A Word in Season
Sentimental about Sacramentals
Now and again as I work and perform my chores I hear a faint jingle from the small cross and miraculous medal I wear around my neck. Some people see them as nothing more than jewelry, nice charms on a gold chain. To me, they are cues to my identity as a Christian, one with a particular devotion to the Blessed Mother.
Both the gold cross and the medal were gifts from my husband on different occasions over the years. But the one sacramental I cherish the most is my wedding band on my left hand. (Wedding bands are so commonplace that we almost forget that they really are sacramentals that point to a unique sacrament and a sacred duty!) My band not only carries the blessing from my wedding day, but it enlivens my every day with a consciousness of the vows of my vocation.
All these tangible, wearable sacramentals are outward signs that remind me who I am and whose I am. They bring my faith, hope, and love alive.
Despite their name, sacramentals are not sacraments. Nor are they lucky charms or magical talismans. I harbor no superstitions about them, as no powers accompany them. Yet they do reflect all the special graces I have already received, pointing to the gift of God's on-going presence in my life.
A sacrament actually confers grace that comes directly from Christ. If the sacraments are the big-ticket events—the most important moments of grace in the lives of Catholics—then sacramentals might be happily referred to as the small change of the sacraments. They do not confer any grace in and of themselves, but they prepare us to receive the fruit of the sacraments. They sanctify our daily lives.
Sacramentals illuminate the sacred in every day. Given to us by the Church in the service of the sacraments, they remind us of the graces we hold dear, and the God who holds us near. They dispose us to divine life found in daily life, like loving tokens of friendship between God, the communion of saints, and us.
Popular piety surrounding sacramentals, when properly aligned with the faith of the Church, help us grow in our devotion to God.
These sacramentals . . . are as integral to an incarnational-bodily Christianity as are the seven sacraments. Not just optional "add-ons," they are essential to experiencing the world through Catholic eyes and, even more importantly, with a Catholic heart. All creation speaks to us of God. Times and seasons will have their place in our devotion, since we are beings who live in history. Spaces, places, and special clothing are indispensible. That's why we build cathedrals, set aside sanctuary areas, wear religious habits, and buy our children First Communion outfits.
Material objects and blessings enfold Catholic life as reminders of the mysteries of creation and redemption. "There is hardly any proper use of material things," declared Vatican II, "which cannot thus be directed toward the sanctification of men and women and the praise of God." The variety of sacramentals is endless: blessing fields, walking the Way of the Cross, saying Rosaries, venerating crucifixes and statues in churches and homes. (Most Rev. J. Michael Miller, "Sacramentals in Catholic Theology," The How-to Book of Sacramentals, Ann Ball, Our Sunday Visitor, 2005)
Pat Gohn is a Catholic writer, speaker, and the host of the Among Women Podcast and blog. Her book Blessed, Beautiful and Bodacious: Celebrating the Gift of Catholic Womanhood is published by Ave Maria Press. Subscribe to “A Word in Season” via email or RSS.