Before treating of the sacramentals it will be necessary for us to inquire into their precise nature and the manner in which they produce their supernatural effects. In the beginning of our era and for several centuries the word sacrament had a wider and more indefinite signification than it has at present, being used by many of the early Christian writers to designate anything holy or a mystery; but in process of time it was restricted, as at present, to the seven sacraments, or principal sources of grace, instituted by our divine Saviour. The other pious objects or prayers came to be called sacramental. This change, however, was gradually made, so that no precise time can be fixed for it.
For this reason it will be of advantage to begin by inquiring into the difference between a sacrament and a sacramental. There are two principal points of difference. In the first place, the sacraments were instituted by Christ, for all time, and their number was fixed, so that it can never be increased or diminished; while the sacramentals were instituted, for the most part, by the Church, and she can increase or diminish their number as circumstances may demand or the spiritual welfare of her children render expedient. In the second place, the sacraments have in themselves the power of giving grace to those who receive them with the requisite dispositions; while the sacramentals only excite such pious dispositions in those who make use of them as will prepare them for the more easy and effectual reception of grace. But of this later.
Theologians are not agreed with regard to the number of heads under which the sacramentals should be arranged; but the opinion of Sabetti will be sufficiently explicit for our purpose.1
Prayer must be placed first among the sacramentals, especially the Lord’s Prayer and the public prayers of the Church. Second are such as refer to the touch, as the use of holy water, sacred unctions that are not connected with the administration of the sacraments, as those in the blessing of a church bell, etc. Third, eating, by which is meant the partaking of the holy bread which was formerly blessed in the Mass and distributed to those who did not communicate, of which mention will be found in the essay on the Sign of the Cross; also the eating of fruits blessed by the Church, especially new fruits, for which there is a special benediction given in the ritual. Fourth, confessing, which includes the public confessions sometimes made in the early Church, but more particularly the confession made by the priest and his ministers at the beginning of the Mass, and at times in the recitation of the Divine Office; and any act by which a person acknowledges himself a sinner: as striking the breast, receiving the ashes on Ash-Wednesday, etc. Fifth, giving, as the giving of alms and the performing of any spiritual or corporal work of mercy, especially such as are enjoined by the ecclesiastical authorities in times of a public calamity or during Lent. Sixth, blessing, which is the most comprehensive of all the heads, and includes every blessing given by proper ecclesiastical authority, whether it be that of the Pope, a bishop, or a priest, whether it be found in the ritual or not.
On the effects of the sacramentals and the manner in which they are produced the “Catholic Dictionary” (p. 732) has this: “If the sacramentals are used with pious dispositions they excite increased fear and love of God and detestation of sin, and so, not in themselves, but because of these movements of the heart toward God, remit venial sins. They have a special efficacy, because the Church has blessed them with prayer, and also when, for example, a person takes holy water, accompanying the outward act with the desire that God may cleanse his heart, the prayer of the whole Christian people is joined to his own.” The opinion that sacramentals remit venial sins by a power given them by God over and above the good dispositions with which they are used is held by some theologians, but rejected by others as destitute of a warrant in Scripture or tradition. The weight of theological opinion is against it at the present time.
According to the more general opinion, which is held by Sabetti, the sacramentals produce two principal effects in those who make use of them according to the mind of the Church. First, the remission of venial sins, not, however, directly and by virtue of their own power, as the sacraments do, but indirectly, by the pious movements of the heart to contrition, which are rendered more frequent and easy by the use of the sacramentals. Secondly, the sacramentals are powerful means of over coming the temptations of the spirit of evil and putting him to flight, and this not merely by way of impetration, but by way of command. This is, as will be seen in the following essays, besought of Almighty God in the prayers and exorcisms recited in the blessing of many of the sacramentals. The faith of the people in this power is illustrated in their use of them, especially in having the dying hold a crucifix or blessed candle in their hands, in having holy water or blessed objects in their sleeping apartments, etc. It is no less seen in the confidence they have in the use of certain sacramentals when threatened with danger from the elements; for, by the permission of God, the evil spirit has certain power over the atmosphere, and is, for that reason, called in Scripture the prince of the air.2 The power to still the disturbances of the elements is also called down upon not a few of the sacramentals in the form of prayer by which they are blessed. With this explanation, which, though short, will be sufficient, let us proceed to a consideration of some of the principal sacramentals, with a view not only of increasing our knowledge of them but also of stimulating us to their more frequent and pious use.
1 “Theologia Moralis,” Aloisio Sabetti, S.J., NN. 651, 652.
2 Ephesians, ii. 2