Sacramentals are rites which have some outward resemblance to the sacraments instituted by Christ, but which are not of divine institution. The name is applied both to the blessing or consecration given by the Church, and to the objects blessed or consecrated.
Our Lord gave the apostles power over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to heal all manner of diseases (Matt. x. 1). The Church makes use of this power; by means of her ministers she blesses or consecrates certain objects, praying that God would render these objects efficacious in banishing evil spirits and healing sicknesses. That is to say, the priest implores the blessing of God the Father, for the averting of evils both corporal and spiritual. At the same time he makes use of visible signs, such as the sign of the cross, the holy water, the sacred oils, etc. A light is kindled, to signify the Saviour, the Light of the world. Incense if often used, to indicate that the sacramentals must be employed with pious dispositions. Sacramentals are called by this name because of their resemblance to a sacrament. In both there is a sign and form of words which possess a supernatural power and represent the invisible grace. But the sacraments have incomparably more power than he sacramentals; the latter are not necessary to salvation, whereas the former are. Sacramentals are means of grace of the second class.
The blessing consists in this, that the minister of the Church invokes the divine benediction upon certain persons or things,
The divine blessing is quite distinct from divine grace. The latter has the effect of beautifying the soul, the former averts earthly ills and promotes temporal welfare. Thus objects are only blessed for the sake of the persons who use them, or on whose behalf they are used.
The following are the benedictions which are customarily conferred on persons: The blessing at the conclusion of the Mass, the blessing given to communicants, the nuptial benediction, the benediction after childbirth, the last blessing, and the blessing of the remains of the departed.
It is usual for women after childbirth to go to the church to implore the blessing of God upon their child, and receive the benediction of the priest. This custom was observed in the Old Testament; every mother had to present herself in the Temple with her infant forty days after its birth if it was a boy, and eighty if it was a girl. The Mother of God herself conformed to this rule.
Exorcism belongs also to the blessings conferred on persons. It consists in commanding the devil to depart, in the name of Christ, from possessed persons or things.
The evil effects of original sin rest upon every creature (Rom. viii. 20), and upon the whole of inanimate nature (Gen. iii. 17). It is this that renders the blessings of the Church and her exorcisms necessary. The power granted by Our Lord to His apostles to cast out unclean spirits is employed in the exorcism at baptism and when holy water is blessed. Cases of possession or obsession rarely occur in the present day; the exorcism can only be performed by a bishop, or by a priest with his permission. Only one who is himself animated by a firm faith and whose life is pure, can exorcise, and even then the exorcism will be of no avail if the person exorcised perseveres in his evil dispositions, or if God wills that His elect should be delivered into the power of the devil for their sanctification. For the sacramentals do not remove afflictions which are for the spiritual welfare of the individual.
1. Consecration by the Church consists in this: That the ecclesiastic empowered for this purpose sets apart some person or some object, and dedicates him or it to the exclusive service of God.
The persons whom it is customary to consecrate in a solemn manner are: The Pope, kings and emperors, abbots, monks, and nuns.
The consecration of priests, be it remembered, is a sacrament.
The things which it is customary to bless are: Holy water, the water to be used in Baptism (this is blessed on Holy Saturday and on the eve of Pentecost); candles (on the Purification, and the Paschal candle at Easter); ashes (on Ash Wednesday); palms (on Palm Sunday); the holy oils (on Maundy Thursday in the cathedrals), besides crosses, images, rosaries, medals, banners; places also are blessed, such as churches, chapels, altars, cemeteries.
The Church blesses everything which appertains to divine service.
2. Our Lord sanctioned the use of sacramentals, but the rite3 themselves are an institution of the Church.
Our Lord while on earth blessed the loaves and fishes (Matt. xiv. 19); He blessed the young children who were brought to Him (Mark x. 16); He gave His blessing to His apostles before His ascension (Luke xxiv. 50). We read moreover that God blessed our first parents (Gen. i. 28); that Noe blessed his two sons (Gen. ix. 26); Isaac blessed Jacob (Gen. xxvii. 27); Jacob when dying blessed his twelve sons (Gen. xlix. 28); and Moses the tribes of Israel (Deut. xxxiii.). Aaron and the priests that succeeded him gave their benediction every morning and evening to the people in the outer court of the Temple; stretching forth their hands over them, they blessed them, invoking the name of the Lord three times over the children of Israel (Numb. vi. 23).
The ceremony of blessing or consecrating is generally performed by the priests.
Several acts of consecration appertain to the episcopal office, and may only be performed by a priest with the authorization of the bishop, as for instance, the dedication of churches and altars, the blessing of bells, chalices, etc. The laity can bless, but not in the name of the Church; parents frequently bless their children, and the more pious they are, the more effect has their blessing.
3. The use of blessed or consecrated objects is profitable; for if used with pious dispositions, they increase our fear and love of God, remit venial sins, and preserve us from many temptations and from bodily harm; excepting such temptations and ills of the body as are for our spiritual welfare.
The sacramentals remit venial sin, and deliver us from some of the evil consequences of sin. They help us in the hour of temptation; St. Teresa cannot say enough concerning the power of holy water to drive away the devil. They are also of use in bodily ills and infirmities; the apostles anointed with oil many who were sick and healed them (Mark vi. 13). They are thus a remedy and a shield. Is it superstition on the part of the soldier who carries with him a blessed crucifix when he goes to battle, hoping that by God’s mercy it may be his protection? By no means, nor is the sick man to blame if he sprinkles himself frequently with holy water, thinking thus to accelerate his recovery. But we must beware of trusting too much to the efficacy of sacramentals; or imputing to them more power than the prayer of the Church imparts to them; they are not like the sacraments. The sacraments confer upon those who receive them the grace of the Holy Spirit; the sacramentals only purify the soul, and render it more fit for the reception of sanctifying grace. The sacramentals derive all their power from the prayers of the Church; it is in the name of the Church that the priest blesses them. The petitions of the Church have immense power, for they are united to the prayer of Our Lord and to the supplications of the saints.
4. The sacramentals can, however, only be used with profit by persons who are free from mortal sin, and who use them in a spirit of faith and confidence.
The effect of the sacramentals depends upon the worthiness and the pious dispositions of the individual who uses them. Those who live in mortal sin will derive no more benefit from wearing some blessed object, or from the use of holy water, than the Jews did from bringing the Ark of the Covenant on to the field of battle, when they had incurred God’s wrath by their sins (1 Kings iv.). Nor will they profit one who places no confidence in them, any more than prayer profits the man who does not ask in faith, nothing wavering (Jas. i. 6). Our Lord abstained from working many miracles in some places, because of the unbelief of the inhabitants (Matt. xiii. 18). Remember what He said to the woman who touched Him: “Thy faith hath made thee whole” (Mark v. 34). We find that devout Christians always reverence sacramentals and use them diligently. They wear blessed objects on their person, they frequently take holy water, they like to say their prayers in consecrated places, knowing that prayer offered in a church is more efficacious than what is offered elsewhere. In times of temptation or of sickness above all, we should have recourse to the assistance afforded by sacramentals.
This article, III. THE SACRAMENTALS is a post from The Bellarmine Forum.
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