Please note that,
effective August 6th, AD 2006
Ordinary of the Mass
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Next Sunday we will celebrate the feast of our Lady of Mount Carmel, and will bless brown scapulars after that Mass. And if anyone here has not been enrolled in the Confraternity of the Brown Scapular of our Lady of Mount Carmel, please let me know and you can be enrolled next Sunday. This morning, I want to briefly outline the Church’s teaching on the sacramentals in general, so that the Brown Scapular may be properly understood next Sunday—and, indeed, so that you may have an understanding proper to all of the sacramentals, of which the Brown Scapular is one of many.
We must begin by distinguishing the Sacraments from the sacramentals—they are similar, and of course the two words are almost identical, but there are important differences.
The Sacraments, as you know, are “outward signs, instituted by Christ, to give grace.” There are exactly seven of them: Baptism, Confirmation, Holy Eucharist, Penance, Extreme Unction, Holy Orders, and Matrimony. You will notice that the Sacraments, so to speak, carry us from birth, through life, to death. Some Sacraments are received but once in life, others can be repeated, perhaps even daily, but there is always a certain gravity and sense of solemnity in their reception. For our purposes today, it is important to recognize that the Sacraments infuse both sanctifying grace and actual grace—that is to say that they both animate the soul with the life of God, and strengthen the recipient with virtues proper to the specific Sacrament. Validly received, the Sacraments work infallibly, for they are the direct work of God—they don’t depend so much on the human minister, who serves more like a conduit than an agent.
The sacramentals, too, are “outward signs,” but they have been instituted by the Church, rather than by Christ Himself. The sacramentals are numerous; many times more than even seven times seven—for virtually any good thing can be blessed as a sacramental. The sacramentals do give actual graces, strengthening the recipient in some way connected with the particular sacramental. The sacramentals depend on the prayers of the Church, and on the holy dispositions they inspire in those who make use of them.
That last sentence is important. With every sacramental the Church prays for the spiritual welfare of those who use that sacramental. This prayer may be an elaborate request for specific spiritual gifts and protections—or it can be as simple a request as “May God bless you.” The Church may also elect to attach an indulgence (either partial or plenary) to the use of the sacramental. But it is of supreme importance that we make use of the sacramentals to inspire piety and holiness within ourselves. The Church can pray for us, intercede for us, forgive us the temporal punishment due to sin, but our holiness and perseverance in the spiritual life depend on how we choose to react to those helps to holiness.
It should be clear that none of the sacramentals act as magical charms or amulets or talismans. There are some rather significant promises associated with the use of the Rosary, or the Scapular, and some of the other sacramentals—but all of these promises are contingent on our proper intentions and personal efforts to holiness. We will have more to say about that next week, but suffice it to say that no amount of medals and scapulars around one’s neck will ensure salvation, unless they inspire holy behavior, personal piety, and the avoidance of sin. Nothing could be worse than to carry a sacramental around with the false belief that it makes one invulnerable to death or eternal perdition—and that one is then free to act in an unholy manner, without personal responsibility for salvation. The sacramentals just don’t work that way!
But, with that caution understood, we
have a great number of these helpful aids to salvation—these sacramentals—which
we can use to inspire our holiness and piety. Used properly, they can
While there are a huge number of things
which can be sacramentals, the Church usually divides them into three
The blessings given by priests, bishops, and deacons derive their benefit primarily from the fact that these men are Christ’s representatives, even though they are themselves subject to human failings.
Exorcisms are commonly given to ensure that the devil has no power over the materials used in the Sacraments and sacramentals or over the recipient of a Sacrament (like Baptism)—only rarely, and with the bishop’s permission are exorcisms directed at someone suspected of being diabolically possessed.
By far the largest number of sacramentals are the “blessed objects of devotion.” Holy Water has to be the most common, for we use it whenever we enter or leave a church and it is sprinkled in connection with just about every other blessing of objects. We ought to have some at home, to use when we venture outside, when we pray, and when we retire for sleep. Blessed candles probably run second, being used at every Mass and some of the other ceremonies of the Church—and, again, something we should have at home, for private prayer and when the priest brings the Sacraments to the sick. (However: Never hesitate to call the priest if someone is seriously ill-candles or no candles!) Every home should also have a Crucifix, and it ought to be displayed in a prominent place—not hidden away—perhaps with smaller crucifixes in the bedrooms and other places in the home.
Some of the sacramentals we associate with the Church’s liturgy: ashes, and palms, and candles, and the blessing of throats on Saint Blaise day. We ought to make an effort to be in church on these days even if they are not days of obligation.
There are a number of blessings for practical things in the Roman Ritual, from bees and bread and beer to eggs and cheese and lambs and farm and domestic animals. Blessings for places and things useful for man’s physical and spiritual well-being.
The Church has given us a rich treasury of blessed sacramentals which we can use at just about every moment of our lives; participating in, and benefiting from, the prayers of the Church, with a view to forming ourselves in holiness and piety. It would be foolish to think of these holy things as magical, or somehow allowing us to be less than holy. But, equally, it would be foolish to despise them as the playthings of children and fatuous adults. We men and women are beings of body and soul—material things are a significant part of our life. The Church gives us these gifts so that by meditating on their material holiness, we may learn to focus on the spiritual realities which they portend.
 The Sacraments work “ex opere operato,” being effective simply because “the work has been done” and God’s graces must, with absolute certainty, flow as a result.
 The sacramentals are said to work “ex opere operantis,” and “ex opere operantis Ecclesiæ”; through the efforts of the one using them, and through the efforts of the Church.