Sunday, January 28, 2007
Part 2 - What are Sacramentals?
I recieved several questions pertaining to what sacramentals are, how they are "changed", what makes them special, and how this differs from superstition.
Sacramentals are, "sacred signs instituted by the Church. They are sacred signs that bear a resemblance to the sacraments." (United States Catholic Catechism for Adults). They can further be defined as, "anything set apart or blessed by the Church to excite good thoughts and to help devotion, and thus secure grace and take away venial sin or the temporal punishment due to sin..."
Sacramentals are things such as rosaries, holy water, medals, palms, ashes, scapulars, candles, etc, which have been blessed by a priest. When a priest blesses these objects, he is asking for God to touch those objects and pass on His blessing to all those who use, gaze upon, or come into contact with the object. He is asking that those who use those objects be disposed to God's grace and that the object assist the person in question to greater union with God.
So it is not the sacramental itsef that conveys grace; it is the disposition of the individual in seeking God's grace through the use of the sacramental.
For example, one can pray the rosary with an unblessed rosary; it is still a valid prayer. But once blessed, that rosary is recognized as almost a conduit for grace, it is a tool set aside for a specific purpose, that of bringing people closer to God.
At my house, I have several novena candles, and frequently have them lit, even throughout the night. I use them to remind me to pray for specific intentions or people, as a reminder of the presence of the Holy Spirit, the light of Christ, and that I am to carry that same light beyond the humble walls of my home.
The scapular is a common sacramental/ devotion. There are several, and some involve specific enrollments, certain prayers, certain obligations. It is NEVER a "get out of jail free" card, for it is only, again, a tool. It helps the person wearing it be better disposed to recieve God's grace.
For those who don't know what a scapular is: it is two small squares of cloth of varying colors according to the devotion, attached by two strings so that the squares will fall over the shoulders, resting in front and in back. Originally, a "scapular" was clothing used by consecrated religious which was simply a rectangular cloth with a hole cut out for the head, covering the torso but not the arms. This is still worn by many religious orders as a part of their habits, although it was originally used to cover them and protect their clothing as they worked.
The popular devotional scapular may require certain things of the wearer: for example, the brown scapular (Carmelite) requires that the wearer recieve the Sacraments of Confession and Holy Communion frequently, pray the Liturgy of the Hours or the Rosary daily, and remain in a state of grace (free from grave sin). There are several published "promises" for this devotion, so it must be noted that in order for those "promises", such as freedom from eternal damnation, still depends upon the person wearing the scapular. So if one puts on the blessed scapular then proceeds to dismember animals and people, that person is not fulfilling their promises.
Any given sacramental is not a talisman; it does not make someone holier to have it, nor does it guarantee salvation. It is a tool of God's grace, something to be used by the individual (or group, as appropriate) to understand and come closer to the Lord.
For Catholics, the next time you ask to have something blessed, consider the words pronounced by the priest upon the object; notice how he is asking that God's grace fall not so much upon the object, but that the object itself is used in accordance wih God's will, that those who gaze upon the icon experience God's grace and love, and that through the use of the object, they will find greater union with Jesus Christ.
And for Protestants or people of other religions; be advised! If you enter a Catholic home and find yourself surrounded by religious art, candles, and maybe prayer cards, realize that by being in the presence of this object, and gazing upon it, the person who has them is praying for YOU to be blessed by God!
Sacramentals are reminders of God's presence in our lives and should be leading us to enter more deeply into the mystery of Jesus Christ and salvation; they are set apart from common objects for this specific divine purpose. Yet always remember; it is the person who uses the sacramental who must be disposed toward God's will in order for the sacramental to be effective.
As always, comments and further information is welcome!