ON THE SACRED LITURGY
SOLEMNLY PROMULGATED BY
POPE PAUL VI
ON DECEMBER 4, 1963
79. The sacramentals are to undergo a revision which takes into account the primary principle of enabling the faithful to participate intelligently, actively, and easily; the circumstances of our own days must also be considered. When rituals are revised, as laid down in Art. 63, new sacramentals may also be added as the need for these becomes apparent.
Reserved blessings shall be very few; reservations shall be in favor of bishops or ordinaries.
Let provision be made that some sacramentals, at least in special circumstances and at the discretion of the ordinary, may be administered by qualified lay persons.
Sacramentals were a “big thing” in my upbringing, and a quick look at Wikipedia reminded me that Sacrosanctum Concilium, the inspiration of this blog stream, had previously treated sacramentals in paragraph 60, in these words: “Holy Mother Church has, moreover, instituted sacramentals. These are sacred signs which bear a resemblance to the sacraments: they signify effects, particularly of a spiritual kind, which are obtained through the Church's intercession. By them men are disposed to receive the chief effect of the sacraments, and various occasions in life are rendered holy.”
In the catechetics of my era, we were taught that sacramentals were things or actions that made you think or act holier. I was introduced to sacramentals probably earlier than I should have been; my parents hung a framed reproduction of what was reputed to be the face of Christ from the Shroud of Turin. That portrait is still somewhere around our homestead up north, even though radiocarbon tests put the date of the Shroud at no earlier than 1300 AD. And yet, the Shroud remains in its own way as a sacramental or reminder of the suffering of Christ, by whom our sins are forgiven in the Sacrament of Penance.
Like sacraments, sacramentals are outward signs, intended to move the heart of at least the person engaged in observing them. SC is explicit in connecting sacramentals with corresponding sacraments, instructing that “they [enable] the faithful to participate intelligently, actively, and easily.” “Participation” refers to involvement in the official worship of the Church, i.e., the sacraments. With some sacramentals, this connection is easily seen. Take the example of a home holy water font, like this Irish font with the Celtic cross. Our home in the 1950’s had several, each by a house entrance and another one upstairs near our bedrooms. Dipping one’s finger in the water and making the sign of the cross is a sensual reminder of one’s birth into Christianity at baptism as well as giving meaning to passage into the home, what Pope Paul VI described as “the domestic Church.” While it is not necessary to use water blessed in church, taking water from a living sacramental baptismal font does add to the experience.
The direct relationship of a sacramental to a sacrament does not need to be geometrically precise. Many sacramentals are devoted to the Virgin Mary and the saints, created to inspire a general sense of piety and goodness. I suppose that were he alive today, Sigmund Freud would discuss sacramentals in terms of projection, i.e., we project upon the picture or statue of a saint a belief or attribute of that individual that brings us comfort. When my father died in 2002, I noticed that he had been laid out with a shopworn plastic rosary. I remember wishing that I had had the opportunity to buy him a pricey rosary before flying up from Florida. What I learned later was that the simple, shopworn rosary was his constant companion through World War II. Here was a sacramental of multiple dimensions: honor to Mary and remembrance of his own devout Catholic faith.
Sacramentals create a reminder of who we are. Rosaries, crucifixes, pictures, candles, Advent wreaths, creches, sacred places in the home, to name several, situate us in our baptismal state. Church instructions issued later, after Sacrosanctum Concilium, provide more concrete instructions on sacramentals and church art in general. A genuine reform in the post-Council era was emphasis upon quality; part of the religious experience of sacramentals is the aesthetic impact. I have found over the years that parish catechetics never gets this right. For many, to spend church money on quality art for worship is a betrayal of the poor. However, to clutter a church—or a home, for that matter—with the cheap and the chintzy is to make a discouraging statement of value about what rests at the heart of our being. I will admit that some churches go way overboard to scratch an edifice itch in terms of budgetary priorities, but a few articles of beauty in our churches and our personal and domestic space represents the happy balance of soul.
For those of us who are married, our wedding rings are probably our most precious sacramentals. Blessed and exchanged in the heart of the sacrament by which we are bound to Christ and each other, the ring symbolizes infinity. But with each year the ring develops added layers of meaning and faith as we accumulate life experiences and grow to understand how our spouses are essential to our religious salvation. I had the misfortune of losing mine this week, probably in a public place during a mental health workshop. Every time I touched it or gazed at it, I was reminded of my married partnership and how God, through my wife, saves me. I will replace the ring, primarily because I need that sacramental reminder all the time. And in a broader sense, sacramentals of all sorts constantly remind us of who we are.