In this time of the Great Apostasy, there are many Traditionalists who are not fully aware (or who have false beliefs) regarding a great source of graces; the sacramentals. The word sacramental first appeared in the 12th century, and was used by theologians of the time in a very general sense. The devout pronunciation of the Most Holy Name of Jesus, and giving alms to the poor were considered "sacramentals." The same designation was given to the conferring of the white garment in Baptism, which was later called by the proper title of a ceremony.
All theologians since the time of the Council of Trent use the term sacramentals to designate a class of sacred things, instituted by Christ's One True Church, that are, in some respects, similar to the Sacraments. The Church has given Her official approval by defining sacramentals in Her Code of Canon Law: "Things or actions which the Church is accustomed to use somewhat after the manner of Sacraments, to obtain by Her prayer, effects, especially of the spiritual order." (See 1917 Code of Canon Law, Canon 1144).
The Modernists and Protestants deride sacramentals as "superstition" as they eschew not only the miraculous, but much (if not most) of the supernatural order. On the other end, there are some Traditionalists who actually do make the sacramentals into something superstitious by ascribing to them powers they do not possess. The pseudo-Traditionalist Dimond brothers actually used to tell people that it was impossible to go to Hell if you died wearing the Brown Scapular! They eventually recanted such a ridiculous position. The purpose of this post is to give the authentic teaching of the Church on sacramentals. All the information is condensed and from, and credited to, theologian Connell in his most informative work The Sacramentals, The Paulist Press, .
The Difference Between a Sacrament and a Sacramental
The Sacraments are exactly seven in number and were all instituted by the historical Person of Our Lord Jesus Christ for the salvation of the human race (although all seven Sacraments are not necessary for each individual). The sacramentals are numerous, and have no limit since they are of Ecclesiastical institution. Only the Holy See may institute a sacramental (Canon 1145). The manner in which sacramentals confer grace is markedly different as well. Sacraments confer graces ex opere operato (i.e., loosely translated "by virtue of the action," means that the efficacy of the action of the Sacraments does not depend on anything human, but solely on the will of God as expressed by Christ's institution and promise).
Theologians do not agree as to whether the sacramentals may confer grace ex opere operantis (i.e.,through the action of the one who uses them). Those who hold the negative opinion argue that as the Church cannot confer sanctifying grace nor institute signs thereof, neither can she institute efficacious signs of the other graces which God alone can give. The sacramentals do not infallibly produce their effect, as do the Sacraments. However, sacramentals have a special efficacy of their own. If their whole value proceeded from the the action of those who use them, all external good works could be called "sacramentals," but such is not the case.
The special virtue recognized by the Church and experienced by Catholics in the sacramentals should consist in the official prayers whereby the Church implores God to pour forth special graces on those who make use of the sacramentals. These prayers move God to give graces which He would not otherwise give, and when not infallibly acceded to, it is for reasons known only to His Perfect Wisdom. God is aware of the measure in which He should bestow His gifts. Many theologians teach that the disposition of the person using the sacramentals can open them to receive even more graces.
The Classification of Sacramentals
Sacramentals may be classified under three general categories: exorcisms, blessings, and blessed objects. Each will now be considered.
1. Exorcisms. An exorcism is a command, given to the devil and his demons, ordering them, in the name of God, to depart from some person, place, or thing. Holy Scripture, Sacred Tradition, and the teaching of the Church testify conclusively that God sometimes permits the fallen angels to exercise a certain influence over the doings of humanity. This may even go so far as taking up their abode in the body of a living person, which is known as diabolical possession. When the demons hurt people from without, their activities are known as diabolical obsession.
