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What Are Sacramentals and Why Have Them Blessed?

Catholic Apologetics #72

(Read Why Socialism and Catholicism are Incompatible)

Sacraments and Sacramentals

The Church teaches that the Sacraments work ex opere operato (Latin, meaning “from the work performed”), which was defined by the Council of Trent. The Council of Trent dogmatically defined that grace is always conferred by a Sacrament, “in virtue of the rite performed and not as a mere sign that grace has already been given, or that the sacrament stimulates the faith of the recipient and thus occasions the obtaining of grace, or that what determines the grace is the virtue of either the minister or recipient of a sacrament.”

Thus, provided there is no obstacle placed in the way (e.g., improper matter used, the wrong words were said, the minister did not have the proper intention), every Sacrament properly administered confers the grace intended by the Sacrament.[1]

Sacramentals, while they can bring us grace, do not work ex opera operato. As the Baltimore Catechism explains: “The Sacramentals of themselves do not remit venial sins, but they move us to truer devotion, to greater love for God and greater sorrow for our sins, and this devotion, love, and sorrow bring us grace, and the grace remits venial sins.”

To summarize, the Baltimore Catechism states: “The difference between the Sacraments and the Sacramentals is: 1. The Sacraments were instituted by Jesus Christ and the Sacramentals were instituted by the Church; 2. The Sacraments confer sanctifying grace of themselves when we place no obstacle in the way; 3. The Sacramentals excite in us pious dispositions and provide actual graces, by means of which we are then moved to holy deeds and to merit more grace.”

In simple colloquial terms, we might say the Sacramentals are an extension of the Sacramental Life of Grace into every facet of our life. The Sacraments provide the “big powerful” sanctifying grace at the most important moments of our life, whereas the Sacramentals provide “small bursts” of actual grace to the events and moments of everyday life.
 

What Kinds of Sacramentals Exist?

Ask a Catholic what a Sacramental is and they would likely say a blessed rosary, holy image, scapular or medal. Some may even add blessed candles or blessed salt[2]. They would certainly be correct. But note that Sacramentals are more than just these items. They also include blessings, consecrations, and exorcisms.

Turning again to the Baltimore Catechism, we read: “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.” The Sign of the Cross, the blessing of a consecrated virgin, the coronation of a king, the “christening” of church bells, or the blessing of scapulars are all Sacramentals.

While the number of Sacraments may never be increased or decreased, Sacramentals may be increased or decreased according to the judgment of the Church.
 

Why Do We Have Sacramentals Blessed?

The blessing of Sacramentals sets them apart from ordinary purposes and raises them to heavenly ones. While all Sacramentals should ordinarily be blessed with few exceptions[3], the blessing of Sacramentals does not turn the item into a good luck charm or a magical tool.

God has repeatedly worked through Sacramentals and performed miracles[4], but we never treat the Sacramental like an object which is imbued with divine power that we wield to control the power of God. That view would be a form of superstition, and thus the sin of idolatry.

Sacramentals should always be treated with reverence and utilized with faith. A person who uses a Sacramental with greater faith and piety (and other Catholic virtues) will benefit more from the actual graces associated with the Sacramental.

It also behooves us to learn about each Sacramental and to read the actual prayers which Holy Mother Church provides for the blessing of various Sacramentals. Reflecting upon these prayers will teach us what actual graces the Sacramental can yield and help us use each Sacramental correctly.

Sadly, following the Second Vatican Council many of the Church’s prayer books were changed and re-written with an “ecumenical” emphasis that Protestants could find acceptable. Thus, many of the prayers used to bless Sacramentals according to the new rituals no longer impart the same powerful graces which were contained in the traditional ritual. For example, the prayers over water and salt previously included exorcisms, giving them power over demonic forces. Those prayers have been eliminated, and so water and salt blessed according to the new ritual no longer have this power. This is why it is extremely important to always make sure your Sacramentals are blessed with the traditional ritual and prayers of Holy Mother Church.
 

What Objects Can Be Blessed?

“And God saw all the things that He had made, and they were very good” (Genesis 1:31). All created things are good. And for that reason, anything (unless it is sinful) can be blessed. While Sacramentals are the most ordinary items to be blessed, as many of the promises and indulgences attached to them require them to be blessed, many more things may be blessed. We may have priests bless our wedding rings[5], our homes, our cars, our fields, our laptops, and more. Pets are often blessed on the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi[6].

