At the heart of the life of the Church are the seven sacraments through which the invisible grace of the saving works of Jesus Christ is offered to us through visible signs. These sacraments, necessary as they are to the life of the Church and for our salvation, are able to be more fruitfully received through the help of what we relatedly call “sacramentals.” What exactly are sacramentals and how do they relate to the seven sacraments.
While sacraments are “Efficacious signs of grace, instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church, by which divine life is dispensed to us” (CCC 1131), sacramentals are “like the sacraments” in that they are visible and at times material things. However, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church paragraph 1667 expresses, sacramentals are instituted by the Church and through them the faithful are helped to have a more proper disposition to receive the sacraments themselves. In addition, sacramentals help to make “holy” various occasions of life – through the prayers that accompany them and through the blessings or consecrations that may be offered as is fitting to the occasion.
Sacramentals may be visible objects themselves – such as holy water, religious medals, rosary beads, blessed candles, etc. Likewise, the very blessings that are given or the devotional prayers that the faithful pray (either individually or in gatherings, such as praying the Rosary or the Stations of the Cross) are likewise considered sacramentals. The Church designates three classes of sacramentals: blessings, consecrations, and exorcisms. Blessings call upon God to give a person or object a sacred character or purpose. Consecrations are similar but more specific than blessings in that they call upon God to make the persons or objects who receive them dedicated unto the service of God – such as when those in religious life are “consecrated” or when the bishop consecrates (or “dedicates,”) altars or new church buildings. Finally, exorcisms are a summons in the name of Jesus Christ directed at Satan or other demons to depart from a creature over whom they have harmful influence. While exorcisms and consecrations are reserved to specific members of the clergy to offer, some blessings are fitting for lay people to offer – for example, those of fathers praying blessings over their children and family.
Many sacramentals exist in the life of the Church – so many in fact that we may be familiar with some which may not be known to people in other parts of the world, and vice-versa. This multitude exists as sacramentals include popular devotions to saints and to holy places along with the particular prayers specific to these devotions, some of which are only known regionally. With such a vast and diverse treasure of sacramentals, it is important to keep in mind what is common among them: that they are deemed holy by the Church; that they serve to increase our disposition to receive the grace of the sacraments; and that they always include prayer. In addition, it is essential to understand the following: as sacramentals are “instituted by the Church” to help us receive the grace of the sacraments and by themselves they have no power. In other words, (and contrary to many non-Catholic voices), sacramentals are never to be seen as ways of magic, superstition, or as a “quicker way” to follow God. Finally, while many sacramentals include public prayers, these do not replace the liturgy of the sacraments but instead extend it, such that the liturgy can be more meaningful so that the people can more fully receive God’s grace through the liturgy.
Thus, sacramentals are a great gift to us through the Church, that aid us in receiving the sacraments more fully. They of themselves are not necessary to our salvation but they truly are a great help to us in receiving God’s grace in the sacraments.
For further reading: In the Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraphs 1667-1679 give a complete overview of sacramentals and their significance to the life of the Church.