Last week we discussed Sacraments—the seven instruments created by Christ to help bring souls to heaven. Every Sacrament, we saw, was comprised of two elements. One physical and concrete (called “matter”), the other being the prayer or words used (called the “form”). Thus, when we considered Baptism, we see that it was given by Christ so that men and women could be reborn of “water and Spirit” with the hope of eternal life. We saw also that it was composed of matter “water” and form, the words given by Christ: “I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” These basic elements were well captured in the Baltimore Catechism’s description of a Sacrament: “A Sacrament is 1) an outward sign [form and matter], 2) instituted by Christ 3) to give grace [get us to heaven].
We now move to consider the Sacraments’ younger cousins, the sacramentals. So, what is a sacramental? Simply put, a sacramental is something that bears resemblance to a Sacrament.
Like a Sacrament, sacramentals are concrete and seek to achieve some spiritual effect. The difference is that they did not come from Christ; therefore we do not have his divine guarantee that when we experience a sacramental a special grace would become present in our lives.
Instead, a sacramental seeks to obtain a spiritual gift through the intercession of the Church – that is through her prayer. Sacramentals, therefore, always involve invoking the prayer of the Church. This prayer takes the form of blessing the thing intended to be used as a sacramental. Thus we bless persons, meals, objects and places. As an example, the difference between holy water and ordinary water is specifically that it is blessed with the blessing of the Church: “Blessed are you, Lord, all-powerful God, who in Christ, the living water of salvation, blessed and transformed us. Grant that when we are sprinkled with this water or make use of it, we will be refreshed inwardly by the power of the Holy Spirit and continue to walk in the new life we received at Baptism.”
We can see that the spiritual gifts that we hope to receive from using holy water do not come from Christ’s promise, but from the Church praying that one will be refreshed by the Holy Spirit and continue in the new life of Christ received in Baptism.
Since sacramentals lack the definitive institution and promise of Christ, should we doubt his response and grace? Indeed no! We have great confidence that our Divine Spouse, eagerly and generously responds to the prayer of his bride, the Church!
By the frequent use of both Sacraments and sacramentals, a Christian can open the door to God’s presence in almost every event of human life. What sacramental are you currently using in your everyday life?