Sancta Missa - Rituale Romanum (Roman Ritual) - Blessings and Other Sacramentals - Introduction




A subheading to the above heading could well be: "The Sacramentals--Christ in Daily Life." In the ordination service, the Church, through the bishop, anoints and blesses the hands of the newly made priest, accompanying the action with these words: "May it please you, O Lord, to consecrate and sanctify these hands by this anointing and our blessing; that whatever they bless may be blessed, and whatever they consecrate may be consecrated in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ." By this and other ceremonies in the rite for ordination the young priest has it impressed on him that his sacramental ministry, namely, the power to offer sacrifice, the duty of preaching the word of God in Mass and of distributing the Bread of life to the people, the duty of administering the other sacraments, the duty of dispensing blessings and other sacramentals--that all these constitute the main reason for his being what he is, a mediator between God and men, the dispenser of God's mysteries.

For a priest all else must be kept subordinate to his sacramental ministry. In the first age of the Church the apostles, as soon as they discovered that other works were interfering with their strictly priestly ministrations, ordained other men as deacons or assistants, whose function it was to take over a large share of those activities not absolutely required of pastors of souls. So nowadays too the priest can find auxiliaries to aid him in the office of teaching, in the good work of visiting the sick and seeking out the stray sheep, in tending to the needs of the poor and the widows and orphans, in keeping files and financial books, in running parish organizations and recreational programs. But he cannot turn over to them his sacramental powers, neither the greater ones of consecrating at Mass, of baptizing, of absolving, of anointing, nor even the lesser ones of bestowing on persons and objects the official blessing of the Church. Her sacramentals, then, ought not to be "the twentieth-century stepchildren of Mother Church," as someone has referred to them.

If it is true that in the world of today conditions are not conducive to a high evaluation and appreciation of the seven sacraments of Christ, then surely it can be admitted all the more readily that the sacramentals fare even worse. If a certain measure of humility and simplicity is needed by man to recognize God at work with, and in, and for us in the greater mysteries, the Eucharist and the other sacraments, it is required even in greater measure to recognize His action in those consecratory acts which are lesser than those seven, namely, the sacramentals. Pride and sophistication are a hindrance to understanding that God, when He created the universe, consecrated all creation, not alone man, but every lower form; and that Christ, in redeeming the world after the Fall, removed the curse fallen on creation, not only from man but from the lesser species as well. Thus for a long time the sacramental acts such as the many consecrations and blessings of the Church have been, if not actually disdained, looked upon with apathy and indifference by her children. So much so that some are apt to be disedified rather than edified when they are made aware that the Church has a mind to speak a blessing on horse, silkworm, bonfire, beer, bridal chamber, medicine, or lard.

God's ultimate purpose in creating the world is the manifestation of His goodness and excellence, and a communication of them in part to His creatures. Consequently, creation's first reason for existence is to glorify the Creator. Human beings fulfill this obligation to glorify God by living in conformity with the laws which govern human existence, but they do so more nobly still in those positive acts of religion, sacrifice, sacraments, social and private prayer, consecrations, and blessings. For in this latter way man does not praise God in isolation, but he is united with the praise which his elder brother, Jesus Christ, everlastingly renders to the Blessed Trinity. Irrational creatures fulfill their obligation also in their existence and functions, according to the laws that govern their nature. This is their silent voice of praise. But lower creation too is destined to take part in the direct and positive act of praising the Creator. The psalms and canticles leave no doubt about this. The fall of man caused lower creatures to be separated from God, for they were bound to God through mankind. And they became once more consecrated in the redemption, not purely for their own sake, but for the purposes of higher creation. Therefore, in union with man, and in union with the God-man, the rest of creation participates in the praise which without ceasing raises its voice to the adorable Trinity. In the Epistle to the Romans St. Paul records that the complete emancipation of creation will not be effected until the end of time. But ever since our Lord transfigured lower creatures by employing them in sacramental ways--consider His use of bread, wine, water, oil, sacred signs--material things have been participating with Him and with man in divine worship. And where Christ left off, the Church continues. The consecration and transfiguration of the creatures of God is done through sacraments and sacramentals. The passion and resurrection of Jesus notwithstanding, the individual man is not justified until the fruit of these momentous acts is communicated to him by way of sacramental sanctification. Lower creatures in similar fashion are freed from their enslavement by being sacramentalized. Before the Church will use them in the service of God or of men, she wills that first they be exorcised of any allegiance to Satan, then sanctified by her consecratory hand.

