What Catholics Believe - Chapter Twenty-Two

Sacramentals - Sacred Signs

Human beings are born with a capacity to recognize signs and symbols. From early on, each of us has had the ability to appreciate something we could call “second meanings” or “stand fors.” We realize that sounds, noises, a soft gentle hum, or a wail of alarm, stand for something beyond what is ringing in our ears. Furthermore, certain objects, or marks on a page or on a wall have a deeper message behind them. Infants recognize their mothers’ presence or absence by numerous clues.

All language, be it grunts, squeaks or marks on a page, are signs. Our lives are immersed in them. What does it mean: a green light, a stop sign, a heart or smiley face drawn in crayon at the bottom of a birthday card? Over time we come to know what they signify. Some of these signs can move us very deeply in their inner significance.

This gives us a good starting point for thinking about sacramentals, which are signs that can lead an understanding heart to an encounter with God, directly or through the intercession of the angels and saints.

Sacramentals are similar to the seven sacraments. A sacrament is an outward sign through which an encounter with Christ, truly present in the sacrament, takes place. The sign of a sacrament points to the unique way in which Christ is present to the person who receives it: as new life, spiritual food, divine mercy and forgiveness, etc.

Sacramentals can be actions such as processions, prayers such as the rosary, or objects. Some of the more common sacramentals are: the crucifix, rosary beads, Divine Mercy chaplet, medals (depicting Jesus, Mary and the saints), and pictures. Also included in this list are holy water, blessed candles, ashes used at the beginning of Lent, scapulars, and the many other devotional objects suitable for blessing. A wonderful collection of the items that may be properly blessed is found in the Book of Blessings. In each case, the object that is blessed may be a special source of grace and blessing for all who use it properly.

A blessing, usually given by a priest, is a solemn declaration on the part of Holy Mother the Church that when someone who has the right intention or motivation uses this object to deepen his or her knowledge and love of God, their communion with the Lord grows and a deeper sharing in the divine life can be experienced.

It is necessary that we approach the holy sign with an understanding heart and open ourselves to the sacred mystery behind it. I speak of an understanding heart because both mind and emotions are involved when we use a sacramental properly. They are not magic objects, nor are they meant to be used in a superstitious way. Furthermore, sacramentals are not used merely as decorations or for profane purposes. We do not wear a crucifix on a chain for good luck. We wear it to remind ourselves, often at unexpected moments, of the tremendous love God showed for us in the suffering and death of His Son. In that moment of awareness, touched by the hand of God, we allow ourselves to be enfolded in God’s loving embrace.

The story is told of a group of tourists in a tribal location in Africa. Wishing to purchase some local crafts as mementos of their journey, the tourists were directed to the workshop of a tribal artisan. Upon their arrival, they were immediately impressed by a collection of exquisitely carved wooden statues. The artist explained that each of the images represented a local deity or ancestral spirit and held a special place in the spiritual life of the village. Puzzled by the fact that such objects of devotion would be sold to visitors, the visitors voiced their concerns to the resident artist. He assured them that, although these statues are exact duplicates, the real images, the ones used by the village for devotional purposes are different from these. How? Quite simply, because of the way they are treated, namely, with special care and profound respect. The attitude of the individual who cleans, polishes, and reverently cares for the sacred carvings, and the intentions of those who worship before them, makes all the difference in the world.

The blessings employed by the Church in setting aside objects of veneration remind us of the awesome power of God our Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier. The care we exercise in using sacramentals expresses our eagerness for union with a loving God, who is eager to communicate with us in myriad ways.