What is a Sacramental?

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By Joannie Watson, Integrated Catholic, July 13, 2018

Last week, we looked at the concept of a sacramental world view. A sacramental worldview perceives the mysteries of God hidden in material creation. It sees the material world not as something to be rejected or from which to be released, but as a channel of God’s grace and as the arena in and through which God acts.

God uses the material world to save us. He not only took on human flesh and blood to save us, he also used things like water and mud to heal people. He didn’t have to do this. He could have healed people with a simple thought! But he chose to work through and use the creation that He created. We see this in the seven sacraments he instituted, but we also see it in the use of what we call sacramental. A sacramental is something that prepares us for the sacraments. Sacramentals make our daily lives holy and help us in our journey through this life, to keep our mind and heart focused on God.

Sacramentals prepare us for the sacraments. They sanctify our daily lives and dispose us to receive the effects of the sacraments. Sacramentals can be words, actions, elements, and objects. We may often think of objects like rosaries, but holy water is a sacramental, as are blessings, like the consecration of an abbot, and actions like the sign of the cross.

It’s important to understand how sacramentals “work.” If we misunderstand this, we can fall into superstition.  Sacramentals are channels of grace, but they don’t confer grace the way sacraments do. Rather, the grace comes to us through the faith we exercise in using sacramentals and through the prayers of the Church.

Msgr. John Sullivan explains, “Yes… to put one’s trust in [charms and amulets], to imagine that inanimate objects such as these could protect against disease or other evil, is undoubtedly nothing but gross superstition. How is it, then, that we Catholics are permitted by our Church to have amulets of many kinds, such as crosses, scapulars, medals? Is this superstition? No; because the Catholic, unlike the pagan, does not trust in them on account of any inherent virtue which he imagines them to have, or any supposed magical power. He puts his trust only in the living God, Who through the prayers of His Church, blesses these material things and bids her children to keep and use them as memorials of Him, as symbols of His merciful providence. Through the Church’s benediction these objects become vehicles of grace; they bring the divine protection upon such of the faithful as use them with earnest faith, ardent charity and firm confidence in God.” (Externals of the Catholic Faith)

The power of sacramentals comes not from the object itself, but from the prayers of the Church and the exercise of the gift of faith. At the same time, we can’t dismiss the matter itself – otherwise, why not imagine making the sign of the cross or why not just imagine wearing a scapular? The object itself inspires faith and is therefore a channel of grace. Sacramentals are vehicles of God’s grace.

God works through the things of this world.

Notice in the Acts of the Apostles, Peter’s shadow cured the sick (Acts 5:15). People brought handkerchiefs to touch to Paul to take back to the sick (Acts 19:12). This isn’t superstition; it is God working through the material world.

We can even see a foreshadowing of this in the Old Testament with the creation of the bronze serpent. (Numbers 21:8-9). The people sinned against God, and as a result, he sent deadly snakes. In answer to Moses’ intercession on behalf of the people, God instructed Moses to create a statue of a serpent. Those who looked on it would be healed. The statue itself didn’t have miraculous power. It was the faith of those who trusted and obeyed God. They looked at a reminder of the effect of their sins—and they were healed by the power of God.

I am not holy because I keep a cross in my pocket. The cross in my pocket doesn’t have some power that radiates from it and makes me holy. But I keep the cross in my pocket because throughout the day I can feel it and remember God’s presence in my life. I can cling to it when the day gets rocky to remind me of God’s love for me. I can take it out and look at it and be reminded that any good thing throughout the day comes from God. The cross I carry prepares me to receive God’s grace and disposes me to cooperate with it (see CCC 1670).

We are given sacramentals to make our day holy. Throughout the day, whether we see a crucifix on the wall of our house, we feel a medal around our neck, or we bow our heads and bless the food we eat, we are reminded that we belong to God and were made for heaven, and we desire to seek him in the sacraments of the Church.


Joannie Watson

Joan Watson was born and raised in Lafayette, Indiana, but college and graduate school took her to Virginia, Ohio, and Rome. After graduating from Christendom College with a B.A. in History and Franciscan University with a M.A. in Theology, she moved to Nashville, Tennessee to be part of the explosion of Catholic culture in the middle of the Bible Belt.

She has been blessed to work for Dr. Scott Hahn at the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology and the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia at Aquinas College. She is presently the Director of Adult Formation for the Diocese of Nashville. She also serves as the Associate Editor of Integrated Catholic Life.

When she’s not testing the culinary exploits of new restaurants or catching up on the latest BBC miniseries, she’s FaceTiming with her eight nephews and nieces and enjoying her role as coolest aunt. She likes gelato, bourbon, and the color orange.