The purpose of the Church's exorcisms is to compel Satan and his evil cohorts to desist from their malicious interference in human affairs. By employing exorcisms, the Church is acting after the example and by the authority of Her Divine Founder Jesus Christ, Who during His earthly life frequently cast out demons from possessed persons (See e.g., St. Matthew 8:28; 9:32). Christ also commissioned His Apostles, and their successors, to do the same (See St. Matthew 10:8). A considerable number of exorcisms are found in the Church's liturgical books. Some of these are for ordinary use in sacred functions, such as those used in the preparation of Holy Water. Other, most solemn exorcisms, are meant only for established cases of diabolical possession or obsession. Only priests and bishops can perform exorcisms.
One of the four Minor Orders a man receives on the way to becoming a priest, is the order of Exorcist, which constitutes him an official minister of the Church's exorcisms. This, along with the other three Minor Orders, and the Major Order of Subdeacon, were all abolished in the Vatican II sect by command of Montini ("Pope" Paul VI).
2. Blessings. A blessing is a prayer that draws down God's favor on some person or thing. The Church has established two kinds of blessings: constitutive and invocative. A constitutive blessing is one that makes a person or a thing sacred (i.e., dedicates a human being or an inanimate object in a special way to the service of God). Such are the blessing of a monk when he is raised to the office of abbot, the blessing of a Rosary, and the blessing of Holy Water. The more solemn forms are called consecrations, such as the consecration of a Church or Chapel by a Bishop.
An invocative blessing is one that obtains the Divine assistance for those on whom it is pronounced without rendering the person or thing as sacred. Such a blessing can be imparted to a person directly or indirectly. An example of a direct invocative blessing is the blessing of the throats in honor of St. Blaise on February 3rd. This does not make the person or his throat sacred, but asks Divine protection against ailments of the throat. An example of an indirect invocative blessing is the blessing of a house, which does not make the house sacred, but invokes God's favor on those who dwell within it.
Holy Mother Church has a maternal interest in all facets of our lives which is why we find so many and diverse blessings in the Rituale Romanum, the book which prescribes all the rites for the Sacraments and sacramentals. The ordinary minister of blessings is a priest, but for consecrations, a bishop is usually necessary. Making the sign of the cross, one of the oldest and most efficacious blessings, can be bestowed upon anyone who does it devoutly to himself/herself.
3. Blessed Objects. The third category of sacramentals comprises objects that have been blessed with a constitutive blessing. This includes Holy Water, Rosaries, scapulars, statues, medals, pictures, oils, cords, and the like. An object that receives a constitutive remains sacred until it has been destroyed or substantially altered. Thus a Church or Chapel is no longer consecrated if the greater portion of the walls collapse. A blessed candle's drippings are not sacred, nor is a chalice that has been melted down.
To be beneficial as a sacramental, the blessed object must be used devoutly and not for secular purposes. There is no merit bestowed on one who wears a crucifix merely as an ornament, or hangs up a blessed picture due to its aesthetic value. In case of necessity one can used a sacred object for a profane use, e.g., to use blessed candles during a blackout if no regular candles are available. However, to use such candles for decorative purposes while dining would be a sin of sacrilege.
Besides possessing value as sacramentals, blessed objects are often enriched with indulgences. The indulgences attach whenever the object has been properly blessed according to the Rituale Romanum by a validly ordained priest. One interesting exception are scapulars. Once a person has been duly enrolled by a priest in the five-fold scapular, any subsequent scapular need not be blessed (five-fold, or any of the individual scapulars that comprise it). Merely be wearing it, the enrolled person makes the scapular efficacious.
How Sacramentals Work
The sacramentals cannot impart graces directly to the souls of people. That power is only to be found in the Sacraments. The sacramentals produce their effects indirectly through (a) the disposition of the recipient, and (b) through the prayers of the Church. By making pious use of sacramentals, a person animates himself with pious sentiments. For example, by gazing on the crucifix, we can bring forth sentiments of love for God and sorrow for sin. By virtue of these sentiments, we can render ourselves worthy to receive from God some favor in the spiritual or material order.
