What are sacramentals?

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There's no set list of these sacramentals because there can be no limit to the ways in which people through history experience grace.

Let's start with the more familiar word from which this term is obviously derived. A sacrament is formally defined as an outward sign instituted by Christ to give grace. By definition, these three stipulations limit the number of signs that can be considered sacraments to those connected in some way with an action or command from the life of Jesus. The early church had no set list of sacraments, and local customs celebrated as many as a dozen, including, for example, the office of widowhood. The Council of Trent (1545-1563) recognized seven moments in the life of the church as sacraments, and Eastern Orthodox churches agreed on these: Baptism, Confirmation, Eucharist, Reconciliation, the Anointing of the Sick, Matrimony, and Holy Orders.

Other holy acts and practices do not appear on this list. There's no set list of these sacramentals because there can be no limit to the ways in which people through history experience grace. For this reason, sacramentals are difficult to define. Making the sign of the cross is a sacramental, and so is the holy water that may accompany this self-blessing. Praying the Stations of the Cross, saying the rosary, or washing feet on Holy Thursday are actions considered as sacramental. Wearing a medal or scapular as an act of faith is sacramental. But the items themselves—Stations and rosaries, medals and scapulars—are also called sacramentals. Ashes received at the start of Lent and blessed palms from Holy Week are on the list, as are candles, icons, or other images used in prayer. 

According to the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, the prayers and rites used in administering the actual sacraments are sacramental. Funerals, exorcisms, and blessings of catechumens and candidates are too. But not all moments in which we receive or impart grace come in church settings. The annual blessing of the home in January counts, as well as the blessings parents give to their children at bedtime. Some cultures practice a blessing of new cars. Other folks are glad to have their businesses or places of work consecrated to God's purposes.

Having worked in a rectory, I can vouch that nearly anything can and has been blessed by believers seeking God's grace for the user: skateboards and tricycles, new prayer books and saints' statues, pets and trees. If we seek the church's intercession and hope to make holy some occasion of human life, there's something of a "sacrament" in that.

Scriptures: Matthew 6:3-4, 17-18; 9:20-21; 19:13-15; 21:8; 26:6-13; 27:57-60; Mark 7:32-35; 8:22-25; 9:14-29; Luke 7:36-50; 23:50-56; John 9:1-7; 12:1-8

Books: Liturgical Inculturation: Sacramentals, Religiosity, and Catechesis, by Ansgar Chupungco, OSB (Liturgical Press, 1995). Shape a Circle Ever Wider: Liturgical Inculturation in the United States, by Mark R. Francis, CSV (Liturgy Training Publications, 2000).

Reprinted with permission from PrepareTheWord.com. ©TrueQuest Communications.

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