And while only the ordained may ordinarily bless objects, some practices of blessings may be performed by the non-ordained. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob all blessed their children. Likewise, fathers today may bless their children by making the Sign of the Cross on their forehead[7]. And fathers of families traditionally inscribe a certain formula above the inside entrance to their homes with blessed chalk on the Feast of the Epiphany[8] and say a prayer of blessing for the home, if a priest is not available.

Yet, the ability to say blessings is not reserved only to fathers. For example, the Roman Breviary mentions a wonderful blessing that anyone may say before heading out on a journey: “Into the way of peace and prosperity, may the almighty and merciful Lord lead us and may the Angel Raphael be with us along the way, that we may come to our home again in peace, and health, and gladness.”

Even the prayer before meals that we say daily as Catholics is a blessing, asking God to bless our food. Thus, blessings are actually a recurrent part of our lives as Catholics, even if we don’t often think about them.
 

Conclusion

Most Catholics only have surface knowledge of what a Sacramental is, and many others may not fully understand why and how Sacramentals are used. If you found this article helpful, please share it with a friend.


[1] Editor’s Note: One thing to keep in mind is that while the Sacraments infallibly confer grace when correctly administered, the efficacy of that grace varies in the life of each individual. For example, one Holy Communion can provide all the grace needed to be a perfect saint, such as in the life of Blessed Imelda Lambertini. Naturally this must be true as one Holy Communion is Jesus Christ, God Himself. However, many of us receive Holy Communion many times and still lack the saintliness of Blessed Imelda. Thus, our internal dispositions (our faith, our humility and piety, our preparation and thanksgiving, etc.) all greatly affect the efficacy of a Sacrament’s grace in our life. Similarly, a more reverent liturgy, a more pious priest, or powerful preaching of the truth will also help one benefit more from the sanctifying grace conferred by a Sacrament. After all, a basic rule of the spiritual life is that one cannot receive what one is not disposed to receive.

[2] See the prior article: “Blessed Salt: The Forgotten Sacramental,” at https://fatima.org/news-views/catholic-apologetics-17/

[3] Brown Scapulars, for instance, do not need to be blessed each time a new one is worn. After a person has been properly enrolled in the Brown Scapular, they may wear additional Brown Scapulars as replacements without having to have these items blessed. This is an example of an exception to the general rule of having all Sacramentals blessed.

[4] The Brown Scapular and the Miraculous Medal are two such Sacramentals through which numerous miracles have occurred. If you have not been enrolled in the Brown Scapular or properly invested in the Miraculous Medal, ask a priest to enroll you using the traditional blessings taken from the Roman Rituale. You may find several accounts of God’s miracles worked through these two Sacramentals, in addition to reading the English translation of these blessings, at https://acatholiclife.blogspot.com/2006/07/our-lady-of-mt-carmel-brown-scapular.html and https://acatholiclife.blogspot.com/2016/11/our-lady-of-miraculous-medal-mass-in.html. The blessing of the Brown Scapular in Latin (as well as some additional miracles) can be found at https://fatima.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/09/brown_scapular_2019.pdf.

[5] Wedding rings are blessed as part of the marriage ceremony. They too are wonderful though often neglected Sacramentals. The wedding ring is, after all, the symbol used at the Nuptial Mass and every day life to signify the union of one man to one woman who, through the Sacrament, reflect the union of Christ and His Church. A pious practice of Catholic children in the past was to kiss their parents’ wedding rings, for example, after the family said night prayers and the children were going to bed. Children derive actual graces from this practice which help increase piety, obedience, and a more complete fulfillment of the positive precepts of the Fourth Commandment.

[6] The Rituale Romanum lists dozens of blessings that may be performed by priests, and it can be found in English at https://www.sanctamissa.org/en/resources/books-1962/rituale-romanum/index.html

[7] A father may simply trace the Sign of the Cross on his child’s forehead while saying “Benedictio Dei omnipotentis, Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti, descendat super vos, et maneat semper” [May the blessing of Almighty God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost be upon you and remain with you always].

[8] For the year 2020 the inscription is: 20 + C + M + B + 20, where the numbers represent the year and the letters represent Caspar, Melchior, and Baltassar, traditionally known as the Three Kings.

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