Prior to the definition of the term "sacrament" in the 12th and 13th centuries, it was used of rites, prayers, and objects other than the seven Sacraments as well as of these institutions of Christ. With the refinement of the term "sacrament" by scholastic theology, the term "sacramental" became the designation for those actions that the Church herself instituted. Until Vatican Council II the definition of the 1917 Code of Canon Law was often taken as a guide: "Sacramentals are things or actions that the Church is accustomed to use, in imitation of the Sacraments, in order to obtain through her intercession certain effects, especially spiritual ones" (see, e.g., 1917 Codex Iuris Canonicis c.1144). This has been superseded by that contained in Vatican Council II's Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy: "These are sacred signs which bear a resemblance to the Sacraments: they signify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 all are disposed to receive the chief effect of the Sacraments, and various occasions in life are rendered holy" (60).
Sacramentals are part of the sign language of the liturgy. Their resemblance to the Sacraments consists in the fact that they are signs and that their effect does not come about primarily because of the prayers of individuals, but because of the Church's priestly prayer. They differ from the Sacraments in that they have been instituted by the Church and give grace by reason of her intercession.
Signs. Precisely because sacramentals are signs, they must be understood. For this reason Vatican Council II calls for an updating of sacramentals. "With the passage of time, however, there have crept into the rites of the Sacraments and sacramentals certain features that have rendered their nature and purpose far from clear to the people of today; hence some changes have become necessary to adapt them to the needs of our times" (62). Since they are part of the public worship of the Church there must be opportunity for participation by the faithful. This is one of the norms on which the Council insists in ordering alterations in her sacramentals. "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 be considered. When rituals are revised … new sacramentals may also be added as the need for these becomes apparent" (79).
Effects. The sacramentals include a wide variety of rites, and consequently their effects are fairly numerous. Chiefly, however, these are spiritual. Like the Sacraments, they are for the good of all peoples. While it is true that through sacramental we are sometimes aided in our temporal needs; their first purpose is our sanctification, for they are signs of the paschal mystery. Thus among the sacramentals are prayers for health, rain, and good harvests. Through them, in their own way, come graces, remission of sin and temporal punishment, freedom from demonic influence, and the blessing of persons and objects.
Efficacy. It is through the Church's intercession that these effects of the sacramentals are obtained. The rites and prayers that she designates to be such are her petition and have an efficacy that surpasses that of nonofficial prayers, whether offered by individual Christians or in common. On the other hand, this intercession is different from the causality of the Sacraments (ex opere operato ). It has become customary to refer to this efficacy of the Church's prayer in the sacramentals as ex opere operantis Ecclesiae. By the term it is understood that as the spouse of Christ, using Christ's power of priesthood, the Church offers a uniquely holy prayer always pleasing to God. This quality is not characteristic of those petitions prompted by the simultaneous devotion of members of the Church in exactly the same way. (For a discussion of the relation of other common prayer to the sacramentals see Vagaggini 64–67; Dalmais 83–87.)
The chief reason for the value of sacramentals is the Church's intercession, of which they are signs. This is not meant to imply that the holiness of the minister and subject are unimportant. If these dispositions are essential for the effectiveness of Sacraments they are certainly so also for the effectiveness of sacramentals. As in the Sacraments, however, the sanctification that is effected is not the work of the individual participants; it is the prayer of the Church in which members join and from which they profit according to their generosity. Because they are ecclesial in this sense, the sacramentals sometimes have effectiveness infallibly, even in the absence of dispositions. The Divine Office as the prayer of the Church is always such when recited in circumstances designated by the Church, regardless of the moral qualities of those who celebrate it. Blessings are effective as such even when the minister or subject is not properly disposed to receive their sanctifying gifts of grace. (For the minister of sacramentals see blessings, liturgical.)
Which Signs Are Sacramentals? The exact determination of what should be understood by "sacramentals" has been the subject of some debate. This has centered mainly on two points: whether the term applies to objects blessed by the Church and whether those ceremonies that form part of the celebration of Mass and other Sacraments beyond the actions performed in persona Christi are to be considered as sacramentals (see Michel 465–476).
Primary Meaning. In view of the manner in which the sacramentals have their efficacy, as impetrations of the Church, there is much weight to that opinion that maintains that sacramentals are primarily some form of blessing and that only secondarily can objects that have been blessed be included under this name. While the 1917 Code of Canon Law (c.1144) included "things" as well as actions in its definition of sacramentals, the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (60) omits any reference to blessed objects as such. Hence there is even greater force to the position of J. H. Miller: "Sacramentals consist immediately and primarily in the Church's prayer of impetration, and only in second place and mediately (through this impetratory prayer) in the sanctification of an object. In the most proper sense, a sacramental would be the immediate object of the Church's impetratory power, namely, the blessing or similar action actively using the Church's prayer; the thing blessed, became of this blessing, increases our reverence for divine worship or helps to elevate the tenor of our daily lives. The private use of such blessed objects is not, therefore, liturgical in the strict sense of the word, but rather brings to us and our lives the aid of the Church's liturgical prayer" (Miller 429–430).
