I tend to file Sacramentals into my mental “Theology-of-the-Body Folder,” not because they have anything to do with sexuality, but, rather, insofar as Sacramentals are the visible, bodily tokens or movements or even spaces (yes, like Church buildings!) that we experience through our bodies, i.e. through our bodily senses – sight, touch, sound, smell, taste, and so forth.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us:
“Sacramentals are sacred signs instituted by the Church. They prepare men to receive the fruit of the sacraments and sanctify different circumstances of life.
“Among the sacramentals, blessings occupy an important place. They include both praise of God for his works and gifts, and the Church’s intercession for men that they may be able to use God’s gifts according to the spirit of the Gospel” (CCC Paragraphs 1677-1678).
Like any loving mother, the Church seeks to provide comfort and protection to her little ones… men, women and children of all ages who, when we allow ourselves to be simple, like little children, to delight and take consolation in our material reminders and gestures. The way little boys used to delight in their baseball cards and marble collections, girls and their favorite stuffed animals or soccer trophies… that’s how I feel about the blessed medals, rosaries and holy images arranged throughout my home. And actions, too, can be considered Sacramentals: the Sign of the Cross, genuflection before the Tabernacle, hands held in prayer, bowing of the head, and so on.
All these are just another obvious, beautiful, generous, natural way that Holy Mother Church nurtures us through the stretches of time in between more formal liturgies. But, indeed, even during these formal prayers in the Sacraments, we use Sacramentals (blessed oil at Confirmation and Holy Orders, Holy Water in Baptism, wine and unleavened bread as the substances before Consecration in Mass, etc).
Church tradition encourages us to wear holy reminders, to adorn our living spaces, to build beautiful churches as sacred spaces worthy of the celebration of the Mass. The Church uses fragrant incense on special days of celebration in the Liturgical Calendar, and recommends the tactile use of the Rosary. (Who hasn’t noticed there are some rosaries that just feel better in your hands?!) We experience all of reality through our bodies, and there’s a natural, healthy tendency to want to fill that reality with meaning and beauty. Sacramentals do that for us.
It is important to distinguish between Sacraments and Sacramentals. Each of the Seven Sacraments of the Catholic Church was instituted directly by Jesus Christ, and they function ex opere operato (from the deed done), meaning, they do what they signify. Whereas Sacramentals, mainly given to us by the Church (after Christ) throughout the centuries, work by virtue of the faith placed in them (ex opere operantis), and by virtue of the faith, work, and prayers of the Church (ex opere operantis Ecclesiae).
In other words, by the power and promise of Christ, the Sacrament makes itself – if I can put it that way – when the priest follows the matter and the form. A Sacramental’s efficacy depends on our faith in it and on the blessings conferred on it by a priest – not by superstition (priest or lay), but humble piety, always properly ordered (i.e. we don’t value it more than the Sacraments or any dogmas or doctrines of the Church).
This great explanation by Philip Kosloski:
“One way to describe sacramentals is that they are extensions of the sacraments. They are not sacraments in themselves, but are related to each of the seven sacraments and flow from them. Sacramentals were instituted by the Church to show how Christ came into the world to redeem every facet of life. Sacramentals are oriented to the sacraments and are meant to lead us to them.”
And the following facts, courtesy of The Catholic Encyclopedia:
“Sacramentals help to distinguish the members of the Church from heretics, who have done away with the sacramentals or use them arbitrarily with little intelligence.”
“The Church has instituted [other sacramentals] for the purpose of private devotion”
“The special virtue recognized by the Church and experienced by Christians in the sacramentals should consist in the official prayers whereby we implore God to pour forth special graces on those who make use of the sacramentals.”
“One of the most remarkable effects of sacramentals is the virtue to drive away evil spirits whose mysterious and baleful operations affect sometimes the physical activity of man. To combat this occult power the Church has recourse to exorcism and sacramentals. Another effect is the delivery of the soul from sin and the penalties therefor. Thus in the blessing of a cross the Church asks that this sacred sign may receive the heavenly blessing in order that all those who kneel before it and implore the Divine Majesty may be granted great compunction and a general pardon of faults committed.”
“The episcopal blessing, the aspersion of holy water, every sacramental unction, prayer in a dedicated church, and the like, effect the remission of venial sins, implicitly or explicitly” (St. Thomas, Summa III, Q. lxxxvii, a. 3, ad 1um).”