Ritual and prayer are integral parts of Catholic life, from the sacraments which mark the sacred milestones on life's journey to the smaller rituals of daily devotion. In the case of the Eucharist, these two overlap: the Eucharist is both the sacramental heart of Catholic life and, for many believers, a daily event. The Mass is usually celebrated in a church, but Catholics carry many other ritual actions of devotion and worship into the nooks and crannies of everyday life. These actions are collectively called sacramentals; they do not have the sacraments' ability to confer grace, but as they turn the Catholic's heart and mind toward things divine, they prepare him or her to receive that grace.
Perhaps the most popular sacramental is the rosary, which is both a string of beads used as a prayer aid and the form of prayer involving those beads. The number of beads on a rosary can vary, but the most common have 59, as well as a medal, a crucifix, and some spaces with no beads. Each element stands for a particular prayer to be recited: either the Our Father, the Hail Mary, or the Glory Be. Believers recite these prayers in their proper sequence while meditating on a defined series of five events surrounding the life of Christ. These are known as the mysteries, and traditionally there were three sets of mysteries: the joyful mysteries of Jesus' birth, the sorrowful mysteries of his death, and the glorious mysteries of his resurrection and ascension into heaven. Pope John Paul II added a new set of mysteries, the luminous mysteries, which mark some of the important teachings of Jesus' life. Some Catholics carry rosaries with them everywhere, in pockets, purses, or wallets.
Medals are small discs, usually made of metal, that depict images of Jesus, Mary, or a saint; they are commonly worn as necklaces but show up in other formats as well. Theologically their purpose is to remind the believer to be open to God's grace, but Catholics have traditionally believed them to carry certain power. For instance, a Saint Christopher medal in cars is supposed to protect passengers, while a necklace containing the Miraculous medal of Mary is said to protect its wearer. There are an enormous number of different medals, each thought to provide a particular protection.
According to Church teaching, the most important sacramental is the use of blessings. Blessings are a form of prayer asking God to grant grace to the person, place, or thing being blessed. Catholics often say blessings before consuming meals, thanking God for the gift of the food they are about to eat. Catholic parents have traditionally laid their hands on their children's heads as a form of blessing, asking for their protection and guidance. Some blessings require the services of a priest; for instance, when Catholics move into a new home they might request a blessing on the house to sanctify it as a place in which they will grow in grace. Catholics often ask that rosaries, medals, and other religious images receive the blessing of a priest or bishop, and in the popular imagination such religious artifacts are considered especially sacred when they are blessed by a pope.
Blessings are usually imparted with words of prayer, but sometimes they are given quietly with just the signing of the cross over what is being blessed. The sign of the cross involves moving the hand vertically and then horizontally while repeating the phrase, "In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit," either verbally or silently. This small ritual is part of almost every facet of Catholic life. Catholics may cross themselves before and after prayer, during Mass, when passing a Catholic church or hearing an ambulance siren, in moments of distress, and just about any other time they are reminded of the need for God's grace.
Catholics who wish to incorporate the liturgical life of the Church into their daily lives in a more formal way might follow the Divine Office, also known as the Liturgy of the Hours. This form of devotion lays out a set of order of readings and prayers for each of the seven canonical hours of the day. The Divine Office is usually woven into the life monks and nuns, and all men who receive Holy Orders vow to recite it daily. It is less common among lay Catholics, but some churches, monasteries, and retreat houses perform public prayers according to the Divine Office, with the evening prayers of Vespers being particularly popular.
Catholics from all walks of life in the contemporary world draw from the many distinctive traditions of prayer and spirituality that have arisen over the Church's history. Some have adopted the monastic practices of the Divine Office and lectio divina, a kind of meditative reading of sacred text. Others draw from the tradition of Saint Francis by radical service to the poor. Still others undertake "spiritual exercises" as described by such writers as Saint Ignatius of Loyola. The many forms of prayer, meditation, and worship are all geared toward deepening one's relationship with God and allowing that relationship to give rise to a life lived in love for others.
1. What are sacramentals? How are they in tension with grace?
2. Describe the frequently used sacramentals. What are their purposes?
3. How are blessings embodied?
4. How is Catholic devotion practice individualized? Community oriented?