ON THE SACRED LITURGY
SOLEMNLY PROMULGATED BY
POPE PAUL VI
ON DECEMBER 4, 1963
60. 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.
I must be honest that I am floundering with the layout of Sacrosanctum Concilium. Para. 59 opens a large section on the other sacraments and the sacramentals, having devoted considerable attention to the Eucharist. I expected that subsequent paragraphs would delve into the “other sacraments,” a rather unfortunate English translation for the six sacraments not Eucharistic. However, para. 60 turns to sacramentals, which I find confusing for several reasons. First, there is a break in the logical flow; second, sacramentals in my upbringing were synonymous with “devotionals,” those pious things we did or prayed or crafted that would remind us of our faith throughout the day. Para. 60 engages in legal overkill, like a city ordinance for birthday parties.
I still own a Baltimore Catechism, which in pre-Council days treated sacramentals in this fashion: “Sacramentals are holy things or actions of which the Church makes use to obtain for us from God spiritual and temporal favors.” It goes on: “The sacramentals most used by Catholics are: holy water, blessed candles, ashes, palms, crucifixes, medals, rosaries, scapulars, and images of Our Lord, the Blessed Virgin, and the saints.” One could and did add to this list such practices as visiting churches, particularly those that fostered special identity or devotion. Growing up in Buffalo my family frequented Our Lady of Victory Basilica in South Buffalo and Our Lady of Fatima Shrine in Lewiston, N.Y, a few miles below Niagara Falls. When I was in middle school, the Christian Brothers tallied the number of those students carrying their rosaries (‘the beads”) and wearing their scapulars, and posted the daily count on the blackboard.
No one ever confused sacramentals with sacraments. Some individuals might go overboard on sacramentals in terms of common sense. I lived for a while with a religious brother who collected relics; his most prized possession was a feather from the wing of St. Michael the Archangel. He also collected devotions to such persons as Therese Neumann, who claimed that she ate nothing except holy communion. “And she was not skinny, either,” he would tell me. But, no harm, no foul. Sacramentals enriched Catholic life and gave it seasoning when the Latin Mass was, for want of a better word, flat.
So, I was surprised to see sacramentals receive significant attention in Sacrosanctum Concilium, and even more so in the later 1983 edition of the Code of Canon Law. In researching the question, I came to find that historically speaking, the modern era secular philosophy of signs, called semiology, came to play a major role in twentieth-century Catholic theology, particularly in matters of worship. For centuries the Church has designated the sacraments as signs that effect what they signify. For example, the pouring of water at baptism is a physical act of cleansing with an invisible or spiritual effect, the cleansing from the sin of Adam.
Church thinkers began to consider if the sacramental signs currently employed in, say 1900, adequately expressed the Church’s full understanding of its Tradition, which continues to grow under the guidance of the Spirit. Baptism is a good case in point. Examination of the Scriptures and the practices of the pre-Constantine era reawakened contemporary understanding of Baptism as more than a washing of the soul. Baptism is a new birth into the Kingdom of God, into a real community of humans who believe the Christ has redeemed us. Consequently, the rite of infant Baptism—its symbol—is communicated differently than a century ago. The parents and family, and the parish as a whole at times, plays a visible role in accepting the responsibilities to tutor and nurture the child in the ways of the Faith. Today parents and godparents receive a candle with fire drawn from the Easter candle, a practice not observed a century ago.
Symbols are complicated things, and they convey a wide range of meanings that change, not just over time, but with the person or persons who give them and receive them. A very good example is the act of receiving communion. In nearly every congregation there are many who opt to receive communion on the tongue, which others receive in the hand. The different gestures convey different theological understandings. At the risk of gross simplification, I would suggest that those who receive on the tongue carry a profound reverence for the Real Presence and consider themselves unworthy of “handling God,” so to speak. On the other hand, those who thoughtfully receive in the hand take seriously Jesus’ command to take and eat and understand the Eucharist as a saving meal. Both positions would be correct, and both are permitted in the Eucharist, but we must acknowledge that the symbol of distributing the Eucharist reflects several different understandings of what we do at Mass.
It might be helpful here to recall the final advice of para. 59 from several weeks ago: “It is therefore of the highest importance that the faithful should easily understand the sacramental signs and should frequent with great eagerness those sacraments which were instituted to nourish the Christian life.” As the Council began its work to make sacramental signs more intelligible, philosophy was coming to grips with the complexity of symbols themselves and the way they are received in the human mind.
It would seem that the Church desires all of its sacramentals—i.e., the holy things we have done on our own for ages—be carefully coordinated with the most significant signs of the seven sacraments. All the same, despite the lengthy directives such as those in Canon Law, the exercise and use of sacramentals remains your personal exercise of good will and common sense—so long as you don’t harbor the feathers from angel wings.