Question: Why do Catholics bless religious objects? (P.L. Chicago) What is the difference between the Sacraments and the Sacramentals?
Blessing "ad omnia" -- "for all things" not having a proper blessing.
[P] Our help is in the name of the Lord.
Answer: Blessed objects are called "Sacramentals." They should be distinguished from the Sacraments, the seven outward signs instituted by Christ to give grace, which include Baptism, Confirmation, Holy Eucharist, Penance, Extreme Unction, Holy Orders and Matrimony. The Sacraments are effective in conferring their graces, even if received without great fervor or awareness (the Baptism of infants is the best example) because they are the work of Christ through His ministers.
The Sacramentals are creations of the Church and not of Christ Himself. In allowing the blessing of an object, the Church adds its prayers to the prayers of individuals, and directs our thoughts to holy things. The effectiveness of the Sacramentals depends on God's willingness to hear our prayers and those of His Church, and on the good dispositions of those who make use of them. The Sacramentals should not be thought of as "charms." They do not work to protect or make us holy without a pious intention on our part. Properly received, the Sacramentals communicate actual grace, the forgiveness of venial sin, the remission of temporal punishment, health and material blessings, and protection from the apostate angels.1
When used as an adjective, the word "sacramental" may refer to either Sacraments or Sacramentals. For example, one may make a "sacramental" Confession (a Sacrament) or avail one's self of the "sacramental" benefits of holy water (a Sacramental).
The Roman Ritual includes a large number of blessings for everything from medals and scapulars to railroads, bees, beer, and cheese. Virtually anything can be blessed if it is intended for a good purpose, and the Ritual contains a blessing for anything it may have missed.
It is convenient to divide the Sacramentals into three types, blessings, in which the Church calls down God's favor upon people or their property; exorcisms, in which the Church orders the devil to give up control of a person, place or thing; and objects of devotion to which the Church attaches her blessing and commends their users to God's good graces.
Some Sacramentals are used in the public worship of the Church; vestments, incense, ashes, palms, baptismal water, and holy oils being among the more commonly known. Others are intended for more personal use. Some, like holy water and candles, are used both publicly and privately. The Church attaches indulgences to the use of sacramentals that have been properly blessed by a priest.2
Blessed Sacramentals should be treated with respect. When they have outlived their usefulness they should be respectfully destroyed if normal methods of disposal might give scandal. For example, the broken pieces of a statue, or a badly soiled scapular should be burned or buried instead of being put out with the trash. Your parish priest will be happy to help you if you have not the proper means for disposing of Sacramentals. Blessed items should not be bought or sold if the blessing is construed as a component of the price.
The Catholic Church permits the publication of selected private revelations promising spiritual benefits to those making use of certain sacramentals. For example, revelations by the Blessed Virgin concerning the pious use of the Brown Scapular and the Rosary have been published by the highest authorities. None of the Sacramentals, it should be noted, promise graces without at least an attempt at personal holiness.
While piety and humility go hand in hand, something may be said for the use of the Sacramentals as a sort of "badge" of one's Christian faith. A crucifix or a medal of our Lady is, in a sense, a profession of our Catholic Faith. And even those Sacramentals that are never seen by others serve to remind us that we are Catholics, and faithful clients of our Lord, Lady, and the saints.
1. Baltimore Catechism No. 3, (1957), #471.
2. Enchiridion #35.