Sacramentals and the Sacraments. The first of the two functions of sacramentals specified by Vatican Council II is that of disposing all men and women to receive the chief effect of the Sacraments. This highlights the central place of the Sacrifice and Sacraments in the plan of salvation and depicts the sacramentals as aids to our deeper sharing in the paschal mystery. It would also seem to lend considerable weight to the view of modern theologians that the ceremonies with which the Church has surrounded the actual rites of the Sacraments themselves are to be considered as sacramentals (Michel 465–475; Miller 428–429).
Sacramentals could only have been instituted by the Church in service of the Sacraments, of which they are imitations. From the viewpoint of their connection with Sacraments, it becomes easy to indicate various classes of sacramentals. Connected with Baptism are the following: the blessing of baptismal water at the Easter Vigil, the blessing of holy water; the ceremonies of baptism and the catechumenate (exorcisms, signs of the cross, anointings, impositions of hands, the giving of the white garment and candle), religious profession, the consecration of virgins (for the last two see Miller 448–450). The chief sacramental connected with Penance is the blessing and distribution of ashes on Ash Wednesday.
That all sacramentals, as everything else in the Church, are related to the Eucharist is emphasized by provision in the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy for their more manifest connection with the Mass. What has been evident for the blessing of the holy oils on Holy Thursday, the blessing and procession of palms, Candlemas, the Easter Vigil, will be true of some other celebrations. Among the provisions of Vatican Council II in this regard is the order that religious profession should preferably be made within the Mass (80).
Sacramentals related to Holy Orders include the consecration of the holy oils, the blessings of abbots, and the dedication of churches (see Miller 495–500). Among the chief sacramentals connected with Matrimony are the blessing of the home and the various blessings of women. Most closely associated is the nuptial blessing itself, which is now to be given even when marriage takes place apart from Mass (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy 78). Connected with the Anointing of the Sick are the sacramentals of blessings for members of the Church at various stages of illness, the commendation of the departing soul, and the burial rites (see Miller 472–475).
The second function of the sacramentals specified by the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy is the sanctification of various occasions in life. For the Christian, brought into a new order through his death to sin and resurrection to Christ's life in Baptism, everything is a proper subject for inclusion into this way of life. The many circumstances of human activity are specifically consecrated through prayers that the Church makes available to her members. Her activity has as its center Christ's Sacrifice and the other Sacraments, but it is obviously not limited to this. The living out of the commitment made and renewed in sacramental encounter is the proof of our sincerity in worship. To teach this lesson and to enable us to put it into practice the Church gives us sacred signs by which she begs God's blessing on all manner of human situations that we may meet them with a truly Christian spirit. "Through the sacramentals the Church brings all created things into the orbit of God's blessing, in reality touches everything with the grace of the redemption, making so many material things and persons instruments and channels of the grace of God" (O'Shea 533).
Sacramentals are an extension of the central work of the Church, her worship of God with her Head in His Sacrifice and other saving actions. Very accurately, they may be called "little sacraments" [M. B. Hellriegel, The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass (St. Louis 1944) 15]. For they too are sacred corporate signs of sanctification in which the Church in union with Christ teaches redemption and draws all men and women more intimately into a share of new life in Christ. Their first function is to extend the sign language of the acts of Christ himself and to prepare us for the most fruitful possible participation in these. Beyond this, they remind us that all life's activities have a Christian dimension and bless these. A proper appreciation of the sacramentals rests on the realization of their place in the ecclesial plan of salvation: they may be less than the Sacraments but more powerful than purely private prayer. Such an attitude removes any danger of exaggerating sacramentals at the expense of Sacraments or of overlooking their significant place in Christian living.
Bibliography: i. h. dalmais, Introduction to the Liturgy, tr. r. capel (Baltimore 1961). a. g. martimort, ed., L'Église en prière (Tournai 1961). a. michel, Dictionnaire de théologie catholique, ed. a. vacant et al., 15 v. (Paris 1903–50; Tables générales 1951–) 14.1:465–482. j. h. miller, Fundamentals of the Liturgy (Notre Dame, Ind. 1960) 427–433. j. h. miller, Signs of Transformation in Christ (Englewood Cliffs, N.J. 1963). w. j. o'shea, The Worship of the Church (Westminster, Md. 1957). c. vagaggini, Theological Dimensions of the Liturgy, tr. l. j. doyle (Collegeville, Minn. 1959).
[j. r. quinn/eds.]