Nearly all the essays contained in this volume originally appeared in the Ave Maria or in the American Ecclesiastical Review, but they are here brought together, after a careful revision and rewriting, with a view of placing before Catholics a book that will give in a small compass a sufficiently full explanation of the principal devotions and sacred objects which they are accustomed to see or make use of in the practice of their religion. Unfortunately there is not in our language a work of this kind; and hence it is hoped this one will be acceptable to both the clergy and people. Father Barry published a small work on the Sacramentals about thirty-five years ago; but besides being long out of print and rare, it does not treat of many sacramentals a knowledge of which would be useful to Catholics, while it does treat of certain others not very useful, such as the Golden Rose and the Archbishop’s Pallium. In a few other books of devotion or instruction short treatises are given on some of the sacramentals, but they are necessarily so brief as not to satisfy an inquiring mind, and the authorities from which the information is taken are not, as a rule, given.
The better we understand our religion the more intelligently and fruitfully we can practise it; yet it is a fact, of which we have no reason to be proud, that Catholics generally know far too little about their religion. Account for it as we may, the fact cannot be denied that even educated and well-read Catholics very often know far less of the doctrines and practices of the Church than they do of almost any other branch of knowledge; and the information they possess is commonly of a general and indefinite character, and not of that precise nature which the clearly-defined teaching of the Church would enable them to acquire, and which is rendered necessary on account of the circumstances in which most of them are placed. The consequence is that many of them find little attraction in the devotions they practise or assist at and perform them rather as a task than as an intelligent act of loving worship; and they are neither prepared to explain the many beautiful practices of our holy religion to those who seek information nor to defend them against even the threadbare objections which they constantly hear.
But besides being useful to the Catholic laity this work will also be of service to the teachers and the more advanced pupils and students of our schools, academies, and colleges. It is also believed that it will be equally acceptable to the reverend clergy, both for their own reading and in the preparation of instructions on the subjects treated in its pages.1
The reader will observe that, as a rule, only the highest authorities are quoted; and the references are generally given, which will enable those who wish to study any of the questions more fully to go directly to reliable sources of information.
So numerous are the doubts addressed to the Roman Congregations and their replies, especially with regard to sacred rites and indulgences, that it is difficult to keep pace with their issue; but care has been taken to consult the latest works on these subjects, and it is believed that few, if any, decrees bearing on the matters treated in this work have escaped notice.
Owing to the fact that these essays were written at different times and in the spare moments at command in an active ministry, the subjects will be found to be treated in different ways, references will be differently given, the style will not always be the same, etc.; but this, while detracting nothing from the value of the work, may prove of advantage, by giving the reader a greater variety of style and arrangement.
Some difficulty was also experienced in arranging the various subjects, so as to bring those together which appeared to be most closely related; but the order adopted is perhaps as good as any other that could have been followed. The essays on the Missal and Ritual are rather foundations for others than treating of sacramentals themselves, but they will afford useful and interesting information on subjects of importance. The closing essay is given for the information it contains on a point that must be of interest to every American Catholic; and it may perhaps be opportune in this the fourth centenary year of the discovery of our country. The reader will meet with certain repetitions, which it was difficult or impossible to avoid, especially in such essays as those on Holy Water and the Asperges; the Faschal Candle, Blessed Candles, and the Agnus Dei; and a few others.
It may, however, be a matter of surprise to some readers that reference should have been made in a number of places to pagan customs somewhat similar to certain others found among Christians. This was done for two reasons: to state a fact that must have considerable weight against infidels; and to prove that there must have been either a direct revelation made by God to man in the beginning or else that He implanted feelings in the heart of man requiring such forms of outward expression; as, for example, the offering of sacrifice, which is found in some form among all peoples, but which is not stated in the Sacred Scriptures to have been enjoined till long after the Deluge. However abominable many of the pagan rites may have been and are, those who practised them are as much to be pitied as blamed; for these are but the outward expression of that unquenchable longing of every rational creature to hold communion with the unseen world—with his first beginning and his last end.
The indulgences granted by the Holy See to the pious use of some of the sacramentals are given, thereby enabling the reader to see at a glance what spiritual benefits he is able to derive from their proper employment.
In sending this little volume out into the world the author does not regret the amount of labor and research its preparation entailed, but finds ample compensation in the hope that it may be instrumental in some small measure in promoting the interests of Holy Mother Church, by the diffusion of useful and solid information, thus imparting a clearer idea of some of her many beautiful devotions and practices.
Feast of St. Ignatius Martyr, February 1, 1892.
1 Concilii Baltimorensis II., Acta et Decreta, N. 350.