Certainly there is a difference of kind and of efficacy between the seven sacraments and the lesser sacraments called sacramentals. There is a difference of degree in the seven sacraments themselves. One is not so necessary or sublime as another. Furthermore, it is not true to say without qualification that one distinction between sacraments and sacramentals is that the former owe their institution to Christ, the latter to the Church. For some of the sacramentals definitely come directly from Christ, exactly how many and actually which ones is not clear. There is one sacramental, however, of whose origin there is not a particle of doubt. This is the mandatum, the washing of feet, carried out by our Lord at the Last Supper, and today still used in the liturgy of Maundy Thursday. What requires stressing here is that men should not belittle the sacramentals because of the fact that they owe their institution in greatest part not to the positive will and act of Christ, but instead to the will and act of the Church. For in the light of the doctrine of the mystical body both have a sacred origin, the sacraments from the personal, historical Christ, the sacraments from the mystic Christ--Christ living and working in His mystical bride, the Church. The sacramentals are aptly designated as extensions and radiation of the sacraments. Both are sources of divine life; both have an identical purpose, divine life. They have, moreover, an identical cause, the passion and resurrection of Jesus Christ; albeit they differ in nature, efficacy, and intensity.

Because man is weakened by sin both in his mental and physical faculties, he needs in striving for salvation, in addition to the sacraments themselves, other supernatural aids constantly at hand, in order to overcome his own inherent weakness as well as the obstacles put in his way by creature things. These auxiliaries, the sacramentals, are the many powerful supports by which man's course to heaven can be lightened, affording protection against the enemies of his soul and promoting bodily well-being in the interests of the soul. As the code of Canon Law defines them: sacramentals are objects and actions which the Church is wont to use, somewhat as she uses the sacraments, in order to obtain through her intercession effects, especially effects of a spiritual nature (can. 1144).

As Christ has endowed with infallible grace the outward signs by which sacraments are effected, so in a similar way the Church has endowed with spiritual powers the outward signs by which sacramentals are constituted. And why are such simple things like the sacramentals so efficacious in the life of grace? Because their efficacy is dependent on the power of the Church's impetration, and not solely on the devotion of the subject who uses them. We say that the sacraments work "ex opere operato," that is, in virtue of the outward signs that are posited. On the other hand, we are accustomed to hear that the sacramentals work "ex opere operantis," which would mean in virtue of the intensity of devotion in those who use them. Yet this is only part of the truth. The thing is cast in an altogether different light when it is stated in full precision, namely, that the sacramentals work "ex opere operantis Ecclesiae," which means that their efficacy is in first place dependent on the power of the Church's intercession, and only secondly on the devout dispositions of the subject concerned. Back in the Middle Ages, William of Paris stated: "The efficacy of the sacramentals is rooted in the nobility of the Church, which is so pleasing to God and so beloved by Him that she never meets with a refusal from Him."[1] The matter could hardly be expressed better. Owing to the resurgence of the doctrine of the mystical body, it has been granted to our times to view the Church once more in her true nature as the body of Christ, flesh of His flesh, bone of His bone, more intimate a part of Him than a bride is of her bridegroom. Therefore, it is not exactly improper to speak of an efficacy "ex opere operato" in the case of sacramentals. For example, an altar that receives the consecration of the Church is consecrated and remains consecrated, no matter how fervent and devout was the bishop who performed the consecration.

Sacramentals have been classified in many ways. But a simple and clear way of classifying them is to divide them into three groups. First, those that lay the basis for divine worship by creating the place and the atmosphere, by raising up certain persons--apart from bishops, priests, and deacons--officially designated to perform divine worship, and by supplying the appurtenances necessary for divine worship, for example: (a) the consecration of a church and an altar, or the consecration of a cemetery; (b) the blessing of an abbot, of monks and virgins, of the ministers in minor orders; (c) the consecration of a chalice or paten, the consecration of a church bell, the blessing of vestments, etc. Second, those used in the course of celebrating Mass and administering the sacraments; for example, the incensation of the altar, the reading of the Gospel, the last blessing, or the giving of salt and the anointings in baptism. Third, those that extend from the worship in church to the Christian home and family circle, to the occupations of farming, industry, and trades; for example, the blessing of a home, field, animals, printing presses, fire-engine, etc.

