed with “piety, knowledge, prudence, and integrity of life” (CIC, canon 1172 § 2) should be granted permission to perform exorcisms.
Citing the 1998 Rite of Exorcism (nn. 14-16), the New Commentary on the Code of Canon Law specifies that the Church “takes a most cautious approach to this phenomenon and requires the exorcist to have moral certainty of demonic possession before proceeding to celebrate the rite” (p. 1406).
In closing, it is important to recognize that sacramentals should not be used in a superstitious manner, as if they have some “magic” quality. Used properly and with devotion, they are visible signs of God’s invisible grace which can sanctify one’s daily life.

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(Don Fier serves on the board of directors for The Catholic Servant, a Minneapolis-based monthly publication. He and his wife are the parents of seven children. Fier is a 2009 graduate of Ave Maria University’s Institute for Pastoral Theology. He is a Consecrated Marian Catechist.)

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