The sacramentals possess special efficacy from the prayers of the Church. The One True Church, the Mystical Body of Christ, is ever pleasing in the sight of God. Consequently, the prayers and good works of the Church as a perfect society are most powerful to obtain Divine favors. In establishing the sacramentals, the Church promises to join Her own prayers and the intercessory value of Her good works to the dispositions of those who devoutly employ these sacred things and actions. Thus, whenever a person devoutly uses a sacramental, the most pleasing prayers of the Church are directed to God for him or her, and that is what gives sacramentals their special spiritual value.
The Effects of the Sacramentals
There are five (5) chief effects of the sacramentals:
1. The dedication of a person or a thing to God. This effect is produced by constitutive blessings and consecrations.
2. The repression of evil spirits. This is particularly true of exorcisms; but it is also produced by other sacramentals, most notably, the sign of the cross, Holy Water, the St. Benedict Medal, and the St. Benedict Crucifix-Medal.
3. Actual graces. In consideration of the disposition of the person, and especially because of the prayers of the Church attached to its use, God imparts to the user actual graces, whereby he is empowered and urged to perform supernatural acts of virtue. Unlike the Sacraments, the sacramentals have not the power of conferring sanctifying grace. However, sacramentals can lead to the attainment of sanctifying grace. If a sinner prays the Rosary devoutly, he may receive an actual grace which enables him to make an act of perfect contrition, and thereby merits sanctifying grace. The actual graces may also prevent someone from losing sanctifying grace through mortal sin.
4. The remission of venial sin and of the temporal punishment due to sin. By the devout use of sacramentals, a person is led to perform acts of virtue that contain, at least implicitly, a detestation of his minor transgressions. Through these acts, the person obtains from God the remission of these sins, and also a remission of some portion of the temporal punishment due to them.
5. Temporal favors. The primary end of the sacramentals is the spiritual health of the soul. Nevertheless, it is lawful to use sacramentals for temporal favors such as good health and success in business, etc.
Those for Whom the Sacramentals are Intended
The Church has established the sacramentals for Her members, first and foremost. To receive the full measure of of their effects the Traditionalists who use them should be in the state of sanctifying grace. However, those not in the state of grace may use sacramentals with profit as it may turn the sinner away from sin and to God's friendship once more.
In Her zeal for saving souls, the Church extends the use of sacramentals to those outside the Church (unless there is a positive prohibition to the contrary). Hence, blessings and exorcisms may be used on non-Catholics. In giving Her blessings to non-Catholics, the Church prays most especially that they may enter the One True Church. (See Canons 1149, 1152).
The Church excludes from the benefit of sacramentals those who are excommunicated and under the ecclesiastical censure known as personal interdict. Also excluded are those who, without the necessary and proper dispensation, and conscious of their sin, have contracted a mixed marriage (See Canons 2260, 2275, and 2375). Only exorcisms may be pronounced over those excommunicated (See Canon 1152).
In using sacramentals, two extremes are to be avoided. On the one hand, no one should despise them as something superstitious or intended for use by "ignorant people" as the Modernists hold. On the other hand, people must not view them as endowed with miraculous power or having infallible powers against temporal evils. The primary purpose of sacramentals is spiritual, not temporal. Hence, one who has received the St. Blaise blessing may die from a disease of the throat. One wearing the scapular may drown. Neither the scapular, nor any other sacramental will save you from Hell if you are in unrepentant mortal sin, or die as a non-Traditionalist Catholic.
In this time of the Great Apostasy, make use of all the sacramentals you can: the Rosary, the five-fold scapular, statues, St. Benedict Crucifix-Medal, the Cord of St. Joseph, the Cord of St. Philomena, medals of your patron saint, Holy Water, St. Joseph oil, the Green Scapular, etc. However, let them be incentives to piety, and do not deceive yourself that you can live as you please and expect God's grace. To quote from the Second Council of Baltimore in 1866: "Let them especially reprehend those who use these sacred things [sacramentals] like charms, such as the heathens have, to preserve them from the wrath of God even when they are sunk in the mire of the most hideous vices."