Statues, rosary beads, crucifixes, scapulars, holy cards, miraculous medals, candles, palms, ashes – these are part of the “furniture” of our lives as Catholics. Technically, we call these things “sacramentals.” Sacramentals are different than sacraments in a couple of ways. The sacraments were instituted by Christ Himself as the seven ordinary ways in which He shares His life – His sanctifying grace – with us. As one author puts it: “Sacraments bear grace because they are the actions of Christ himself.” Sacramentals, however, are instituted by the Church as things that prepare us to receive and cooperate with God’s grace. The Second Vatican Council described them as “objects, prayers, and actions that provide access to the stream of divine grace which flows from the paschal mystery.” We can think of them as material or tangible prayers. Not limited to religious objects, sacramentals can also be rote prayers and pious actions such as the Sign of the Cross, genuflections before entering the church pew, and going on pilgrimage.
These sacramentals that are so common to Catholic life are sometimes a source of scandal to non-Catholic Christians who can mistake them as a form of pagan superstition. It is certainly possible to misuse sacramentals in this way, treating them as lucky charms or talismans, worrying that we will suffer bad luck if we forget to wear them, use them, or acknowledge them. To believe that these objects have any power on their own is indeed a form of idolatry. We must keep in mind that any benefit we receive from the use of sacramentals has its source in the power of God, whose blessing has been bestowed on the object, ratified by the authority of the Church. The blessing that the object receives, typically by a priest, sets it apart for holy use, making it sacred. We believe it is possible for objects to be made sacred because of the faith we profess in the Incarnation – God’s entrance into His creation, and His taking a human nature for Himself. The Lord touched the material world and made it an instrument of His grace. This is most especially true for the seven sacraments, but it’s also true for sacramentals. Because they are made holy by a special blessing, a sacramental should be treated with reverence, including in the way in which they are disposed of, which is generally by burying or burning them.
One of the most familiar and important sacramentals is holy water. To make it, the priest combines water he has exorcised and blessed with a little bit of exorcised and blessed salt. When we use holy water, we are reminded of our baptism. Like all sacramentals, we can receive forgiveness for venial sins by using holy water to bless ourselves. It also offers protection against evil. Because of the benefits that holy water provides, it is a good thing to use not only when we enter a church, but also to have in our homes. Ever since the COVID shutdown, we have had to leave our holy water fonts empty. For this reason, we’re providing little bottles of holy water for people to take to their homes after Masses this weekend. We have a limited number, so we’re asking that people only take one bottle per household. You can always come back and fill it up again later. May it protect you and your loved ones and, like every sacramental, bring you comfort and peace.