Although we have stressed the truth that the sacramentals derive their efficacy chiefly from the intercessory power of the Church, we may not minimize the role played by man's own subjective dispositions. The sacraments, too, for that matter, demand something of the individual recipient--at the very least that the subject place no obstacle in the way of grace. But in the case of the sacramentals man's cooperation has a very large part to play if they are to attain their full purpose. Their function is to provide an atmosphere in which the virtue of religion can thrive, and to produce a psychological reaction in man, to raise his thoughts and aspirations out of the realm of the profane and up to the realm of the sacred, to fix his heart on the things of the spirit, to impress on his consciousness God's will for him and God's providence always hovering over him.

Before ascending into heaven our Lord, in His infinite wisdom and love, bequeathed to His followers the seven sacraments, which were to occupy the center of their religious life, to be like so many milestones for them on the journey to heaven. But He also foresaw that the periphery of the Christian life could be sanctified by further supports of a lesser kind, supernatural helps that would be constantly at hand, even every hour, serving to consecrate the works and activities of the day and to lighten its burdens and sorrows. Thus He indicated to the apostles in broad lines how they might make use of other signs and symbols in furthering the work of sanctifying souls. Seeing that the Master Himself had employed the sign of the cross, the act of exorcism, the washing of feet at the Last Supper, and had commanded them to do like things in His name, the apostles were soon imitating Him, performing exorcisms and blessing creatures, as St. Paul has testified in 1 Timothy 4.5. Certainly the Church was inspired by the Holy Spirit, when, following the apostolic period, she began to introduce rites that we now call sacramentals, such as the solemn blessing of baptismal water, of oils, salt, and bread, of first-fruits, and the blessing of milk and honey in connection with first holy communion of the neophytes on Easter morning, to mention only some of the ceremonies that very early embellished the celebration of Mass and the administration of the other sacraments. How wrong were men like Luther and Harnack when they asserted that the sacramentals of the Catholic Church were an invention of the Middle Ages, and scarcely better than a return to the legalistic rites of the Talmud and the Pharisees. In response to the natural craving of man for ritual and ceremonial, for tokens and memorials, the Church gave her children, instead of "panis et circenses," blessed bread and religious processions, instead of antiques, sacred relics and medals. The legitimate demands of a Christian people were as much a factor as the will of the Church herself in promoting the development and the multiplication of pious ceremonies. Soon every province of life was consecrated by the Church's benediction. From the church edifice the sacramentals widen out to embrace the totality of Christian life. Home and hearth, granary and workshop, field and meadow, vineyard and orchard, fountain and river receive a consecration. In private life there was a blessing for the wife who had recently conceived and one for the woman in the pangs of labor; a blessing for the lad who had just reached the age when he could be introduced to the ABC's, and one for the young man about to sprout his first beard; for the sick, blessed medicaments of water, salt, bread, and herbs, instead of a doctor, harder to come by then than even now. Public life also had its blessings, a blessing of a king and queen, emperor and empress, a blessing of a knight and his accouterments of sword and lance, a blessing of public penitents, of pilgrims, of crusaders. In time of plague and famine, a deprecatory blessing against rats, mice, locusts, and noxious vermin. In time of calamity, a blessing to protect the people against fire, wind, earthquake, and flood.

In all this, to be sure, abuse and superstition eventually crept in, especially in the later Middle Ages. When diocesan synods failed to stem such misuse of sacred things, Paul V finally stepped in, and by a Bull of June 16, 1614, published the official Roman Ritual for the universal Church, to which model all diocesan rituals were thenceforth to conform. But in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the abuse was revived, particularly through the religious orders, who printed private collections of blessings and especially exorcisms with prayers and formulas of such a nature as to outdo even the superstitions of the late Middle Ages.

Perhaps it is a conscientious fear of reviving superstition that prompts us to be so hesitant about restoring the sacramentals to their onetime place of honor. Or perhaps, as we say, you can't turn back the clock. Young men no longer grow beards, save for an exceptional group, and professional exterminators have arisen to make short shrift of every kind of pest, from bedbug to termite. Admittedly we would look foolish trying to revive some of the olden pious customs. Yet there are a good many sacramentals, most of those given in this ritual, that could be resurrected to considerable profit. With some efforts at instruction and with continual encouragement, the people's sensibilities as to their significance and value would be aroused, as it has been shown where it has been tried.


1. "De sacramentis," 1.524.

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